Hate his work? Think it stinks? Just say you love it

My boyfriend thinks he's a genius but I think his work is mediocre. What do I say?

By Cary Tennis
Published March 15, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My boyfriend and I work in creative fields, at different parts of the spectrum. He is a commercial writer, or used to be, since that career has faded into the ether in the death throes of publishing and advertising. He is very competent at it, and regards himself as a genius talent in that department, and toots his own horn accordingly. He considers it high art, on a par with any other kind of art, visual, written, recorded or otherwise.

My own shameful secret is that, try and rationalize as I might, I don't have it in me to value what he does in the way he does. I do not think it is the equal of great literature, or even a good page-turner or magazine article. I see it as carefully crafted commercial product, something created solely in the service of making the public fork over money for things it doesn't really want, and in a very straightforward way. I am not in love with the advertising and marketing world like he is. Certainly, there are ads that are hugely clever, funny or entertaining, or amazing enough so the viewer doesn't notice they are being sold something, or mind it. These are not those ads. This work describes the product, plain and simple, and sometimes there's a clever tag line. It's decent work, and he does it well. It serves its purpose. Somebody has to do it. I don't think there's a lot of room for real creativity in this niche. And because of the nature of the work, I have to admit I find it kind of dry and unnecessary. I wish I felt otherwise.

Some of my friends are visual artists, and occasionally I'll mention if someone has a show, or comment on one of their art postings on one of the social media outlets. And sometimes my boyfriend will post an opinion piece, or an example of his work, and I know his purpose in doing this is to get some nice comments of his own, from me and others. And usually nothing happens. I am often afraid to comment, lest it be totally apparent that I'm doing so only to assuage his ego, but I often just can't find anything nice to say other than "Great piece, keep up the good work!" and after a few of those, it just sounds hollow. Today he posted some copy he wrote six years ago for a film that is just now being released, that looks like a completely hacky piece of predictable garbage -- he clearly pointed out in his preface that the film was awful, and my main thought was, "Why did you post this?" And reading it, I was filled with dread, because I knew he wanted me to write something nice about it and I was drawing a blank; I couldn't think of anything to say that wasn't damning with faint praise. And as usual, nobody else was inspired to comment either. Adding insult to injury, I had recently mentioned two friends' art openings, and here I couldn't muster up anything to crow about this.

So, how can I be more supportive of something I don't really care about? I care about him, but this thing he gets his identity from leaves me cold. Obviously I can't say that to him. I know this subject is really specific, but I'm sure I'm not alone in wanting to be supportive while lacking enthusiasm of a partner's career, art or hobby. Please help me with another perspective.

Creative Left Cold

Dear Creative,

Just say you loved it.

There's a great story told by songwriter Jason Robert Brown about Stephen Sondheim that may be instructive here.

Best as I understand it, it was told in the summer 2010 issue of the Sondheim Review. I just don't have the issue in front of me. So I'm paraphrasing mostly. But the story goes that these two young guys are living in New York and dreaming of writing musicals, following in the footsteps of their idol, Stephen Sondheim. They meet him and are thrilled to be invited to see one of his shows.

After the show, the story goes, Sondheim takes them to dinner. They don't know what to say; they didn't like the show. So they make awkward chitchat. Finally, after an eternity, Sondheim mumbles, "So, uh, did you like the show?"

They try to disguise their opinions but it is clear to Sondheim that they didn't like the show, and it makes things very uncomfortable. Sometime after this very awkward dinner, one of them calls Sondheim to patch things up and this is what Sondheim reportedly said:

"Nobody cares what you think. Once a creation has been put into the world, you have only one responsibility to its creator: Be supportive. Support is not about showing how clever you are, how observant of some flaw, how incisive in your criticism. There are other people whose job it is to guide the creation, to make it work, to make it live, but that is not your problem.

"If you come to my show and see me afterwards, say only this: 'I loved it.' It doesn't matter if that's what you really felt. What I need at that moment is to know that you care enough about me and the work I do to tell me that you loved it ... If you can't say that, don't come backstage or lean over the pit to see me. Just go home ... Say all the catty, bitchy things you want to your friend, your neighbor, the Internet ...

"Maybe someday down the line I'll be ready to hear what you have to say, but at that moment, that face-to-face moment after I have unveiled some part of my soul, however small, to you: That is the most vulnerable moment in any artist's life. If I beg you, plead with you to tell me what you really thought ... then you must tell me, 'I loved it.' That moment must be respected."

I love that story. What it does is it places the feelings of the artist ahead of whatever "truth" one might feel necessary to convey.

You are not going to win any arguments or improve anyone's work by critiquing it unless the person is genuinely asking for your critique, in a professional or semi-professional setting. So if you are not the client or the paid critic or the employer of the person, if you are not involved with the actual job or project in which the quality of the piece is a genuine issue, then I tend to agree with Stephen Sondheim.

It's best to just say you loved it.

January 2011 Creative Getaway

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Cary Tennis

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