How can I tell my boyfriend he's a bad artist?

I'm afraid one day he's going to wake up and recognize the truth and it's going to destroy him

Published March 16, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary Tennis,

I'm a 29-year-old gay man in a happy, loving relationship -- the relationship I figure on lasting, bar any unforeseen tragedies, until the two of us are racing our wheelchairs down the halls of the nursing home, making ribald comments on the assets of the male orderlies. He's my best friend, my partner in crime, the person whose every joy I feel more keenly than my own and every setback crushes me. That's why I'm writing to you.

In another life, I was a mess -- a broken, self-destroying art student simultaneously certain that I was destined to become the world's next Jean-Michel Basquiat and that every piece of work I created was an insult to the entire history of art in its intellectual bankruptcy and mediocrity. Reality, of course, was somewhere in the middle. But it didn't stop me loathing and denigrating every success my friends achieved, continuing to wound myself in the shadows, and creating a host of psychological demons who, even today, like to give me a call once every few months just to let me know they haven't forgotten me.

Eventually, after a complete nervous breakdown, I started working on myself -- learning to appreciate my abilities and successes and becoming genuinely happy for the accomplishments of my friends. It helped enormously that, concurrent with my getting better, I took a left turn and unexpectedly discovered my true vocation; graphic design. Now I have a stable and rewarding job in a field that is perfect for me -- there's still enough creativity to satisfy that art student inside, while the more concrete requirements of the business side of the field give me a meaningful rubric to judge my team's output by. Sometimes I still doodle a little here and there, but it's strictly fun these days, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of evaluating our other artists and interns and helping them do their best work.

Nonetheless, many of my friends are still artists, and it's through them that I met my boyfriend. He's the white elephant, the unicorn -- the artist who's not tortured by his muse, who lives clean and has a sense of humor, who is happy for everyone around him because he believes with utter certainty that someday he'll get his due. No 30-hour creative binges followed by weeks of despondency for him, either; every night, after his unrewarding desk job, he takes the train home and then for the rest of the night he's steadily and happily working away at his easel.

And he's not any good.

There, I said it. On our first date, two years ago, he showed me a few of his paintings on pictures on his phone. I figured the picture quality was bad, and if I'm honest I just really wanted to get into his pants. So I lied. What else do you do? And I've been living that lie ever since.

I've tried everything short of repainting his canvases for him. We've gone to free, life-drawing sessions together, we've spent countless hours at art museums. I've offered to buy him classes for birthdays and Hanukkah presents. I've even suggested the possibility of him going to grad school, though not without trepidation -- not because I'm worried about money, I'd cover us for as long as it took, but because I don't think he'd be accepted anywhere.

I've tried like hell to believe in him -- believe that it's not about talent, that he'll find an audience for his work. And as far as he or our friends or our families know, I do. I'm his biggest cheerleader, and if anyone ever makes snide comments I'm the first to spring to his defense. But in the privacy of my own head, I know I don't believe in him. If I'd never met him and he submitted his work to my team, I'd reject him without a second thought.

I can carry this burden till we're in that nursing home together, and if I have anything to say about it he'll go to his grave believing I thought he was the best artist in the world. This isn't about me. What scares me, what keeps me up at night, is the day that he no longer believes in himself. Like I said before, his emotional resources are astounding, and he's a resolutely grounded and sane artist in a way I never was. But everyone's got to have their limits, and we're getting older. Our friends are beginning to experience their first professional successes. Soon it's not going to be a bunch of artistic wannabes hanging out dreaming about their first big break. It's going to be artists on one side of the line, and him on the other.

When that happens, what do I do? I've been that artist, the self-destroying one, the one who knows with absolute certainty that their work is nothing, that THEY are nothing. The thought of seeing him in that kind of unassuagable pain ... it paralyzes me. I've tried to take his temperature on this, by using the "numbers game" argument (so many people who want to be artists, shrinking markets, etc.) to see if he's thought about what he'd do. His response is always the same: keep painting. He believes he'll find success someday -- and here's the kicker -- because God loves him.

Cary, I'm an atheist. What do I do on the day the man I love more than anyone in the world wakes up and says to me, "I'm not an artist, and God doesn't love me anymore?"

Fears His Broken Paintbrush

Dear Fears His Broken Paintbrush,

I don't think your lover is ever going to wake up and discover he's a bad artist because I don't think there is such a thing as bad art or bad artists.

There's stuff that makes me cringe and stuff that makes me wince and stuff that makes me groan. But I really don't think there's any such thing as bad art. There are aesthetic standards and codes, there are color mixes and mechanical skills and levels of attainment of those skills, but there's no such thing as bad art. There are degrees of sensitivity to light and color and line, and there are materials and how they hold paint and reflect light and there's human history and eye-hand coordination and various levels and intensities of light and combinations of the visible spectrum altered by various lighting implements and surroundings such as the color of walls and the kinds of windows the light goes through and the way the atmosphere colors the sun's rays but there's no such thing as bad art. There are influential writers and people who agree with them and there are powerful movements of capital both monetary and social that are nearly intoxicating and transformative in their complexity and depth and there are people who would die for a painting just as there are people who would die for a deity or an idea but there's no such thing as bad art.

There are pieces that get accepted and pieces that get rejected. There are pieces we remember and pieces we forget. But there is no bad art.

There's art that a consensus of viewers would indicate has a very low chance, like maybe .001 percent chance, of inducing a profound aesthetic experience in any viewer. But there's no bad art.

There's stuff that likely will never sell. There's stuff that certain people find it very hard to understand what in God's name the artist meant for to happen when we looked at it. There's stuff certain people find repellent. There's stuff certain people find laughable. But there's no bad art.

There's art that we understand in the context of who made it. There's kids' art, there's art by old people, there's art by developmentally challenged people, there's art by emotionally disturbed people, by psychotics, by sociopaths, by paranoid schizophrenics, by Wall Street traders. But there's no bad art.

There are career goals the attainment of which requires mastering a craft and mastering a social code. There are professional standards that allow anybody in a professional capacity to glance at a piece and know in two seconds if it meets certain professional standards. But when met with pieces that don't meet these criteria, rather than call them "bad art" we might better say, This lacks precise line, or, This lacks careful color choice, or, This subject matter is not relevant to our purposes, or, There is an unresolved conflict in the formal shapes, or too high a signal-to-noise ratio (you know, a little dirt is good, but too much obscures), or too many competing visual focal points. But there is no bad art.

So how do we learn to respond to our friends' "bad art" -- even though we agree there's no such thing? We look at it and say things we like that we can be honest about. We say, I like this figure here. We say, I like this color. I like this line.

We do the same thing we do in the Amherst Writers and Artists workshop. We identify things in the art that we remember, that we notice, that sticks with us. We say, "Wow, I really notice that red," or "Gee, that figure in the background really strikes me." It just strikes you. It might strike you in a certain way that you've been taught to call banal or incompetent but you don't say that out loud and after a while you don't even say that to yourself. You get in the habit of not denigrating human effort. You get in the habit of respect and surprise and discovery. You stop buying into the art world's game of capital masquerading as refined sentiment and superior knowledge.

But let's be honest. Some people start painting without acquiring certain skills, so what they paint doesn't look very good. That doesn't make it bad art. You keep working, just like you keep working on writing and you keep working on your instrument. You keep doing it because it is an ennobling human activity and an exploration of the spirit.

Not all our explorations of the spirit deserve to be hung on a stranger's wall. That's not why we're doing it. We're not doing it for that stranger's approval. We're doing it because it's our path. And what is it a path to? That's nobody's business frankly. It's a path.

And so it goes. There is no bad art. There are no bad artists. There are just people working toward something unseen.

We won't see it until they see it. It may take a lifetime. That's fine. Let it take a lifetime if that's how long it takes to see what must be seen. Meanwhile, when asked, when directed to take a look at the canvas, we take note of what we like, what we admire, what we notice and remember.

We don't lie but we don't attack. We just regard with balanced interest what is before us.

By Cary Tennis

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