Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Looking at Art Through Rose-Colored Glasses

Marissa Skudlarek weighs the case for a positive audience.

Recently, my boyfriend and I saw a movie together and, exiting the theater, I said that I’d enjoyed it. Which was true, to an extent — I didn’t hate the movie, and I could easily point out elements that I liked. At the same time, I hadn’t loved it as much as I’d expected to (said film had received rapturous reviews; my own response was more measured), and I hadn’t agreed with every choice the director made. Yet I chose to dwell on my positive feelings, rather than my negative ones. Who wants to seem like a downer?

However, the next day, in an email exchange with my boyfriend, I admitted that I did have some caveats about the film, and that I’d expected to enjoy it more than I did.

“I thought you liked the movie more than that. Were you being nicer to it than it deserved, in order to avoid hurting my feelings?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “But actually, I think it was more about avoiding hurting my own feelings.”

People have a vested interest in convincing themselves that they enjoy what they experience. That’s a common explanation for the epidemic of standing ovations on Broadway — even if you only feel lukewarm about the show, you’ll jump up and applaud it anyway, so as to convince yourself that it was worth spending the $125 or more that you paid for your ticket. Just as no one wanted to admit that they couldn’t see the emperor’s new clothes, no one wants to admit to feeling disappointed or dissatisfied.

Moreover, I might come off as an opinionated blogger and critic, but there is a sensitive part of me that thinks it’s cruel to criticize art. I socialize with people who are fond of analyzing every aspect of a work of art, evaluating each choice as “good” or “bad.” But this can seem overly nitpicky — carping, rather than criticism. I sometimes think that art should be evaluated more holistically.

Obviously, if I genuinely dislike a work of art, I don’t mind criticizing it. But if my reaction is more along the lines of “It was OK, but it could’ve been better” or “I don’t know if there was anything wrong with it, but I didn’t really get into it,” I feel like I am being unfair or unkind. So I tell myself that I should look on the bright side instead. I think that if I couldn’t connect with a play, it’s my fault, rather than the artists.’ Besides, making art is hard and scary — and in light of that, don’t most artists deserve an A for effort? I think I’m a fool to expect transcendence from every work of art I experience. If I was entertained, shouldn’t that be enough?

Thus, I have a vested interest in convincing myself that I really liked something, when I might have only felt mildly positive about it. Otherwise, I’d have to admit to myself that I am frequently disappointed. Otherwise, I’d have to admit that I have very high standards and am difficult to please. Otherwise, I’d have to confront my own dissatisfaction and ennui. Isn’t it better to be an enthusiast?

(But then I think: “If I were a real enthusiast, if I truly loved art, I wouldn’t settle for the mediocre or the merely entertaining. I would seek out excellence — the best of what my art form is capable of achieving — and not accept anything less.”)

Often, too, my thoughts and feelings about art are not straightforward. They are ambivalent, they are confused, and they require a good deal of time to parse and articulate. This might  be another reason why I seek to simplify things by saying a decisive “I liked it!” rather than a waffling “I kind of liked it, but not as much as I hoped.”

I also wonder (as I often do) whether my gender contributes to my tendency to “round up” my opinions from neutral to positive. Women, more then men, are socialized to be kind, polite, cheerful and forgiving. A cranky man can be perversely endearing; a cranky woman is just a bitch. I’d be interested in hearing from you in the comments section: do you ever find yourself being more forgiving of a work of art than it deserves? And are you a man or a woman?

Like Dave Sikula, I wish I more frequently experienced evenings of theater “that make me sit up in my seat and leave me walking on air,” and less frequently found myself saying “meh” after seeing a show. Sometimes, too, I wish that I could love every work of art the way that its creator must love it: with a love that is all-seeing, all-knowing, all-forgiving.

But to do that, I would have to be a god.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

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4 comments on “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Looking at Art Through Rose-Colored Glasses

  1. ThtrLvr says:

    In brief, I do not censor my own nor others’ thoughts and feelings when it comes to works of art. I don’t view being critical as being negative. Discussion is good. And when it comes to my own work, I want to know what people really think and feel about it. It’s about learning and growing in the work, not giving or receiving praise for the sake of being “nice”. My gender is female.

    • Thanks for commenting. Do you find that your approach has served you well? I agree that, when it comes to giving feedback to or receiving it from people we know personally, we should strive to create an atmosphere of candor and honesty. But it can sometimes be difficult to do that without ruffling feathers and injuring pride — your own pride, or someone else’s.

  2. If it applies to being a woman, then it applies to being part of any marginalised group (we’re obviously not “minorities” anymore): if you raise your voice up, then it’s assumed that your opinion is not merely yours but that of “your people”. So if your opinion is disapproving, then your people must be angry.

    One shouldn’t have to apologise for having an opinion; such is the human condition. We’re hard-wired to have discriminating tastes for the sake of the species. Professional criticism, when done right, is meant to hold up a standard. When something doesn’t meet that standard, the critic has the right to say so – especially when the work in question is put in a public forum for which people pay their hard-earned money to see.

  3. Hmm, I can’t say that I ever feel like people assume that I’m “speaking for all women” when I offer my opinion on a topic. At the same time, I see your point that the “angry black man” stereotype is loaded with cultural baggage, just as the “bitchy, negative woman” stereotype is, and so it can be difficult for us to offer negative opinions without falling into negative stereotypes.

    I certainly wouldn’t want any professional critic to temper their opinions or “round them up” — but that is why I don’t really consider myself a critic. I have too many flaws and blind spots.

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