Question of the Week #7: What Do You Say to Someone Who Doesn’t Understand Your Art?

Welcome to the Art, Life & Faith Question of the Week #7: What do you say to someone who doesn’t understand your art? Let’s face it: Artists are probably the most misunderstood tribe on the planet. I have talked with so many artists who struggled with frustration, hurt, and resentment from being misunderstood. Whether as a young child, a teenager, or adult, some (not all) artists have had their dreams squashed from friends and family who do not understand what makes them tick. Read on…



Much of my creative coaching work has to do with helping artists discover their true voice. Our word ‘vocation’ stems from the Latin word ‘voce.’

For you as an artist to live and work from a true sense of knowing your own voice, you must know how and when to respond to those who don’t understand your work. Or why you do what you do.

I know this is a dangerous question because it can easily bleed into that lame stereotype of artists being a whiny, temperamental bunch. At the same time, I work with many artists who really do need deep healing from the Lord from the wounds received from others.

If we are going to help others appreciate the power, beauty and purpose of art, we need to offer a thoughtful response. (Click here if you’d like to Tweet This.)

Yes, there will be the stares. The silence. The religious, pious-sounding euphemisms. And the snarky comments.

But if we’re winsome and gracious like we have nothing to lose because our faith is in God and we trust His calling on our lives, we just might be able to create better bridges of understanding.

I’d love your comments and feedback. Share in the Comments.

In case you missed…

Question of the Week #6: How do you handle interruptions, distraction or lack of focus?

Question of the Week #5: What has been your most challenging work as an artist?

Question of the Week #4: What would you say to an artist struggling with a project?

Question of the Week #3: As an artist, what does a good day look like?

Question of the Week #2: How do you define success?

Question of the Week #1: What is the worst thing someone has said to you about WHY you SHOULDN’T pursue your art?


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  • techne

    first, i determine to exercise patience. second, i ask questions. i try to determine where the disconnect is. the fact is that people are constantly reading images, and making judgements (or not) – the problem is that they often don’t consciously engage with those images. so the issue is one of education. And, therefore, one of asking the right questions of your guest. (as a former education curator at a public art gallery and a public interpretation coordinator at a living history museum i can assure you that people always know more than they think but they need to be helped in unlocking their thoughts and responses, not told what they are supposed to feel). of course, most of the time you’re not there to explain the work so you need to do your job and take responsibility for how it does or does not communicate (and to whom).

    on the other hand, i find that a frighteningly high proportion of artists don’t actually know how to clearly and specifically speak about their work and communicate their chosen project to the viewer (and don’t get me started on artist statements – oi!). the image (eikon) needs the word (logos). the issue is one of learning the language. how will they learn if they cannot hear i.e. understand? and maybe – just maybe – if people aren’t ‘getting your work’, the issue is the work and not the people.

    lastly, i think it’s important to understand who you are, and what your work is about. you need to know your audience and understand why you make the choices you make in your work. i have a friend who does quite well selling these bright, colourful, brushy flower-scapes. she has been doing the same painting – more or less – for some 10 years. she has found something that appeals to her and to a wide audience. and that’s great. on the other hand, my own work is more demanding and is based in installation. i exhibit somewhat regularly but my work appeals to a different demographic and audience. it is more demanding of the viewer and hence it is less accessible. and i’m okay with that, since i know where i am sent.

    i guess that we can both be used by God to speak to people through our art, differently.

    • Joey O’Connor

      This is such a thoughtful response that offers help to both artists and those who may not understand a piece of art or artist’s intentions. You address many relevant points about how to frame the conversation between an artist and “non-artist.” Though someone may not practice art making, since we are all made in God’s image, I believe we are all inherently creative. Thank you for opening this dialogue with so many pertinent points others can respond to.

      • techne

        thanks joey. i, too, am a firm believer in us as “imago dei”, or image-bearers (the schaeffers had much to say on this). i would like to suggest, however, that there is a difference between our general/ inherent creativity and the calling of the artist. the calling of the artist – from bezale’el and aholiab on – has always carried with it a responsibility to educate and equip. sadly, many artists, both followers and pagans, fail to live up to that responsibility.

        • Joey O’Connor

          Yes, if “everyone is an artist,” then no one is an artist. I agree, not everyone has received artistic gifts nor the calling to be an artist. “If everyone was an eye…” We all have unique gifts within the body of Christ. The challenge is to use those gifts as creatively as possible. Thanks for another thoughtful response techne.

  • techne

    nice little article on the vocation of the artist by daniel siedell:

    • Joey O’Connor

      Awesome…checking it out now. Thanks for sharing!

    • Joey O’Connor

      Just read Siedell’s article…wonderful reflection and analysis on the artist and vocation. Thanks for sharing it!