Bad Artists Compliment One Another

I can’t remember who said it–“bad artists compliment one another”–but when I first read this quote it worried me. I immediately scoured my brain for past niceties I may have lavished upon fellow artists. I asked myself, “Have I ever complimented someone? Does that mean I’m a ‘bad’ artist? Is this the litmus test to judge myself by?”

I became a bit obsessed with it; almost every day these biting words ran through my head. Even now they come to mind when I start to tell someone that I admire their work.

I did always wonder, though, if what first appeared to need no philosophical interpretation was in reality a metaphor for something much more grand. “Admiration for another’s work surely can’t be a sign of one’s failings”, I thought. “Was this really what the author meant? Should I take it that a “bad” artist will compliment another “bad” artist, that maybe mediocrity can only see to it’s own level of mediocrity, and so it admires like kind.”

Two Trees In Love by Julie Seelig from MOBA

Two Trees In Love by Julie Seelig from MOBA

I think because I was able to gradually lay aside my insecurities that another possibility finally emerged. Slowly, and then suddenly, the opacity of fear gave way to the transparency of humility, and of experience and time, revealing that which had evaded me deep within these slapping words of condemnation.

I was looking at another artist’s work, admiring it and hating it at the same time. What seemed to hold much potential in ability also seemed stuck in a mindset of, what I would call, predictability. “Could a ‘bad’ artist”, I thought, “be one that does not struggle to be authentic?” It doesn’t matter whether the artist is just starting out and riding the learning curve of seeing through other’s eyes, or if he had long settled into a perpetual cycle of same (intentional or not), the results may just be what my author friend meant by “bad” art.

It seems almost an insult to the open mind  to call oneself an artist that placates himself in ignorance and pride, but I believe everyone does it to some degree; it is impossible to avoid completely. Compliments of like minds, shutting themselves off from truth, perpetuate comfortableness. To lay down your shield–your protection against fear of hurt and shame–and go boldly, seeking truth, this is what an artist must do.

So, “bad artists compliment one another”, could be rewritten to say, “fearful artists perpetuate themselves”. There are those ever-learning by fire, and there are those who’s potential sleeps. They isolate themselves from the truth by not facing it. They sooth themselves with lies. They hear what they want to hear and, possibly, they say what they want to hear.

“an artist can see farther standing on the shoulders of his own efforts”

Finding my personal and unique voice through creative means requires that I strive to rise above my current ability to do so, to see more clearly, each day. It is said that “a dwarf, standing on the shoulders of a giant, can see farther than the giant”, and I think it would hold also that an artist can see farther standing on the shoulders of his own efforts. But there must also be the humble realization that he can only see as far as those current efforts will allow; he has not “arrived”, as it were, nor will he ever.

I guess it could be said that there is no good or bad art, but only those in a process of growing. But there is an objective reality to the artist’s progress that can be judged truthfully, that he must judge truthfully in order to grow beyond his current station.

I have to wonder how much I, personally, placate myself with the knowledge of what is acceptable and good in other’s eyes. How much do I dare to be myself? How much am I stuck in a cycle of mediocrity, where mediocrity is defined as the lack of authenticity? How much do I believe what my eyes have seen instead of what my heart tells me? It is dangerous to our growth as an artist to underestimate the power of peer pressure, even as adults, and the strength of self esteem.

I would love to hear what this quote means to you, and who it may be attributed to?

Image Credit: Museum of Bad Art

MT McClanahan

An artist and perpetual thinker, MT McClanahan finds inspiration through connecting ideas across a broad range of topics. He especially enjoys philosophy and how art and life interconnect. He is the founder of TPT and his paintings can be seen at

9 Responses

  1. roopadudley says:

    I cannot see myself complimenting any artist if I don’t like their work. However, when I do see an artwork that is done creatively and perhaps with a message in it, I feel compelled to compliment the creator of that work. I see a greatness in them as an artist and I want them to know it.

    As for your question “Could a bad artist be one that does not struggle to be authentic?” I would say a firm YES to that. Authenticity is the core of good art. Same goes with people we associate with. If someone is authentic even if s/he is somewhat socially awkward, I would naturally be drawn to them than a charming socially savvy individual.

    I have also noticed that I am gravitating more and more towards the living artists then the dead. For example the art of David Galchutt appeals to me aesthetically, creatively as well as intellectually, art of Jeff Faust appeals to me aesthetically and conceptually, and art of Glenn Seemel appeals to me aesthetically and technically. Of course there is a common thread that the art I am drawn to is usually highly creative (not same old boring en plein air, portraits and still life) and visually stimulating coincidentally done mainly by American Artists.

    I believe it is perfectly normal to compliment someone whose art you enjoy although may be different than your own. It has that magic in it that just cannot be ignored. I would be doing a huge disservice to myself as an artist as well as the artist whose work I admire if I refrain myself from complimenting artwork that I genuinely find awesome. I don’t think complimenting other artists whose work I find noteworthy makes me a bad artist. I know what I am and where I stand as a creative artist and nobody can convince me otherwise. I choose to live in a world of ideas because ideas have no limits — just about anything is possible.

    • Yes I go along with that Roopa. I think about the contrast between the main characters in the movie “Girl With The Dragon Tatoo”. The young girl had tattoo’s and piercings and was a free spirit, doing *her* thing. The older man was straight laced and more a conformist. The girl I found much more interesting (though I’d probably let the man do my taxes before her).

  2. Yikes…who made that statement in the first place?!!…someone with a lack of wisdom, talent and good taste? Who gets to decide what is bad art, or good art, anyway? It all changes…and who are we to say what was authentic to another persons heart. I would never give that comment credibility…neither should you.

    • That’s the rub, I think Sunny–each individual *is* authentic in their own way. But, when I say “authentic”, I mean the artist is using their own voice, not lip sinking to another’s song. An artist resting on their laurels instead of searching for an individual voice can lack authenticity, because it relies on seeing through other’s eyes and on technical prowess.

  3. Dawn Fetty says:

    If you are a serious artist…you want serious feedback from other serious artists…and if you are strong in your own path…you will understand where it comes from…I respect honesty….and understand their honesty comes from their perspective…but it also may make me see something I haven’t seen before….

    • I agree with you Dawn that any critique of one’s work can be revealing. I would think that most would want feedback from someone whose work they admire–from someone they think is better than themselves, or with at least as good an eye. I agree too that part of accepting criticism *is* understanding from whence it came; then you know whether to take it seriously, or not so much. If my 4 year old Grandson told me my painting was beautiful, I would know how to calculate that response to my work–as valid or not.

      I think your whole point is to keep the criticism in perspective. Don’t take it personal. But I tell you to this day it still bites a little, but only for a moment once I get my legs back under me, then I find it quite useful.

      This too makes me think that the quote’s author must have meant something other than we shouldn’t critique each other’s work. That seems quite ridiculous. But there is a difference between critique and compliment. Aha! Maybe that is it, “good” artist’s give useful feedback, not warm fuzzies. You may have hit on the gist of it Dawn!

      • roopadudley says:

        I welcome both Marcus — a cold critique as well as a warm compliment. I like to hear especially what children have to say about my work as I respect their opinions because it comes straight from their heart not from an intellectual or technical perspective like that of an adult (which is also good to me depending upon who that adult is).

        I like your analogy about that movie ‘A Girl with a Dragon Tattoo’. It is amazing how much we can learn and grow as artists if we stop taking things so gosh darn personally and rather see it through the eyes of the person looking at our work.

        • Interesting that you would say that–“if we stop taking things so gosh darn personally”; I’ve thought about that too. It really does make us blind, doing that, or worse it makes us see what isn’t there.

          It’s human nature, or just learned good manners, not to criticize someone’s efforts. We artist’s I think yearn for feedback, honest feedback, and that’s where the authenticity comes in.

          Just thought, maybe the author meant that “bad” artists go well together, like complimentary colors. Probably not.

  4. Maybe the ‘Bad artists compliment one another’ indicate that they were/are at least together in the struggle for what they are each aiming for, if only in the fact that they are physically together to have the conversation. Simplistic of me but remembering where I was at the start of my journey and now being with people who are at the start of theirs I feel compelled to encourage them. Not just to find something in their work to focus on to encourage them to experiment or with the medium but bear in mind the results and extreme variations of other artists work that have become revered whether I like it or not. And revered not necessarily for artistic reasons as some movements to me have gone way off the scale of what I am looking to achieve with the visual aspect. All personally subjective of course, so keep experimenting until you find your voice. That voice may eventually not be visual but can it not be put under a more appropriate label. Not a fan of mind games. It’s hard enough trying to stay simple.

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