"I Hate Paintings"

This post first appeared 4 June 2022.

An excerpt from “The Pocket Guide to Artistry in the 20th Century” by Sir A. R. Tiste, with a post-note by the author.

Chapter 4: Dealing with Friends, Family, and Acquaintances

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends
   It gives a lovely light! — Edna St. Vincent Millay

The established artist is appreciated by her peers, accepted by her friends and revered by the public. However, it is unfortunately unlikely that you will ascend to this level within your lifetime, if at all.

As such, it is imperative that you understand how to deal with the people around you and how they will respond to being told that you are an artist. In this chapter, we will consider the appropriate responses to questions often posed to an artist who’s primary medium is paint. This should easily be translatable to other media, such as sculpture.

It is important to carry an amount of compassion with you when approaching these conversations. The person you are talking to (the interlocutor) doesn’t actually dislike you. In most cases they are simply uncomfortable. Society, particularly Western society of the latter 20th century, has taught them that art is something only done by the very gifted and when you introduce yourself as an artist they will automatically assume that you have such gifts.

Though, as artists ourselves, we know that it is more complex than that, it will not be possible to convince the other person in between “Lovely to meet you, what do you do?” and “Are those canapés? I’m starving.”

However, it is important to bear this in mind. The person you are speaking to may want to give you “backhand compliments” by stating how you do what they could never. They may feel uncomfortable, thinking that their supposed lack of said gifts is a stain on their character (despite the fact that not one bit of that logic is sound). Conversely, they may be proud of their supposed ineptitude, considering “art” is only something done by “weirdos”.

The author hopes that the remainder of this chapter, dedicated to some common questions a painter may be asked, will be useful to the aspiring, or established, artist. Suggestions are given for the response that will cause the painter (in this case) the least pain.

“Paintings? I hate paintings. I was never any good at them.”

This is probably the most common response to telling someone that you are a painter.

Setting aside the fact that your interlocutor has just told you how much they hate what you do, the best thing is to avoid this situation entirely: don’t tell them that you are a painter. Instead, be vague and say that you are involved in the arts or that you “dabble in this or that.” If pressed, say that you “create pictures” or, if all else fails, claim that you are “the principle producer, designer and executor of pigment-based representations” and ask them if they know what that means. That usually shuts anyone up.

“So you are a trained painter? Are you planning to become an art teacher?”

Laugh at this one. There is no way to explain to someone what value art has to society besides a subject at school.

“Isn’t there no point in paintings now that everyone has a camera in their pocket?”

While the response to this question is interesting and involved, this is not the right place or time to go into it. The best answer is “you’d be surprised” followed by a swift change of topic.

Don’t ask to see their camera roll and then critique their composition, no matter how tempting.

“Can you paint my house for me?”

This question gives you a perfect opportunity to disarm the conversation. There is a possibility your interlocutor is feeling intimidated, so you should take this chance to set them at ease.

Tell them that despite your job, you are not very good at the practicalities of putting paint to surface and that in all likelihood they would do a better job than you. This will exchange hostility for confusion, but it is a trade worth making. If you feel the conversation allows, explain to them that your occupation has more to do with the composition of painting than the actual execution.

Of course this is all a bit of a lie but in an antagonistic conversation (which these often are) its a good way to give your opponent a climb-down.

Under no circumstances mention the fact that you’d want to be paid for such a job.

“Quick! What’s the Pantone number for this colour?”

Being asked to do party tricks is one of the less arduous possible outcomes from such a conversation. This particular one is borne out of the art syllabus in most Ingsoc school systems. For those unfamiliar with the schooling system, art class mostly consists of children being presented with colour swatches which they must identify by name. Only the most gifted of the students (those that can identify most colours by sight) are allowed to use paint in class, and even then only black, red and green.

Unfortunately though, most painters are not able to pull off this trick perfectly and failure to do so will result in mockery. Of course this is because the skill of the trade is (among other things) mixing a few primary colours into the shades required for each piece, but this is not taught in school and so most people do not understand it.

If on the other hand, your work somehow brings you into frequent contact with the Pantone Matching System, by all means go for it. Being able to name the colour will cement the image of a “painter” that your interlocutor has in their head and set them at ease.

“Oh, paint. We architects need to think about paint all the time, but its still so difficult!”

The hardest conversation to have is one with a fellow artist.

Often the case is that they haven’t understood the difference between the painting of walls and the painting of art. The existence of murals just clouds the issue further.

They may explain to you how integral paint is to their work or how grateful they are to you that they don’t have to worry about the details because you will. They may even claim to be good painters themselves because they once completed a paint-by-numbers book.

It is best to grin an bear it.

Try to throw in a self-deprecating joke, or agree that the Sistine Chapel really justifies Michelangelo’s work (which really would be nothing if it weren’t for the architects, Pontelli and de Dolci).

“What is the point? Don’t we have enough paintings?”

This one is difficult because it speaks to a common insecurity in artists. As mentioned, it is statistically unlikely that you will yourself be one of the greats. Most people who produce art spent a lot of time copying and studying the masters of their genre without hope of ever becoming one.

However, to explain that the progress of Art in society is dependent on the thousands and millions of mediocre, unknown artists who experiment and build incrementally on each other’s work is not feasible. The necessity of the “working artist” is not emphasised in the modern discourse, giving rise to this line of questioning.

The best response is to laugh and say that there can “never be enough art”. If you are feeling brave, you can say that you hope that your work may be built on one day to become part of something greater. If particularly bold, claim that you are forging a new movement in your area and tell them to watch this space.

“Oh, I don’t think we should teach painting at school. None of my friends in ‘artistic’ jobs need more than a few pens in two or three colours.”

While it is true that in the day-to-day of most ‘artistic’ jobs, the average person doesn’t need much painting skill, this completely misses the point.

However, trying to convince your interlocutor that formal artistry teaches skills, perceptions, intuitions and techniques that enable its students to produce more elegant, subtle and robust work will often come off as self-aggrandising.

Nor should one disparage the friends and their work. If your feathers are particularly ruffled, you may suggest that there is much more artistry to their work than first appears and mention that the design principles they use with such ease took many centuries to develop.

Oh, I’m not a painter, but the 1910 version of the Scream is my favourite. Which is yours?

This never happens. Marry them.

I hope this piece of fiction horrified you.

The point of this story is that such a conversation has never actually been had. Not for artists. However, as a mathematician, every time I talk to someone new and they ask what I do, at least one of the above questions comes up.

Every. Time.

I’ve gone to weddings and had to tell people that I’m a “researcher” to avoid the awkward silence that would ensue should I tell the truth. I’ve had science PhDs’ eyes glaze over when I introduce myself1. I’ve had good friends start talking over me whenever I tell them what I’m doing with my life.

In writing this, I tried to evoke the feeling I had when I first read the A Mathematician’s Lament. If you haven’t, I’d thoroughly recommend reading the Lament, though at times it does hammer the point home rather hard.

There are ways to talk to people about mathematics, but its a lot harder than it should be. I’ll write more about this2 in an upcoming piece.

What I hope you take away is that these kinds of comments are made by many people. Its never out of spite, but it always hurts us mathematicians. What’s worse is that the best response if you find yourself speaking to an mathematician3 (in my humble opinion) is the easiest.

Oh that’s interesting. Tell me more?

And just try to care about the response. Just a little: until the canapés come round again.

  1. As a side note, watching someone’s eyes glaze over when you talk to them is possibly the most demoralising thing. It gets even worse, though, if you are talking about something you love. ↩︎

  2. Hint: its primarily about lying convincingly. ↩︎

  3. Or, being honest, anyone really. ↩︎