Growing up as an artist who takes an interest in most aspects of “The Arts”, I’ve come to absolutely hate some of the questions and comments I hear from well-meaning observers. Most people are simply trying to make conversation with you and because they don’t quite “get” how someone can make something look so easy, they’re a little unsure about how to relate. It’s understandable, but after a while, it can get irritating to the artist to have to hear the same things over and over again – some of which, while not intended to be insulting, can be.
I decided to cover three styles of the arts, each with five common irritant comments that I found in my research and this is the result. If you have something not listed here, please leave a reply and let’s discuss it.
Bear in mind that most of my research revealed the descriptions below the items to be handled with no small amount of “snark” and sarcasm. I don’t want to do that as I believe that most of the comments listed are usually done out of either a lack of understanding or a reach for anything to help them relate. In my own experience, rarely has it occurred that someone said any of these things out of spite or rudeness.
- Could you do one for me for free? (You wouldn’t have to be as detailed)
Okay, so it doesn’t take much thought to understand why this question might be irritating. The assumption is that your work is less than worthy. In fact, this question assumes that your work is worth exactly zero. Money is as much an issue for an artist as it is for anyone else. In our minds, we’re asking if you would be willing to provide YOUR service for free. We might be willing to render something for you, but it will – and should – cost you. A more appropriate question, if you really are interested in commissioning a work – would be, “Do you take commissions?” At that point, the artist will feel more free to discuss the business end of an arrangement, rather than have to figure out a way to tactfully say, “I don’t work for free, buddy.”
- My son/daughter/cousin/fill in the blank …can do that.
This is usually meant to aid communication between the observer and the artist. People will typically feel insecure around an artist, so they’ll grab for the first thing they think will bridge the gap to relate. What they don’t realize is that the artist is probably more insecure than they are and the LAST thing they want to think is that you’re making a comparison. Better statement: “What advice could I give to my ____, who is a budding artist?” This starts the conversation with the narrative that the observer appreciates the skill and quality of the artist’s work enough to ask their advice as an expert in the field.
3. Can you draw me?
The answer is, “Probably, but I won’t. Not without a commission arrangement or years of learning to do portraiture. Just because I can paint your dog, doesn’t mean I’ve mastered the human face. I, personally, can do portraiture, but it’s the most time consuming and tedious of my skills, and therefore, the most costly. Artists don’t like to admit to not being able to do something, so if they are not already showing you that portraiture is in their wheel house, instead ask if portraiture is one of their services. It’s a more elegantly thought out way to ask the same question and by using “services”, it will likely be understood that you don’t expect a “free sketch”, but a serious commission of their talents.
- Can you teach ME to do that?
Innocent enough, but you’re telling the artist that you assume it was easy to learn. At least that will be my knee-jerk reaction. Quality art skills are learned over time and with a crazy amount practice. Add to that, you’re expecting that I’m a good, or even willing, teacher. Ask this instead. “I’ve always wanted to begin learning this skill. Where would you suggest I start?” You’re asking for their advice instead of asking them to buy in to what would be years of commitment to teach you what they know. If they offer classes, it’ll definitely be the very first thing they advise.
- You know what you should paint?
Never. And. I. Mean. NEVER. say this to an artist. It’s hard enough to come up with ideas and inspiration for things that we can call our own, so we can’t stand to hear this. Frankly, we’re thinking, “I know YOU should paint it if you’re passionate about it, but I have my to-do list already.” I have a hard time not being snarky about this one, myself, because I think it’s the most insensitive of this list of five. Basically, put yourself in my shoes. How would you feel if I, who knows nothing about your passion, went up to you and made suggestions as to how you should proceed? You’d want me to back off and go do my own thing.
- I can give you an idea for something to write.
This is the same type comment as number five in the artists category. I will want to tell you to go ahead and write whatever idea you’ve come up with, but leave me to my own. First, I don’t want to share the credit with you unless I’ve approached you to do some sort of collaboration, which is common and often rewarding, but if I haven’t asked, don’t suggest. If you want to collaborate, approach it that way and have a plan ready to explain as to how you will equally contribute.
- Can you write me in as a character?
Nope. Characters are precious and created with love and devotion, not thrown into a story just because. You probably don’t fit into my story and even if you do, you’ll likely have a different name and set of personal details for the protection of you and the writer. By the way, if you know a writer really well, you may already be a character in one of their stories anyway. You just don’t know it.
- Can I get a free copy of your book?
This is the money issue again. If you’re willing to give honest, non-biased feedback, you may ask if you could be a beta-reader and help during the process. However, the writer may have strict rules concerning beta readers, such as “No family or friends”. Don’t take it personally. Most writers understand that these people will have a hard time being completely honest and what we’re looking for in a beta reader is honesty so that we can make our writing the best it can be. Ask instead to be included in a mailing list so that you can be notified when the book is officially for sale. This lets the author know that their work is valued and you understand the price that was paid to create it.
- Can you help me write my book?
Uggh. This gets all up under an author’s skin. We have to be disciplined enough to make time for writing our own material. We don’t have time to help others write too, unless we’re talking again about collaboration. At that point, it becomes not “Your Book”, but a collaborative work. When I hear this question, I immediately decide that you’re only asking because you’ve failed so far and now want me to drag you through it while you ride my coattails. Most writers don’t have time to baby sit. Ask if I’m interested in an equal collaboration. If I am, I’ll ask what you have in mind. If not, I’ll tell you right out.
- I found a typo.
This is usually an attempt to relate to the author and place you on common ground. They don’t feel that they’re quite as “good” as the writer because he or she finished something and they didn’t, so they point out errors. This is fine if the author has asked for your editing skills, but not fine if they simply asked you to read for content.
- (Dancers) I took dance when I was a child.
Again, they just want to relate to you. You’ve just performed with a set of skills they wish they had and this is a way to cover the distance between you. It’s a poor way to do it, though. Whether it’s dancing or singing or acting, the performer has dedicated time and energy to learning learning that skill well enough to present it publicly. If you took dance as a child, but quit, it really does nothing to help you relate. It makes an awkward moment where the performer now has to figure out a tactful way to reply.
- (Actors) Do you still do your little skits?
Most theatrical performers take their craft seriously. We do “productions”, not “skits”. It seems petty, but the way you evaluate our performance is of the utmost importance. If an artist paints a canvas and gets it wrong, sometimes they can go back and work on it more to fix the problem. A performance is made and done. There’s one shot to get it right. They may be able to work on it for the following performance during a show’s run, but each individual performance is a stand-alone piece of art for the performer. The amount of work that goes into a production is so vast that anything other than the most respectful of ideals about it is like a dagger to the heart. If you can’t think of it as any more than a skit, please refrain from mentioning it at all. The word “production” will work every time because it conveys the work that goes into entertaining an audience.
- Have you done any real acting, like movies or Broadway?
There are a limited amount of roles in movies and professional theatre. To assume that the only way to be considered a “real” actor is if you are one of the privileged few to land those roles is in error. The amount of talent available in any given area of the world might blow your mind. Acting, like any art, is a process of non-stop learning and improvement. A “real” actor is anyone who has the guts to stand under the lights and deliver a performance to an audience because they love being there and crave the forward motion of learning the craft.
- You need to slow down. Theatre is going to kill you.
That’s your opinion. It’s best to live your own life, instead of telling others how to live theirs, even if your intentions are good. I’m happiest and the least stressed when I’m performing onstage and that includes the entire process of rehearsing until all hours of the night and having to memorize lines, blocking, and choreography. People tend to advise based on their own beliefs and feelings. What’s good for you may not be good for me.
- Any nit-picky critique. (I heard you miss a note), (I heard you drop your accent for a second), or (Don’t think I didn’t notice that … name-the-flaw)
The likelihood that an actor or director didn’t catch it is extremely low. We’ve rehearsed the material so many times that we hear it in our sleep. We appreciate that you’re paying attention, but a comment like this is telling us you want to bring us down. As much as you might think so, there’s nothing helpful about it. Believe me, we will have noticed it too and will probably obsess over it endlessly. It’s no use pouring salt into the wound.
There are tons more of these and I’m interested in hearing yours. Reply in the comments and we’ll brood over them together. And don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast. There are buttons at the top of the post.