Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Not For The Faint Of Praise

Frustrating, isn’t it?  There are few things quite so deflating as being "damned with faint praise".  But try not to be discouraged when folks seem to say the wrong things.  They really mean to be saying the right things.

When I wrote short bios of my potter friends as part of my social media push to amplify a pottery festival I was going to be part of, it was easy to do.  The potters I was writing about are all fantastic potters.  They are my heroes, my role models, my friends.  Their work is easy to promote for all I’m worth.  It’s some of the finest pottery being made by some of the most accomplished potters in the country today.

But I was (and continue to be) acutely aware of the danger of describing someone's work in a way that, though meant to be complimentary,  could be misunderstood as anything but. Maybe what I wrote would be read and taken as too slight – not superlative enough.  I may not have said enough. I might have praised the wrong aspect. I might even have mis-interpreted their work. I might have said too much about one and not enough about the other.
It's a real minefield.

Additionally, though I observe this at the risk of being misunderstood completely, I was writing those reviews at the height of the "Me Too" movement. For that reason, I wrote only one review of a woman potter.  My lack of reviewing women was the unintended consequence of a well-meaning movement, but a movement that had nonetheless  interjected just too much risk into writing about a woman. I could have written something TOTALLY intending to be complimentary -- but would be misunderstood because the default mood of the day had "offended" dialed up to 11.  On social media I’ve always intended to stay politically neutral and that made it additionally risky.  Ironically, anyone who knows me well has heard me say that my favorite potters are almost all women.

I only went down that particular rabbit trail to point out that, in addition to simple "damning with faint praise", there are other factors that play heavily into why what one means to be saying – or not saying -- is OFTEN taken the wrong way.

One thing I've noticed in the past 20 years -- since the inception of internet communication -- is how much trouble people have when trying to express themselves in writing. There may be one in a million people who, when they write, can actually convey well what they mean to be saying. And one in a billion who can say it in a way that also conveys something satisfactorily beyond some journalistic literalism. Those statistics might be inaccurate or exaggerated. My research is incomplete.

People generally just don't write well. They don't speak well either.
Additionally, we as creative people have our necks stuck out there by choice. We choose to put our works (and our dreams) out there and put to the criticism of strangers. We want our creative endeavors validated. But we're simultaneously scared that they won't be.

So we're hyper sensitive.

We want to believe the lies of validation. That's the strength of social media. There's always a facebook friend who will tell us what we want to hear.  And they don't mean to be untruthful any more than the faint praiser means to deflate us. They ALL want to encourage us. They just suck at it.

As long as I'm bloviating, would you indulge me one more observation about praise -- faint, absent, or misunderstood?

Experts don't praise experts for their expertise. They expect it. It's really not professional jealousy or competitiveness that keeps peers mum about our work. Oh, it might be that from time to time. But I think it's most often simply that peers expect the level of proficiency that makes one a peer. Peers don't find that proficiency praise worthy. Peers find proficiency to simply be the baseline.

You can wait until the day you die to get praise from your peers. Peers don't regularly praise peers. Peers aren't startled into praising what they expect.

I think we get a different kind of validation from our peers. I think the affirmation we get from peers comes in the form of inclusion, not praise.

So, if the artists you admire most aren't saying much about your work, you might just be receiving the highest praise possible.


  1. The artists I know have learned about constructive criticism...from their peers. It doesn't work if someone hasn't experienced how to listen to someone who knows more than they do about something they just tried, or if someone doesn't know how to say, when that "something" is used, it might be too fragile or too hard to hold...If only we really used our humble opinions! So we praise more than we should these days, I think.

  2. even more difficult..writing about yourself.

  3. enjoyed the read :) the greatest honor; another pottery purchasing work, I always find it very humbling.

  4. Hi John. Since I've misplaced it in the move, shoot me an email with your address. I have a CD for you. 9thomaslabelle9@gmail.com