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How To Respond To Art You Don't Like

Art is an essential part of our lives. Every person has their own complex opinions on it. In my experience, learning to react to it in a mature, nuanced way can have a powerful impact on how you interact with the world. Dislike is an underrated, yet crucial part of developing a sophisticated perspective.

This post is a follow-up to my one on creative vulnerability, in which I argued that a neutral reaction to your work is far worse than a bad one.

I had an interesting comment, asking how one should respond to creative work they dislike.

What do you do when you are the one who is having that reaction? How do you express it in a useful way?

This post is an outline of my personal framework for reacting to the creative work of others.

Let's say there's this thing you dislike or even hate. You are not indifferent to it- you have strong negative feelings. It might be a film, book, blog post, song or whatever. Here's how to turn that into something valuable.

For the sake of brevity and continuity, I will be referring to creative work as 'art' and the creators as 'artists.' This, of course, includes all creative mediums.

First, consider the artist.

Ignore whether they are someone you know, someone unknown, or someone successful.

Forget what you know or think of them. Divorce the piece of art from them altogether. Isolate it.

How do you feel about now? Better, worse, or the same?

How we react to a piece of artis often tied up with how we feel about the creator. There are people whose work you love regardless, and others whose work you will always hate.

Remember that they, whoever they are, happen to be a human being.

Here is a relevant quote from Tim Urban:

'Every stranger, co-worker, friend, acquaintance, fling, customer service representative, driver, waiter, customer, client, neighbour, and person on the internet you come across:

- Has a family who loves them and vice versa

- Has hopes and dreams and regrets and frustrations

- Has as many thoughts going through their head at all times as you do

- Might be just a little sad all the time about a tragedy in their past

- Might be the most important person in someone else's life

- Is just trying to figure out how to be happy'

This is in particular relevant when it comes to art.

Most of us who write, paint, sing or whatever, do so out of a need to make sense of our lives. It is an outlet, a form of catharsis, a vital means of self-expression. Most people do not do it for money, fame or even attention of any sort.

There are plenty of people - like Francesca Woodman, the Philadelphia Wireman and Vincent Van Gogh- who spent their lives making extraordinary art in near-total anonymity. Recognition meant nothing to them. Regardless, most of us want some sort of acknowledgement and feedback.

However much you dislike said thing, keep in mind that creative work is vulnerable.

Be sure to place it within context.

Understand the difference between something which is not to your taste, and something which is bad. Consider the time, place and culture of its inception.

Take the example of the book, The Palm Wine Drinkard. On my first reading (free of any knowledge of the context), I disliked it a lot. It was only after attending a lecture on it, I was able to reread and quite enjoy the book. Once I understood it was a post-colonial retelling of Yoruba folklore, I saw it in a different light.

This is why mental models are so useful. They provide a framework to look at art. Understanding concepts like post-modernism, post-colonialism, Marxism and structuralism will benefit your appreciation of art in a dramatic way. If you find yourself often responding in a negative way to art, try looking at it through one of these lenses.

The film you see as dull might be 30 years old and was original upon release. The art you find too subversive might be popular abroad. The book which makes you uncomfortable, might have captured the social mood of the time.

Context matters a lot.

Consider how you are meant to react to it.

This is a strange concept. In our cosseted society, people develop an idea that they deserve to always enjoy art. When they don't, that becomes a sign it is objectively bad. Songs are expected to be upbeat and have a memorable chorus. Films and books are expected to hold their hand and walk them through a narrative. And so on. This is a terrible attitude to have. You are not meant to like everything you experience. Art is often intended to be challenging, shocking, eye opening or outright uncomfortable. Think of Michael Haneke's films, Tracey Emin's art and Kurt Vonnegut's books. They are not cheap entertainment to gulp down between Facebook checks. Designed to be unnerving, they push you out of your comfort zone.

You dislike this thing. So what? Do you need to like it? Does the creator owe you anything?

Well, yes and no. You have exchanged your time/money for this piece of art of it and deserve something in return.

This is where the important part comes in-

Benefit from your dislike.

The way I see it, there are three main positives which can come out a bad reaction to art.

1. Learn from it. If you find it to be bad in an objective way, use this as a means to improve your own work. When I read a piece of writing which I think is bad, I try to see what lessons I can take from it. It might be structural or grammatical issue or related to content. There is always a lesson in there somewhere.

2. Give constructive feedback. This does not equate to being nasty on purpose. Getting angry or snarky does no one any good. Before giving feedback (be it verbal, in a review, comment or whatever), I ask myself the following;

  • Do I have something new to add to the discussion?
  • Do I know I actually know anything about the medium?
  • Will the artist see my feedback?
  • Might other people benefit from my response?

If the answer to all these is no, I don't respond. If the answer to at least one is yes, I might. Insults, hatred and mockery are never okay. Tearing apart someone's art is the lowest way you could possibly respond. It says far more about you and your own insecurities than it does about the art itself.

3. Use it as a framework to gain a new perspective. Question your opinion- why don't you like it? How much does it have to do with the art itself, and how much is it about yourself? Does it reveal a bias, preconception, misunderstanding or prejudice you have? Are you approaching art via an automatically critical perspective? Why? Do you dislike the medium or genre in general? If so, why are you wasting time and energy on it? Can you draw insight regardless? These are all questions I ask myself when I dislike something. It's quite extraordinary how much you can learn this way.

Art is an essential part of our lives. Every person has their own complex opinions on it. In my experience, learning to react to it in a mature, nuanced way can have a powerful impact on how you interact with the world. Dislike is an underrated, yet crucial part of developing a sophisticated perspective.