I published a poem in a youth-run magazine and sent the link to my partner on Snapchat. He responded with “AMAZING.” I thought about the reply for the rest of the day. What is this feeling?
As artists of all disciplines create collectives and zines in the digital media space, sharing one’s art is easier than ever. Having the ability to post work on social media allows us to share with our communities what we’ve been crouched over our desks working on. This accessibility means there’s really no way a partner can not know what you’re working on; it’s right there on Instagram or a shareable link away.
When I share my art with my partner, his support makes me feel both validated and appreciated for what I do. Being an artist online means that my work is pretty much available for consumption from anyone, anywhere, at any time. It feels good to know that my romantic partner, someone incredibly close to me, is my most enthusiastic audience member.
But this raises a couple of compelling and sometimes difficult questions as it applies to those who are emotionally closest to us. When we share our work, how do we want our partners to respond? Do we expect them to give us feedback? Do we want them to be endlessly positive? Should our partners be engaging with everything we make? Should they “get” what we’re trying to say with that painting, that poem, that song?
It’s complicated because being an artist blurs the line between emotion and work. An artist is deeply involved in their art, pulling from life experience, topics that inspire them, and deep personal love for the craft. Art is never made mindlessly. Just as the artist is intentional with their creations, the viewer is expected to be intentional.
For musician and songwriter Hanya Elkasaby, creation and personal life are inseparable: “Being an artist is an important part of who I am, and if my partner is not interested in my art, that means that a crucial part of me is not interesting to them.”
Ultimately, it’s natural to want to share artistic extensions of ourselves with those we love. Sharing art can be a means of showing affection and sharing intimate personal stories. For our anniversary this year, I wrote my partner a long-form poem about our first date at LA Pride, missing the train back from Los Angeles, and meeting his mom. Sharing my art with my partner is loving—a way for him to get to know me.
Still, oftentimes, our partners aren’t really passionate about what we’re passionate about, whether due to opposing astrological signs, past experiences, or lifestyle differences. It’s normal to have different interests than your partner. But when it comes to something as emotionally charged as art, navigating that difference is more difficult than sorting out a disagreement on what movie to watch.
Writer Sammie Lee Wilhoit brings a compelling perspective. “With any partner that I have, I make sure to let them know that I am a poet,” Sammie notes. “It’s okay if my partner is not very interested in poetry. What would be toxic for me would be if my partner wanted to control my art. If they didn’t like the style I was writing in or the subject matter or didn’t want something to be published, that would be an issue.”
Wilhoit also tells me that it isn’t crucial that her partner keeps up with everything that she’s writing; what’s more valuable to her is being acknowledged as an artist and as someone who is creating thoughtful work.
Priya Subberwal, a digital media artist and writer, speaks in a similar vein: “For me, I’ve had to learn that being neutral or not entirely immersed in my projects doesn’t mean someone isn’t really invested in me. Because art can be so personal, I can understand when people don’t necessarily want to dive all-in, especially when there’s pressure to react in a certain way from a partner—I also think that allows you to create space as an artist to explore yourself without feeling like your partner is ‘watching.’”
Subberwal, like Wilhoit, believes that complete artistic engagement from her partner isn’t always necessary. Sometimes, adding a partner to the artistic-emotional mix can impact an artist by adding an extra set of eyes, someone that the art is performing for. A partner who is too engaged can feel suffocating. In other cases, an artist can become dependent on their partner for artistic validation or sabotage themself by basing art on their partner’s wants and not their own. Freedom is crucial for genuine self-expression; the presence of your partner shouldn’t change or stifle your creative energy.
Some weeks, I notice a similar sabotage in myself. When my body and mind are tired and heavy from how much I’ve been giving to my writing, I ache to tell my lover everything and hear his sympathy across the thousands of miles of long distance. I know that I’m not asking for this genuinely, but doing it in an act of dependency. In these instances, I’m just using him for pity or a distraction from my exhaustion.
This isn’t to say that seeking relief or encouragement from your significant other is inherently detrimental to your art practice. In fact, having someone excited to hear about what you’ve been working on, what techniques frustrate you, and what questions you’re asking can cultivate a safe and loving space for an intimate relationship. When we’re asking our lovers to engage with our art, read our poems, listen to our music, or sit in the front row of our performances, we are really asking to be loved honestly, fully. We crave love that does not leave out our art but encompasses it.
Still, as artists, there’s a fine line to walk. In asking for such a personal audience, we also may be asking for an excuse—someone that we can constantly use as an escape from the difficult journey of creativity. Attempting to immerse our partner in our art feels like a loving gesture to us, but to them, it may be too overwhelming or unfamiliar.
Fundamentally, art cannot escape being self-focused and somewhat self-centered, made about the artist and for the artist. “When I look at my work, I see a diary of my past emotions, experiences, and creative interpretations that allowed me to grow and to learn about myself and the world,” says multimedia creative and performance artist Stacie Warner. Art is often how we learn to have an intimate relationship with ourselves.
So no, my partner may not “get” my art because he isn’t an artist. But perhaps more importantly, he isn’t me. I cannot expect him to rescue me from the bad poem I’m working on. When I speak to him, I must learn how to communicate my self with someone else.
Our relationship isn’t an art project but a genuine connection between two people. In dating him, I can share my art, but I also must learn to express myself in other ways—ways that are more interpersonal.
When I think about how my art is tied to and untied from my lover in ways that are inexplicable and complicated, I find myself always returning to Adrienne Rich’s "Twenty-One Love Poems."
“I know what I dreamed: / our friend the poet comes into my room / where I’ve been writing for days / drafts, carbons, poems are scattered everywhere, / I want to show her one poem / which is the poem of my life. But I hesitate, / and wake. You’ve kissed my hair / to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem, / I say, a poem I wanted to show someone… / and I laugh and fall dreaming again / of the desire to show you to everyone I love, / to move openly together / in the pull of gravity…”
When we share art with our partners, the act is more for us than it is for them. We have a deep desire to create but also to be seen for what we do and, in that, for who we are.
So, should my partner “get” my art? Honestly, maybe not. In sharing art, maybe we’re simply imitating how we want to love. Maybe giving this art to our partners is just an honest attempt at showing ourselves as fully as possible, cultivating a loving openness, and further grounding ourselves and those we love in truth, in expression, and in light.
Visual by Sarah Jane Souther for TED.