How many times have you heard that one-liner? It’s one of only a handful of stock phrases viewers throw out when seeing something that they really don’t like (or understand), but can’t quite bring themselves to insult the artist. Depending on the inflection, they might actually believe that it is truly the most-one-of-a-kind-amazing-thing-they’ve-ever-seen… but not usually.
Some artists may cringe a bit when they hear the phrase, but I sort of (only “sort of”) enjoy it. Unfortunately, hearing the phrase most often means that you can’t possibly talk the viewer into a sale. I’m no psychologist (nor do I play one on television), but most people decide rather quickly, if not instantly whether or not they like your work. If you haven’t nailed them on the first impression, you probably aren’t going to talk them into committing their wallet or their walls to your work.
The good news is that most often, people who make a comment like, “That’s creative,” or, “That’s different,” are usually willing to talk. They feel the need to engage with the artist, perhaps out of courtesy – fearing that silence would be rude, or because they are out-and-about on a social evening and want to meet and mingle with others. They most likely don’t know much about art – if they did they would have more to say, but they may be willing to learn more. Some artists – the more business-oriented type may say that you are wasting your time talking with someone who is not interested or dismissive of your work, but I find that engaging with people that clearly don’t “get it” can be quite enlightening.
When talking with people who don’t understand your art, you must first check your ego and be prepared to hear anything. They may not respect you as an artist, they may not realize the work you put into your art, they may even think you are an outright sham or a pushy salesperson. That’s okay. This is your chance to practice your story – how you came to make this body of work, what this work means to you – in a way that anyone can understand. This is not the time to discuss how your work is a “continuation of the Arte Povera movement as a means of socio-economic disruption against consumer culture.” They aren’t going to understand any of that, and speaking in art-code isn’t going to make them think that you are smart. It will only reaffirm in their minds that you are a smooth-talking huckster out to scam people out of their hard-earned cash.
The important thing is that you actually have a story to tell. If your story is, “I like (fill in the blank with flowers, horses, boats, or any other types of subject matter) they’re pretty,” – that is not interesting enough. These people need to get a sense of who you are, why you make art, and why it is special. They sell plenty of “pretty art” at Hobby Lobby and Target. Remember, making a sale isn’t your main objective when talking to the “that’s creative,” viewer, but you do want them walking away with the sense that they have met an interesting individual – an artist. All the while you are making friends, expanding your network, and getting your story into its best shape possible.
It’s best if you have several versions of your personal narrative (the long version, the elevator speech version, the pulled-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps-blue-collar version, etc) depending on their level of interest. Having several versions of your story will also allow you to have enough flexibility so that visitors will not be overhearing you spout the same few lines all night. Be prepared for the most common questions (What kind of paint is that? Where do you get your materials? How long does it take to make that?) and give honest answers. Don’t try to be too secretive unless you feel like you are revealing too much. Sharing your knowledge isn’t going to create a sudden influx of copycats. We are sharing information about something we love, and we hope others love as well.
So, next time you get hit with the, “Well… That’s Creative…” comment, don’t despair. They don’t hate your art, and even if they do, they are offering you a chance to tell your story. Remember, your art isn’t for everyone. There are people that will love it and people that will hate it. The worst is the people that see it and don’t care. By telling your story, you get a golden opportunity to share your work in a way that can make them care.