Thursday, September 26, 2013

How Artists Can Better Talk To One Another About Their Art

How Artists Can Better Talk To One Another About Their Art

About four decades ago I took a class with an intriguing title, The Ethics Of A Performer.  It was taught by a very progressive composer and educator at my college, and it turned out to be the first time that anyone broached the question of how artists talk to one another.  Even though I had already done a fair amount of performing by the age of 19, I had never thought about how my communication could affect anyone.  What I noticed was that the older students had much more to say about the issues raised by the instructor, that they had seen (and felt) the effects of bad and good communication.  By the end of the class, many doors seemed to open, though the relationship between communicating, observing, and evaluating one's art only became clear after I had been teaching for quite a while.

So, why are so many artists reluctant to record and assess their works, and not just students?  Why is communicating with other artists about their work frequently a minefield of awkwardness?  After working with artists of all levels (and myself) for many decades, I created a model of communication that helps to untangle the dynamics of communication among artists, and create a more compassionate and clear model for sharing reactions.  Via what I call Full Circle Communication (F.C.C.),  you will become more practiced in the art of assessing your own work more fairly and constructively.  This will also help you to better receive and interpret feedback from others.

There are four steps to this, each one requiring expressed permission – from the person you’re speaking to – before going on to the next one.  Likewise, our goal here is to internalize this process so our relationship to reviewing our own work is more compassionate and thorough.  After all, this is what we as artists do, in a constant state of self-dialogue, no matter what conceptual or technical level we have reached.


"Thanks for your (performance of) ________.”
"Your piece reminded me of when I ________.”
"Your work inspired me to finish ________.”   


The question "What Worked?" is designed to elicit feedback about some aspect of your art, or someone else's, that is essentially very personal and subjective, yet uses language which is more clinical and detached in nature.  The insights that you can generate about art – yours and others – using this question, will nearly always transcend your own set of preferences and inevitable biases that come from growing up in a particular culture.


This question allows the speaker to be clear and unapologetic about their reactions to what they feel a piece or performance didn't fulfill about its promise.  The wording of this is very specific.  Notice that it makes a reference to What Worked, by asking the audience member to examine the effectiveness of the work beyond their personal likes and dislikes, or their particular history within a medium or style.  Next, it assumes that the person speaking has already acknowledged aspects about the piece that DID work, which helps establish trust and respect.  Lastly, the use of “…As Well” helps to create a comparative tone which helps to attenuate the impact of any comment.

Again, in order for these comments to be truly useful, they need to be either:
1) invited by the artist, or 
2) offered only after the audience member has been given permission to give such comments. 


We have now come "full circle" in our communication cycle, and have arrived at the most problematic phase of artistic communication, yet potentially the most helpful (or destructive). 

Wording here is very important and safe phrases can take two forms, either 1) by way of stating something as a personal opinion, or 2) in the form of questions, neutral suggestions, or invitations.

"This is just my personal take on your piece…”
"What would really convey your vision for me would be to..."
"This may seem like something from left field, but what if you..."
"What would make a big difference for your piece could be..."


F.C.C. is designed for communication as well as introspection.  I recommend that you say to yourself some of the very same phrases that you would say to another respected artist.  Isn't that really our job, when you get down to it?  We need to create a safe and productive milieu so that we can dig deeper into our art, make work that feels truly authentic, and take more risks.

Excerpt from Michael's forthcoming both
© 2013 Michael Smolens, Second Sight Music