Jul 09, 2024, 06:27AM

The Problem Of Friends Showing Me Their Art

I’m not good at faking enthusiasm.

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The other day, my friend who now lives in Mexico, sent me a homemade audio file, which wasn’t good news because I've learned what to expect. It started out, in very low-fi sound quality, with his spoken word over two piano chords. It was in Spanish, which I don't speak, but that doesn't mean I couldn't appreciate the musical aspect of it, if only there were one.  The song segued into his singing along with those same two chords repeated monotonously, the muddled vocals lacking any melody or tunefulness. He also sends videos of his piano lessons. The last one was The Beatles’ “Your Mother Should Know.” It's stuff I could play on piano at age 10, so why?

He called it “My first demo.” I’ve no idea whether it was a serious comment, or a joke, but there's no way this could be construed as an actual demo. My friend isn’t a musician. I know that people who send out their work are fishing for compliments, but I can't do this over and over. There's not one nice thing I can think of saying. So I ask, “Demo for what?” His reply: “I want to be a Hall of Famer.” Whatever that means.

My friend in Mexico has a knowledge and appreciation of quality music from a listening point of view, and he knows my tastes in music are similar to his, so why send me something I’d walk out of even if it was open mic night? Anyway, I let the conversation drop there. I don't want to encourage any more of this. It's too uncomfortable for me.

Over the years, I've been friends with a variety of artists in various fields, some of whom have wanted to share their work with me. I haven’t liked much of it, which puts me in a bad position. For example, a guy I once worked with used to talk all the time about the novel he was writing. Shortly after we met, he showed me a nude photo of his supposed girlfriend. I had my doubts about the guy to begin with. I also have doubts about people talking too much about novels they're writing. Anyway, he gave me a couple of chapters of the “novel.” It was as if someone had written a parody of what a teenager would write after reading a dozen or so novels and deciding he'd take a shot at it too. It was just thinly-disguised, self-aggrandizing autobiography, with a number of passages about his female conquests; a vanity project that he talked about to make himself look interesting. I skimmed it and told him something like, “Yeah, pretty good,” sounding half-hearted. I didn't care if he noticed the insincerity.

When I lived in New York City, a number of painter friends invited me to their shows at galleries around town. I always attended with trepidation, especially if I’d never seen any of their art. I remember some that were absolute disasters. I'm no art expert, but have spent many hours in New York's top art museums, which has given me a decent eye for what's good and what isn't. However, ask me to explain why I think something's good, and I'm usually tongue-tied. I'm also tongue-tied when I'm at a friend's art show—a big night in their career—and my eye tells me what I'm looking at is garbage. I'm supposed to sidle up to my buddy, glass of wine in hand, and schmooze him about his fine brush strokes or innovative juxtaposition of colors. But no words will come, so on a number of occasions I just slipped out the front door.

I always felt like a weasel in these situations, so I consulted an artist friend and asked him how I could handle them better, given that I'm not good at expressing fake enthusiasm. He told me to be direct and honest. Tell them exactly what you don't like about their work. I asked if that would go over well with an artist and he assured me it would. I wasn't so sure, and anyway that's not my style. Someone who has a show at a New York gallery has too much invested in it for me to risk hurting their feelings with frank comments. I didn't become friends with these people because I liked their art. I liked them, and found out about their art afterwards.

Ironically, the next opening I went to displayed the work of the artist who gave me that advice. I hated his paintings. This was a chance to test this guy and see if his own advice applied to him, but I didn't do it. There wasn't anything I could think of saying that would help him, so why risk it? I came up with some generic praise for the one painting that wasn't horrendous. Just because people told me to be brutal with others doesn't mean they want that for themselves.

One time I couldn't help being brutal. I knew a woman in New York City who told me she did various singing gigs around town. So one day we decided to get together. I’d accompany her singing on my guitar. She came to my place and we agreed on a song. I started playing and she was singing, but the singing was an assault on my ears. I couldn't believe I was hearing it, because she was supposed to be a pro. Perhaps it was a matter of her singing style being unsuited to the song we chose, or her not understanding the song and how it should be sung. I don't know, but it was so unsettling that I just put the guitar down after about 20 seconds. It was extremely awkward; rude on my part, I’d say, but I couldn't continue. I made up some excuse, like, “Why don't we have a drink before we do this?” But I didn't pick up my guitar again.

I have another difficult situation involving music, but it's in an adjacent category to the above ones. Occasionally I have get-togethers at my place, and a buddy of mine who does solo guitar/singing gigs around town always shows up with his guitar and sings for much longer than I’d like. I'm probably a nit-picker, but I find it annoying that he's played guitar for so many years but all he does is strum it along to his singing. I mean, throw some flourishes in there; some finger picking, anything. Sometimes it's late at night and I ask him if he can sing more softly because of the neighbors—we're on my patio—and he says he can only sing with his full-throated, loud voice. I also find this annoying. But what am I going to say the next time I have people over? Don't bring your guitar? Three-song limit? I can't do it.

Returning to my friend in Mexico, I recently played one of his many audio files he's sent to a group of friends. They were aghast, laughing. “What the fuck am I listening to,” asked one. When I gave them some context, another one said, “So he thinks he's making music?” He does. That was one of his humming performances of what he believes are original melodies. He hums, like Michael Jackson did when he composed songs, because he can't play an instrument like piano or guitar. But he's no Michael Jackson.

Writing this story has motivated me to research how to handle the uncomfortable situations described above. I found a helpful piece of advice that suits me. When you don't like a friend's art, instead of faking praise, which they'll find patronizing, ask them questions about their process; e.g. How did you choose the subject matter? Or say something like, “Makes a real impression.” In the cases where I'm at an art opening in the future, my friend hasn't invited me there to critique their art.

There's one thing I'd change if I could do it again. I’d tell the guy who gave me his novel what a jejune, narcissistic piece of crap it was. That's what someone who talks up their half-assed work ad nauseum deserves. Anyone who suddenly decides to write a novel for the first time is better off not telling other people about it. Just write it.


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