I’ve been thinking about how we respond to art. It started the other day when I found myself wanting to say “It’s beautiful,” about a drawing I was shown. It was beautiful, in my opinion. That’s the thing.  If it’s my opinion, how useful is it for me to say it is beautiful, the way I would say something like “This pencil is broken”? It occurred to me that it may not be all that helpful to use language that suggests factuality when we talk about art (or anything else, come to think of it).

It’s like saying a book is good. When we do that, among adults, it’s sort of understood that we mean “I think this book is good.” It’s easier to assign something an is than to deal with the messiness of opinion and variation of taste. And often we don’t include the “I think” when we say things about kids’ art and other creations because we want to offer affirmation with as much certainty as we can.

This is very nice and supportive of us, but it’s also a bit misleading. One of us might think the art is great, but the next person who sees it might not. Who’s right?  If an artist takes factually-offered commentaries to heart without recognizing that they may not be factual, then that artist may well get unnecessarily discouraged. When we go around saying that things are various ways, as opposed to saying that they are in each of our opinions, we set each other up to have to scramble around deciding who’s right and who’s wrong, instead of learning how to receive a range of opinion.

If you’re committed to facilitating in a developing artist the complicated quest to make peace with the role of opinion in art, you might practice being specific with the way you respond to work. Consider what can change when you say what you mean, when you say what’s as true as possible for you. You don’t have to be negative; in fact, shifting from statements like “This is great! You are so good at this!” to feedback that gives specific details about your experience may in fact relieve you of the need to alter the truth to spare someone’s feelings.

With the drawing I saw the other day I might have said something like “I’m amazed by this. I can see how much work and attention to detail went into it. It makes me wish I had the patience to attend to detail this way. I can also see that you’ve been working on the shading since the last time I saw any of your work. This is one of my favorites of the ones I’ve seen so far.”

It’s not that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be moved by what we experience.  We can be free to express our experience in the words that come to us just then while still expanding and refining what we offer in those moments when we’re asked how something is for us.