5 Underrated Artistic Qualities

Sometimes it feels like when we rave about art – specifically writing, but really all art – we talk about the same things: depth, originality, concept. Writing-specifically: characters, pacing, and prose. And that’s because we love those things. I know I do. They’re certainly worthy of the praise they receive.

But there are other qualities that are equally valuable. Of course, this is all subjective, but (in no specific order, really) I’m going to talk about the top five artistic qualities I wish were more appreciated.

1. Emotional Honesty

I first noticed this in poetry. I began bringing it up a lot in my poetry critique group, as well as to myself while judging various poetry contests. Sometimes the most basic, quiet poem can touch you all the way to your bones, and it feels like you can see into the poet’s soul. Other times you can appreciate the technique and skill in a poem yet feel little on an emotional level – or worse, feel as if you’re being manipulated somehow. There are shades of gray here, but in my experience emotional honesty almost always trumps showboating.

Once I gave this concept a name in my own mind, I started recognizing it everywhere. Flash fiction, short stories, novels. Indeed, I can see it (or see it missing) in movies, sculptures, and even stand-up comedy. And I think, on a most basic level, it’s this emotional honesty that draws us to our very favorite art and artists.

2. Humor

Now there are plenty of artists who appreciate humor. Many of them call themselves comedians, humorists, or satirists. And strangely, for putting this rather rare and valuable quality at the forefront of their work, the artists or art pieces are often deemed lesser than more “serious” works. Why?

No, really. Why?

I think there’s a huge difference between silly and funny. Silly can be great too, but I’m talking about funny. Really, truly, deep-in-your-gut funny is hard to come by, and I wish people would demean that less and appreciate it more as an artistic quality.

3. Simplicity

I love a rich, complex novel. But I also love an elegantly simple poem. And most of all? A deceptively simple premise. And while I have no desire to undermine the work and effort that goes into artistic complexity (did you see my rave about House of Leaves?), I also would love to see well-done simplicity get more praise these days.

Using House of Leaves as the example, I believe that many of the most unique and creative ideas are stunning in their simplicity. An overworked, forced premise might get the job done, but a pared-down premise with a fresh take is so much more appealing.

I like pomp and circumstance as much as the next girl, but I think simplicity is often erroneously thought of as stupidity. In all forms of art, I believe, there is great beauty to be had in the bare bones.

4. Atmosphere

My roots are showing. In gothic fiction, the atmosphere is so rich, so real, so inescapably important that it becomes its own character. That’s why you’ll see so many gothic novels with a place name as the title (Wuthering Heights, The Castle of Otranto, Northanger Abbey). So maybe my love all gothic art has made me especially keen on artists who can weave an unforgettable atmosphere.

Either way, it’s present in many different genres and types of art, and I think it’s one of the first things we sense but one of the last things we notice. And that’s a shame, really, because getting totally sucked into a play or book or painting’s atmosphere to the point that we forget where we are… well, it’s magical. And hard to do, as an artist. Which is why I think it’s underappreciated.

5. Self-Editing

At first, this might seem like a switch. The first four are qualities of the art itself, while this one seems like a quality of the artist, rather than the art. And I suppose, technically, it is. But the result is really what I’m talking about, rather than the skill. I’m going to use the art of fashion design as my example.

Who watches Project Runway? And how many times have we heard the judges tell the designers that they wish they’d edited the styling before sending their look down the runway? Countless. Even if the garment they made is exquisite, cheap accessories – or simply too many accessories – can ruin it. I believe that applies to all art forms.

Part of being an artist is knowing when to stop. Knowing how to self-evaluate what you produce. Deciding which work to put out for public consumption and which to keep to yourself is just as important as creating masterpieces to begin with. A brilliant book is dulled by a bunch of crappy follow-ups, just as a brilliant dress is dulled by a tacky plastic necklace.

I guess what I’m saying is that what’s underappreciated here is the lack of crap. Good artists know when not to show us their work, and sometimes we take that for granted.


So there you go, five artistic qualities that I think are way underrated. Do you agree? What qualities would you like to add to the list?

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  • Melissa Frye


  • Benjamin Inn

    Hm, my self-editing tends to not work properly, if at all.

    • Lol. Well, like any other skill, it gets better with practice. =)

  • Paula

    Such a great post & I think you’re definitely right about those qualities being a key part of what makes a writer great.

    I can’t even think of another quality to add to the list lol, that sums it up to me : )

  • Yes to all of this. I love the term emotional honesty. You’re right that it’s exactly what draws me into things and keeps me there, but it’s not something that’s easy to notice right away. I’ve read some books that were beautifully written and yet I couldn’t connect.

    And funny things, that’s so true. It’s a shame humor sort of gets knocked down a peg from the get-go because often something that’s really funny can be so insightful and have tons of emotional honesty.

    • True! Those two connect well, don’t they? I think that’s why a lot of times a comedian’s first routine is so much better than his/her second or third (if they become famous); many hire writers for the next ones, and then it becomes about someone else’s emotional honesty instead of their own.

  • jclementwall

    Love your whole list, but especially “emotional honesty.” I agree. I would rather read (or see or listen to) a raw, unpolished work that is emotionally honest, than a slick, technically competent piece that feels more produced than created.

  • Totally agree with every one of these!

  • Lura Slowinski

    I think all of these need more attention, but especially numbers 1 and 4. I used to have more patience for emotionless showmanship in literature, but more recently I’ve noticed I become impatient with the writer. I’d rather read something raw and imperfect than something immaculate but distant any day of the week.

    And I definitely agree there isn’t nearly enough attention given to atmosphere! This is actually something I’m trying to work more on as a writer, so if you have more thoughts in that vein, I’d love to hear them!

    • Absolutely! It’s something that literary fiction, especially, rarely seems to acknowledge (like when you discuss a book in an English lit class, for example).

      I love love love atmosphere. As a writer, I think it’s always been one of my strongest points, which is probably why I notice it as a reader. In fact, when I bring in something to critique that needs a ton of work, the atmosphere is almost always what they fall back on to compliment (the middle of the shit sandwich, if you will). But strangely… I don’t think about it much when I’m writing. It’s often the magical thing that comes to me fully formed first, and then a story gets built around it. I’ll have to think about this and see if I can nail it down more.

  • Regina Richards

    Number 3 made me think of Georgia O’Keefe. Simplicity can be truly beautiful.

    Number 5 is a real V-8 moment (head slap). Knowing what books to leave under the bed, knowing when to end a series, knowing exactly how long the wrap up following a novel’s climax should be, and finally knowing when the writer’s most precious instrument is dulling and it’s time to stop writing, are all essential for a stellar career.

    • A V-8 moment! Haha, I love that. I think I’m going to adopt it. =)

    • Wow, I also thought of Georgia O’Keefe when I mulled this over in my mind!

      • I had to look her up, but yes, I can totally see that!

        • At the Georgia O’ Keefe museum in Santa Fe I saw two paintings of windmills that had me crying right there in the museum. They were so stark and simple and beautiful…

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Love this post … Great insight, as usual. I think emotional honesty is what I find missing in so many novels; and I think it goes hand-in-hand with writing poignantly. To write truly gripping, emotionally honest works, I think the art of poignancy needs to be mastered. Getting the reader to FEEL the emotions — not telling through boring, expository melodrama is tough stuff. It’s something I’m only now getting better at myself.

    And I think No. 5 is the hardest … “Knowing when to stop. Knowing how to self-evaluate what you produce…” I think everything I write is crap, so it often takes the “distance test” for me to tell if it’s any good – and by that, I mean walking away from what I’ve written for months and reading with fresh eyes.

    Great post, Annie.

    • Thank you, Melissa! Yes, I believe you’re spot on about writing poignantly. That’s a pretty tough skill! I’m a huge proponent of distance for each project. In today’s fast-moving market, it’s not always as possible as I’d like, but I almost always see my work with new eyes when I wait.

  • Bravo – what an intelligent and thoughtful post!!! My favorites are emotional honesty and simplicity, which are present in all my favorite poems, books, & songs. I think that’s why acapella performances are so powerful; everything is stripped away but that raw, true thing. Because it takes such courage and integrity to present oneself to the world without
    fancy trappings. And if the talent is there, how it shines out there all by itself…

    • Thanks! And oh, I love how you said that. If the talent is there all by itself, you can really see it shine. Just perfect!

  • Annie, I love your summaries! I especially find myself nodding to your category of Emotional Honesty, knowing that there is that within me that can sometimes strike twelve o’clock when reading a poem or listening to another writer, studying a photograph, or any number of other artistic endeavors. Now I can borrow your identifying phrase to help describe that inner perception! What a nice, clear descriptor. I wonder too, where “focus” fits in your artistic qualities that are underrated. Whether reading a poem or listening to short story, or watching a dance troupe – the quality of the singular or shared focus can advance the reader/audience much further than if that quality was absent. Thank you for asking the question.

    • Thank you Beth! I think “focus” is a great quality to add. When I got together with a few poets the other day to judge a contest, focus is something that came up time and again — so I think you’re right! Great addition!

  • Cynthia Robertson

    I totally agree with you on the emotional honesty aspect, Annie; it’s obviousness if it’s lacking, and that annoying feeling (bless you for saying it!) of being manipulated. And yes, once you recognize it, you notice it everywhere, in all forms of art, but especially movies and writing (for me, anyway). I like that you mention it first, because I can forgive a piece of writing a lot of other things, so long as this one quality is present.

    • Yeah, I actually think manipulation is worse than absence, when it comes to emotional honesty. And I agree; a lot of things can be forgiven if this one thing is present! Thanks Cynthia!

  • Jolina Petersheim

    Love all five qualities. I especially like atmosphere. The Orchardist did a superb job with that. I could’ve lived there the rest of my life.

    • I haven’t read The Orchardist; I’ll have to check that one out. Thanks!

  • Barb Riley

    Oh, Annie, this is a fantastic list! Yes, yes, YES I agree with you on all of these, and I love the addition of “focus” (as mentioned in the comments).

    Since music surely falls under the artistic umbrella, reading your post made me think of some of my favorite bands’ qualities. I adore U2, because nearly all of their songs have this great atmospheric vibe to them, yet I also am a huge fan of The White Stripes and Jack White b/c the songs are completely stripped down and simplistic. And somehow, both artists succeed in capturing emotional honesty, too. They just go about it in different ways.

    And I’m so glad you mentioned the bit about humor as not being respected as much as it should be. I have a deep fondness for a select few chicklit authors who have made me laugh at myself in ways that were healing, and I am so thankful there are writers like that out there. 🙂

    • Of course music does! I love your examples — couldn’t agree more. I think the chicklit is a good example too; the best humor tends to blur with emotional honesty, doesn’t it? It rings true and makes us think even as it makes us laugh. Thanks so much for stopping by, Barb!

  • CS Perryess

    Bravo. Thanks for pointing out a few of the uncountable qualities that add up to creativity.

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