Thursday, August 11, 2011

Faint Praise

I seem to be in "rant mode' .........  Try as I might not to let personal opinion creep into the experience of art, sometimes my feelings create a wonderful kind of energy I can't ignore.   After 2 1/2 months of getting settled in a new home, I'm finally able to find my art and sewing supplies and have been on a binge of making - ATC's, postcards, a mini-quilt, a bracelet made with vintage buttons, and trying a few new techniques with paper and paint.  All this activity has unleashed a few thoughts.......

I belong to a surface design guild and our regular monthly meeting was the other evening.  In addition to the business of the meeting, the membership brings items they have been working on to share.  Obviously, in any group, some of us are more talented than others.  Some are 'real' artists in that they regularly sell their work, exhibit in galleries, and have a presence on ETSY.  Others of us have less native talent perhaps (or are just less ego-driven) but are not less creative in our own way.

I am in the latter category, definitely!!!  But, I love what I do, and do not consider myself to be a dilettante.  I work hard at my small crafts and occasionally produce a work which can hold its own in any but the most august company.

All through the formative years (childhood, in an old-fashioned parlance) my mother used the expression "Damned by faint praise." Find a bit of explanation here. 

Several years ago, I was the media specialist (school librarian in an old-fashioned parlance) in an inner city school.  The children had so little and were mostly unloved by just about everybody.  I had a wonderful teacher's aide named Cindy, and together, we vowed to find something positive to say about each child who visited the media center.  Today, Jamal might have the brightest stripes on his shirt, and tomorrow, Carmenita the cutest little curl on the nape of her neck.  We praised pink plastic barrettes, well-tied shoe laces, clean fingernails, and a thousand other unique details about these youngsters. We stretched our observational skills, our vocabulary of adjectives, and our  hearts, while finding something special about each of these precious babies.  In school system training workshops, we learned to make academic praise specific.  Even a mediocre effort has something good in it.  Even the neat use of glue, an improvement in scissor skills, a tidier column of numbers in an addition problem, and so forth.

This training echoed the lesson my mother taught me and has stood me in good stead to this day.

When I attend the guild meetings, it is easy to wax ecstatic and gush over the artistry of the truly talented, but even the most humble contributor in the group has worked to create whatever it is she has brought to share.  It is her best effort and deserves more than a cursory glance and a quick, "That's nice."  Such empty praise is no praise at all!  Since I fall into that latter group of the minimally talented, it is disheartening to hear my offerings damned by faint praise.

In almost all cases, the maxim, "if you can't find something nice to say, don't say anything at all' is true.  In the case of commenting on the artwork of others, however, I would add that it is imperative to find one special thing to praise - something that lets the artist know that you have really looked at her work.

I'm not sure if I will continue to bring my creations to share with the group because I come away from meetings feeling inadequate.  I will, however, continue the practice of observation so that I can contribute a specific bit of praise, ask a question about technique, and in general let the artist know that I am interested in her effort whether it is a show-stopper or not.


  1. Hear hear! I totally agree with everything you have written. I work in a school and find something positive to say to say to the children everyday, ESPECIALLY those that struggle.

    I also look to find something kind/encouraging to say to my colleagues and friends. It really shouldn't be that difficult to find something positive to say, should it?

    Shame that you are made to feel inadequate, and this says more about them than it does you.


  2. I can understand your frustration, have felt it myself, although probably from a bit of a different angle. I belong to a guild whose members are overwhelmingly traditional. My untraditional quilts are usually greeted with at best an "Oh, that's nice," but more often just silence, while the faithful rendition of the local quilt shop's block of the month gets raves. I always thought I would love to live in an area where something like your surface design guild is available, but maybe not.

    It seems that that sharing time during your meetings is a time for encouragement,not heavy critique, and, if these other "artists" were truly creative, they could find the right thing to praise about everyone's work.

    And don't downgrade your own creativity based on their assessment (or lack of it). I was just reading somewhere (don't have the reference) that creativity is a verb, an action, not a quality someone possesses. In other words, just go back and enjoy being able to do art again.

  3. OMG! I love this essay. While I don't believe in praising for praising sake, every person needs encouragement and deserves some recognition for efforts made. Particularly little people. Knowing that someone will be fair--that is, notice what you do well--, makes it all the more likely that you will listen to that person when she or he offers constructive criticism designed to help you grow as a person or an artist or student or whatever.

    Thank you for this. :)

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