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Thursday, April 17, 2014 12:01 am

Watching paint die

 I’ve been dating a girl I really like for six weeks. She pays her rent with a 9-to-5 job but studied painting at art school and wants to make it her career. Unfortunately, I don’t like her paintings at all. They are abstract and don’t look like they take much craft, and they just don’t aesthetically appeal to me. (Maybe I’m missing something … who knows.) I haven’t told her my real feelings. But as we get more serious and as she talks about her aspirations, I’m finding it more and more uncomfortable to keep playing along. I worry that we won’t have a future because of this. –Philistine

There are questions you long to ask her about her work, such as, “What did you do in art school, spend four years playing Angry Birds on your phone?”

Abstract art is an easy target for ridicule. The thing is, somebody who went to art school most likely had to learn formal principles and show they could draw figuratively before they could venture into abstraction. But to the untrained eye, an abstract work can look like somebody made a big mess with some paint and then stuck a mythical title on it – “Androcles And The Lion, No. 4.” You can’t help but wonder, “Sorry, but is that the lion’s paw on the left, or did somebody at the gallery opening trip and let their appetizer go flying?”

Because your girlfriend’s artwork is more than a weekend hobby, your disliking it probably is a big deal. A painting is basically a striptease of the artist’s self on a piece of canvas, reflecting who they are, what they see and feel, and what they want to say. Also, it’s hard enough to try to earn a living as an artist without sharing a bed with one of your detractors. (Imagine Edvard Munch’s girlfriend seeing “The Scream” and nagging him, “Come on, Eddie, ‘The Smile’ would be so much nicer.”) And even if you can hide your true feelings for a while, there’s a good chance they’ll poke their little heads out during an argument, a la “Wanna vastly improve your work? Incorporate gasoline and a lit match.”

For a relationship to work, it isn’t enough to have the hotsies for somebody. You need to have a crush on them as a human being. Fortunately, you may be able to get to this, even if her paintings don’t speak to you (save for saying “I’m ugly”). Admit that you don’t know much about art, and ask her to tell you about her work: the thinking behind it, her painting process (color, form, why she includes certain elements), and what she’s trying to say or evoke. You might find that you respect where she’s coming from and believe in her on that level, which could mean that the two of you can make a go of it. If so, keep in mind all the ways she’s just like any other girlfriend, and be prepared to fake a seizure when she asks the artist’s version of that classic lose-lose question: “Do I look untalented while painting in this dress that makes me look fat?”

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