This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She's blogged since 2002 about the business side--and the spiritual inside--of art. She says, "I share my experiences so you won't have to make ALL the same mistakes I did...." For ten years, Luann also wrote a column ("Craft Matters") for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She's a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.
The things people say about our work, and what we can CHOOSE to say back.
(6 minute read)
This “ice” remark is one I hear almost every day at the physical therapy place/independent gym where I work out.
When we are injured, sore, aching, our first instinct is to apply heat. A heating pad feels wonderful. And it can help, if we don’t overdo it. But ice is actually even more healing and therapeutic, especially as our first go-to therapy. Granted, it feels better on a hot summer day than a cold winter one, but it really does help.
How does this metaphor apply to our creative work?
There are certain things that never change in our artistic lives. There will be people who lover our work and let us know. And there will be people who don’t care for our work, and they are eager to let us know it.
When things are slow at art fairs and fine craft shows, exhibitors often gather in small groups to chat and compare notes. One of the most popular topics is the rude things visitors say about our work.
When someone attacks our artistic skills, process, subject matter, integrity, how we choose to respond says much about us.
Instinct kicks in:
Our first response is usually surprise: “Wha...?”
Our second is disbelief: “Why would you even say that?!”
The third is anger: “Why you...!!!!”
These are normal, human responses, hardwired in us to protect us from danger. And when someone goes out of their way to be offensive, when all they have to do is simply walk away and go find work they like better, this can register in our lizard brain as “dangerous”.
If we respond instinctively, we jack up the heat.
Instead, in the long run, it’s better to “stay cool” and apply ice.
The thing is, there are many reasons people say such things:
Curiosity: Your work is “speaking” to them, though they may not be sure why. They want to know more.
Ignorance: They don’t know what they’re looking at, nor where it fits in their world.
Entitlement: "I will be the judge of your worthiness.", "I am a better artist than you!"
Envy/Insecurity: “I can’t sit with the fact that YOU are an artist at this show, and I’m not!”
Antagonism/conflict lovers: They are deliberately looking to start a fight.
When we are attacked, we look for ways to defend ourselves.
There are groups on Facebook and other social media that relish this challenge. Everyone shares their awful stories about the horrible things toxic people have said. And everyone shares their funny/slamming/mocking responses in return.
We do this to minimalize the damage to our own ego. We find sympathy and support in our peer group. We share and memorize witty or snarky ways to respond, or even ask/tell them to leave our booth. Hurrah! We showed them!
I love reading the stories and the comments, and responses. I’m human, too!
But years ago, when I first started out, I sensed something “off” with this approach. It felt “hot”, and we were focusing on how to make it “hotter”.
It put me in a hard place. I felt encouraged to be my worst self, too.
I don’t want to believe people are deliberately cruel. I don’t want to be on the defensive. Taking the offensive feels like falling to their level. And it all circled around to watching out for the next attack.
Not a happy place for an artist to be. I don’t like who I am when I get in that space. All the joy I get from making my work is siphoned off.
Starting out in my industry, I was fortunate. I had the benefit of people who took a higher road, and a more effective approach. They generously shared their tact, and tactics, ways to take the conversation to a more productive place.
They showed me the power of “staying cool.”
There are ways to frame our responses that a) reduce the heat in the conversation; b) show that we can stay calm and centered; c) show mercy for the folks who truly didn’t mean to insult us; d) keep the conversation going on a better plane, or shut it down gently; e) remind us that other people are listening.
When someone says, “My son makes these!” we can respond with, “That’s lovely! What shows does he do?” or “What galleries is he in?”
When someone says, “I just don’t think these are very well-made.” We can respond with, “My work is not for everyone, but the people who do like it, love it very much.”
When someone says, for the millionth time, “What are these made of?”, that’s an opportunity to expand the conversation and/or show them the sign that explains my process. (Because this gentle, well-intention question is actually them giving me permission to talk with them, and help them go deeper into my work.)
Instead of being annoyed by folks who questioned my choice of media,
I promoted its advantages for my work. It worked!
If someone complains about our prices being too high, we may hear “Your work isn’t worth it.” But what they might be saying is, “I love it, but I will never be able to afford it.” (My great layaway plan can help here!)
The times I’ve had to deflect very toxic people when there are other people in my space, after the VTP leave, my other visitors always say, “WOW, you were so gracious with that *******!”
My main reason for choosing to respond this way? I feel like I’m being my highest, best self.
It’s really hard. But it’s its own reward. I’m not knocked off my pedestal (for very long, anyway), I gain the respect of my real customers, and I show that it’s okay to ask a question that might appear awkward/ignorant--because I will do my best to respond with respect and a peaceful heart.
In fact, often after an incident like this, everyone else in the room opens up with their own questions. I’ve shown I welcome the engagement, and I won’t easily take offense if they “phrase it wrong.” I’ve created a safe environment for them, and they can relax and open up.
Truth is, truly angry/envious/aggressive people are looking for a fight. But we don’t have to automatically give them one. As a friend told me years ago, “You don’t have to go to every fight you’re invited to!”
If you do shows where you encounter a lot of these people, consider that you might be in the wrong shows.
If you believe your work is worth every penny of your prices, be prepared to show how much effort, time, and skill goes into it.
Forgive the nay-sayers. Forgiveness isn’t about letting them off the hook, or ignoring what they’re doing. It’s a way of letting us off the hook. We can stand back and realize we did not deserve their ire, and we don’t have to hold on to it. As I read in an old notebook last night, “Don’t let anyone else’s opinion of you become your reality.”
Of course, this assumes you want to be a force for good in the world. That you care about who you are and what you do. That you are constantly trying to be better at it.
When it comes to dealing with difficult people, just remember: Ice is your best friend.
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