Hidden in the context of any relationship is the exercise of power. The politics of relationships includes power given and power taken, the power over one another in various ways and shapes and forms. Consider what power a wife has over a husband (or vice versa), the power of a parent over a child (or vice versa), the power of a boss over an employee (or vice versa). Even peer relationships include this very nuanced dance of exerting power over one another. And this can sometimes be even more complicated for the artist. Artists are wrapped in various dichotomies: we are publicly self-promoting yet privately self-deprecating, we prefer to work alone but we perform in the context of community, we both fear and require criticism. So the politics of our relationships with others can be complicated.
As a leader of artists, I am learning more and more that one of the most influential—and engaging—acts of power I can exercise on others is the compliment. Compliments uplift, revitalize, empower, and call people to action. In other words, if you really want to motivate and inspire artists, if you want to bring artists together to do great things, it is not through brow-beating or shaming or manipulating, but through speaking into artists the truth of who they are, what they do, and who they can be. So I thought it would be good to share a few things about how to compliment artists well. I do believe that there are ways in which we can be more effective in speaking a life-giving word to artists. Here are five.
I have people come to me all the time and tell me I’m great. And honestly, most of that bounces off me pretty easily. But when someone is specific in their compliment, it tells me that they were attentive and that what I did mattered. For example, I can tell a painter that her painting is “pretty.” But it is more compelling to talk about her use of color and light, and how my eye was drawn to the central figure, and how it made my heart feel hope. I can tell a bass player that he “sounded good.” But it is more stirring to mention how he gave the chorus of a particular song a musical lift by sliding into an eighth note pattern that grooved in my soul. I can tell the writer that his short story was “really nice.” But he will aspire to greater works if I tell him how much I related to the internal dialogue that stirred in his characters. Artists really respond to compliments that have specificity, particularly if the compliment is in an area that he or she has been working hard at.
Artists who are in touch with themselves—as are most artists of faith I know—are generally turned off by excessive flattery, especially when it isn’t grounded in reality. When someone tells me that I’m “amazing” or “awesome,” I’m quick to discount that person’s hyperbole. Indeed, when someone tells me I did a “great job” when I clearly didn’t, it only serves to remind myself of all the things I could have done better. Realistic compliments are grounded in the truth. Encourage the dancer by complimenting him on his floor technique. Encourage the actor by recognizing how she used her own personal story to give her character depth. Encourage artists by grounding your compliments in the reality of their actual performance, and how it actually moved you.
When complimenting an artist, be mindful of the journey that they are on. I’m not the musician I was, nor am I the musician I will be. We are all evolving, and the work we express now is only a snapshot of that artistic journey. Compliments that are future-focused give artists a place to ground themselves and move forward. For example, telling a drummer that his tempo has greatly improved, and that the practice time he’s put in is really making a difference, gives him real feedback that motivates him and fuels future practice. Telling a videographer that her latest production is the best piece she’s produced might sound like exaggeration, unless it had been preceded by a dozen other previous conversations regarding lighting, editing, and overall production value. Finally, future-focused compliments can be aspirational. I will often remind an artist that their best work is still in front of them. I will say things like, “I can’t wait to see what you’re going to be creating a year from now.”
For some of us, compliments are difficult to give. I know people who—for various reasons—can’t give a compliment without feeling the need to follow it with some sort of well-meaning criticism or comment. “Your painting is really good, but you could have focused more on this or that.” And while the conditional phrase which follows the “but” might have good intentions, you need to understand that it will sap the compliment of all its power. Some artists have a tendency to focus on the negative, and they may not even hear the compliment at all. Constructive criticism is a necessary and needed part of the artistic conversation. BUT…true compliments are not conditional.
Make Your Motivation Love.
I began this article with the concept of power, which might sound odd when this post is about compliments. But I did that because the world sees power as something used to control and oppress. I knew an artist who was so insecure and narcissistic that he was unable to look at any other artwork without verbally pointing out something wrong with it—which sadly, was his way of maintaining some perceived superiority over others. But Jesus saw power in a completely opposing view—power was something He freely and joyfully gave away—to his friends, his disciples, the poor, the tax collectors, the little children. Compliments are one way in which we verbally give away power by encouraging and empowering others. But it’s not a zero sum game. The compliments I give to others don’t take any power from me—they only serve to strengthen my own leadership authority through the relationships in my life, relationships that are built on agape love. Recently I came alongside a friend of mine and I said something to the effect of, “You know we’re friends, but you need to know that I’m also a fan.” What I meant to say by that is that her art affects me in ways completely independent of our relationship, which is significant, but it is in our relationship that her art has true meaning with me. Indeed, my life is enriched by the creativity of hundreds of people who do life with me on a regular basis. It only makes sense to call that out in people, as God would.