The one thing you can almost never tell an artist friend is that you don’t like his art. It’s dicey merely to say that you don’t understand a particular work, much less that it doesn’t speak to you (even if you go out of your way to assure him that the failing is yours). It’s all but impossible to have a friendly relationship, or even a cordial one, if you simply don’t respond to anything he does. In some cases this is a function of the artist’s vanity, but I’m sure that more often it has to do with his deep-seated uncertainties. Many of the artists I know have fragile egos, and though some of them are amazingly successful at hiding this fragility, most are not. As Orson Welles once said to Peter Bogdanovich, “A bad word from a colleague can darken a whole day. We need encouragement a lot more than we admit, even to ourselves.”
What is less well understood is that the problem runs in both directions. I’ve met and liked artists whose work I later discovered I didn’t much care for, and that fact invariably had an adverse effect on the way I felt about them as people. Indeed, I now go well out of my way to avoid being much more than polite to artists whom I meet socially until I have a chance to look at or listen to their work–and most especially if I like them on sight, as is occasionally the case.
I met the Mutant, a friend of mine who sings jazz, under circumstances that forced us to sit together in a shuttered nightclub and chat for an hour or so one afternoon, then return to the same club that evening to hear a performance by a mutual friend. When we parted, she gave me one of her demo CDs. I’d enjoyed talking to her so much that I actually took a cab straight to my apartment and listened to the whole CD before coming back to the club. Oh, God, I hope this is good, I said to myself all the way home. It was, and we immediately became and remained very close friends. Would that have happened if my response to her singing had been lukewarm? I doubt it.
It is, needless to say, surprisingly easy to admire the work of artists you can’t stand personally. In addition, I find it all too easy to steer clear of occasions to review their work, which is why I go out of my way to do the opposite and write favorably about them whenever I can. It’s one of the ways I keep myself honest (though I don’t write profiles of artists I dislike personally–that’s where I draw the line).