How to Co-Exist with the Artist in Your Life (in 5 Easy Steps!)
We all know them.
That co-worker [you know the one] who invites all his colleagues to see his new community theater show every 3 months and gives you the cold shoulder if you miss one.
The barista who loves telling you about his avant garde photography startup and keeps offering to “shoot you sometime.”
Your aunt who makes homemade jewelry and pressures you to buy every time she sees you.
You may have dated an actor at some point and lived to tell the tale.
These artists live among us. As an artist myself [of the performing variety, thank you], I am here to reach out a helping hand to the outsider. I know well the difficulties of working with, living with, and – God forbid – attempting a relationship with – an artist. Next time you find yourself cornered, baffled, or even threatened by an artsy type, just follow this handy 5 step guide.
1. Leave Room for Ego
Perhaps this is the foremost thing that unites artists of all disciplines. A healthy ego is a necessity for success. The artist needs to believe he is capable of brilliance, that HE is the best and brightest one to accomplish the task at hand. The art world is tremendously competitive – everyone thinks they’re a genius and simultaneously, everyone is replaceable. Confidence in one’s self is the combatant to this reality. We are constantly having to remind ourselves of our talents and training. This gives us the ability to put ourselves and our work out there for scrutiny [and there will always be scrutiny]. This same confidence drives us from one gig, project, show, masterpiece, et all. to the next. You might hold the opinion that artists (actors especially) are narcissists. They have to be. They are their product. They must sell themselves to get work. Therefore, try not to be annoyed by it. Look at their inflated egos as a business tactic.
You may have encountered an artist whose ego has been EPICALLY blown out of proportion. Perhaps they’ve received too much praise throughout their career, or perhaps they’ve managed to convince themselves they’re brilliant based on some imagined or ill-perceived merit. Or it could all be an elaborate ruse to mask deep, unwavering hidden insecurities. Whatever the case may be, do not attempt to “put them in their place” or “bring them down to earth.” You will only aggravate their behavior. [Think tapping the Gorilla cage. Not a good idea.] As long as they’re not hurting anyone [Insert own gruesome Gorilla metaphor here], leave them be. Let them boast, let them tirade. Look it as an amusement. Rather than try to fix or change them [leave that to their therapist], be the example they might need to see to temper their attitudes. Or its possible they won’t even notice your efforts at all and just continue to be a raging ego-maniac. Either way, not your problem if you don’t let it bother you. Not your Gorilla, not your circus!
2. Drink the Kool-Aid
On the other side of the coin is the necessity of self-doubt. Like any good Catholic, artists need to have doubts and even a good dose of self-loathing to inspire them to reach their highest potential. Let’s call it the Negativity Kool-Aid, the bitter-sweet [fruit punch flavored] elixir of success.
If an actor confides in you that he doesn’t think he has what it takes to pull off an upcoming role, don’t tell him, “You’ll be great!” Your designer friend wants to try a new concept and doesn’t know if he can execute it properly. Do not tell him, “I’m sure you’ll figure it out!” A painter finishes a project he’s been working on for months and wants to scrap it and start over. Do not say, “It’s fine! Don’t be so hard on yourself!”
No, no, my friends. By doing this, you are squelching his very real and very valid feelings and concerns –the Negativity Kool Aid he needs to thrive. You cannot change his mind with positivity and you cannot boost his confidence no matter how much encouragement you shower him with. Positivity is the worst when you are in the depths of despondency. Try instead just drinking the Kool-Aid. Listen to his doubts and self-deprecation, no matter how much of an absolute downer it is. By acknowledging your artist’s opinion of himself but not trying to change his mind, you are being the sounding board he needs. Eventually, he will drown himself in Negativity Kool-Aid until he loathes himself and his work so much that it forces him to light a fire under his you-know-what, which will lead him to get his hot mess self together rise to the occasion. Or his newfound efforts could always result in total failure. Rinse, repeat, Negativity Kool-Aid.
3. On Being Recruited
The artist in your life wants you to be part of his play, musical, photo shoot, performance art, etc. You panic. You want to tell him, “When hell freezes over,” but you don’t want to disappoint your friend/acquaintance/significant other. There are many excuses you will try: Too busy, I have a thing that night, I’m not any good at whatever it is, not this time, but another time…[crying inwardly]. These are all terrible excuses because you will inevitably be faced with another invitation [and another] until you run out of excuses. Agony.
I have the perfect solution for you. I once tried to get my boyfriend [non-artsy type] into theater by asking him to do deck crew for a show I was in. Worst. Idea. Ever. It turned out to be super weird having him, an outsider, in my world. My world being a craft I’ve been working on my whole life, something precious to me, that I take very seriously and is a huge part of who I am. Then he comes along and plops himself right in the middle of it, without any appreciation or understanding for the art. He was only there because I asked him to be and he just didn’t mesh. Plus, something I failed to realize: HE WOULDN’T BE IN THE AUDIENCE TO WATCH ME PERFORM. He only got a crappy sort-of view from the wings, and half the time he was too busy deck-crewing to really watch me. Never again.
So! Here’s what you have to do. Say yes – just once. But be a total failure in the most obvious way [but make it appear as if you’re really giving it an effort]. Be so underwhelmingly inadequate, that they never solicit your help again. Problem solved for years to come, without having to come up with a brand new excuse every time. You’re welcome.
Even if you do end up discovering a hidden talent or a knack for this artsy stuff, they might just realize on their own, as I did, that their hobby/profession is theirs. It can be just as enjoyable on one’s own as much as it is shared with friends and loved ones from the outside world.
4. Commenting On Their Work
The dreaded moment when they will seek a comment from you about their work and you have no idea what to say. There’s a rumor in theater that when you invite friends to a performance and their first [or only] comment to you is about liking the costumes, the lights, basically everything BUT you; that’s how you know it might be time to find a new talent [or new friends, whatever]. Obviously if you love the work, it’s easy to come up with an honest, heartfelt response. When it’s something that makes you go cross-eyed, this is where a little savvy goes a long way. Avoid words like interesting, nice and cool. You might as well just say terrible, confusing, would prefer to gauge my eyes with pencils. If you have some time to think of a response (for example, after watching a performance), use the entire performance to come up with what you will say. Practice it with others in your party. Actors will know if you’re lying. Don’t smile too much during your delivery or be over-the-top enthusiastic, and don’t forget to blink every once in a while. You’ll be fine.
It’s the response that comes immediately after an unveiling or without any time to prepare. That’s where you’re in trouble. You want to sound genuine and eloquent with your response. Too many exclamations or expletives [ Wow! Dang! OMG!] and you sound like you have no idea what the work is about. You want to say something that shows that you get it.
First: Comment on the difficulty of the creation of the thing. This shows that you have an understanding of what goes into making the art [even if you don’t]. Be impressed by the execution, the craftsmanship, or the rendering. Store these words in your arsenal.
Next: Comment on the impact the piece has on you. This is subjective; therefore, no matter what is said, you can’t get it wrong. This makes me feel invigorated/captivated/motivated.
This gives me a feeling of power. It feels ominous. I feel intrigued. I feel dizzy. I feel like a kid again. Seriously, just say I feel and whatever you can think of. It can’t be wrong!
Finally: By this point, you’ll have bought yourself enough time to come up with something somewhat intelligent and pertinent to the work [and a little bit of what you know the artist wants to hear]. If you make it this far, you’re golden.
5. The Need for Constant, Relentless Attention & The Need for Total, Utter Solitude
Artist folk cannot all be placed in a box, of course. We are all different human beings with different personalities and different needs. But the artist in your life undoubtedly fits into one of two categories:
● Needs constant, relentless, unwavering attention from anyone and/or everyone
● Needs to be left in total, utter solitude [or else reap the consequences]
Befriending those of the first type can take a LOT of energy. Don’t blink – you have to keep up with their pace. One misconception about this type is that they are “talkers,” instead of “listeners.” Truth is, they depend on the expressions, reactions, and dialogue provided by others. Don’t just sit-back-and-let-them-go. The essence of communication is feedback from you. This artist enjoys the company of all kinds – from close friends to perfect strangers. If they choose to enjoy your company out of their thousands of friends and acquaintances, this shows how much they value your friendship. Something you must do with this type is respect your energy limits. You love your friend, but at a certain point you start to run out of gas for marathon hangouts, lengthy and exuberant conversations, showboating, or otherwise hanging on for dear life while your friend savors the great ecstasy of having an audience. Be clear with your friend that you need some alone/recharge time. They might not understand [alone time? What is this nonsense?] but they will respect your request if they value their friendship with you. And they do!
Those of the second type are much like house cats. They may enjoy being in the vicinity of other people on occasion, but would rather not have to interact with them. The method here is to wait until they approach you or initiate conversation before approaching them. If you really wish to talk to them, do so gradually. If you blitz them with conversation while they were peacefully alone with their thoughts, they will resent you, and everything you say afterwards will be seen as a major annoyance. First, earn their trust. Show them that you can be in their presence in silence without the need for conversation. This will feel creepy and awkward, but trust me here. If it helps, make it seem as if you came there to do something else and then do it [“I’ve been meaning to dust these cobwebs over here…”]. Meanwhile, this lets them acclimate to your presence. If you sense from their body language that they are open to conversation, proceed cautiously. They may even decide to speak to you first!
There you have it, folks! We will always need a little extra help with those of the eccentric variety, but you’re now that much better equipped to handle those tricky scenarios when they come around. You need not fear the art gallery, the ballet, the theater, Slam Poetry night at that dimly lit coffee shop.
Go forth and socialize.