on criticism

8 02 2010

Here’s the thing. No one likes to be criticized. Everyone wants to be loved for everything they do. We spend a lot of time trying to not have one happen and make the other one happen. Guess which one?

As someone who has buckled and often become paralyzed or given up due to criticism, this is no sort of glib post. Criticism can be a killer. It can stop people in their tracks and make them scurry away in the dark of night burying their ideas and work never to be seen or heard of again.

My mother, who for reasons of never feeling like she was good enough, was off the charts critical towards her children while we were growing up. It bred in me a weird combination of unsure of myself and highly motivated.

In undergrad, I got a BFA, so I was subject to weekly public critique’s for 5 years. Now I’m in grad school getting an MFA and am subject to the same sort of public critique. It’s the method of all forms of art and arts education. The critique. And what’s funny about that, is that artists and writers seem preternaturally sensitive to criticism.

Traditionally, you sit there and aren’t allowed to speak while people discuss your work. I usually doodle elaborate designs in my notebook that end up looking like spaceships and subway graffiti, to calm my nerves and not leave my body and keep my face color this side of magenta.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand about criticism:

* It’s unavoidable.

* It doesn’t mean our work is bad and worthless.

* Sometimes people criticise because our work has hit a spot in them that triggers them and they criticise to protect that unhealed spot.

* When we push the bounds of our own original thought, there is more a risk for structural failure and people mostly want things tied up in a nice neat bow (even fellow artists).

And I will end with the most important thing of all that I have learned about criticism:

IT DOESN’T MATTER.  (It really truly doesn’t. Think about that….)

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12 responses

8 02 2010
Lindsey

This is the hardest lesson, and the one I’m learning right now: criticism (or, really, any reaction) is usually about the criticizer, not about us. Judgement, about the judger. ETC. If you are “preternaturally sensitive” (as I am) that is very, very very very very very damned hard to remember. Impossible, even. But this is a really helpful reminder.
Thank you!

8 02 2010
mareynolds

YES to learning about criticism. When does it actually tell you something useful about your work? What are the qualities present in the critic and the criticism, and in you, that make this so?

IMHO, it seems like the best criticism can only come from someone who has taken the time to understand where I’m coming from and the outcome I’m going for. And then it’s like they open me up to something I’ve filtered out. And it’s something I want to open up to. And they do it with love.

8 02 2010
Ronna

Love this! There’s such a difference between critique – the feedback from people who love me – and criticism.

Criticism feels short-sighted, focused more on the “giver” (and I use that term loosely), and usually based in some kind of anger or resistance. Lindsey’s right: criticism is usually about the criticizer…not me.

Critique? I can take that. I know when you have my best interest at heart, when you want me to do/be better, when you have a perspective that invites me into realms I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

It’s a fine line…Thanks for speaking to it strongly, vulnerably, honestly.

No criticism here!!! You’re awesome!

8 02 2010
emma

Perfect photo to capture the initial effect of criticism. Just seeing the picture made me tense.
And yes, your final point is truth. Too bad truth is sometimes so hard to swallow.

8 02 2010
Nazima Ali

Ronna says it right – huge difference between criticism, getting critiqued and feedback. I tend to lump feedback and critique together. For me both are a positive manner of seeing others perspectives. Criticism is negative.

I’ve been part of a critique group of 4 writers for 7 years now. Every 2 weeks we meet diligently to keep our writing careers on track. Had we been negative or mean in how we commented on each others work we would never have survived this long.

This is bang on ** * Sometimes people criticise because our work has hit a spot in them that triggers them and they criticise to protect that unhealed spot. ** Our group has definitely had moments of strong feelings on various pieces and shared those feelings with the caution that this is our opinion and they can take it or leave it. After all the writing is each individuals we are just there to offer the best we can.

I totally get the whole mom being critical – mine has the added bonus of cultural quirks becoming part of the dialogue. I just ignore it now or gently let her know she’s being less than.

Thanks for writing such a great post.

8 02 2010
Danielle LaPorte

yep – that nice neat bow will choke you every time.
xo

8 02 2010
ArabObserver

Well said.. I needed to read this post.. today I let two girls read a short film script of mine at work.. and they gave really bad reactions.. one said that she doesn’t know what is worse this script or the one I let them read before! I told myself “it doesn’t matter”.. I have some confidence with those scripts as some other people had already given me some good feedback before but I can’t really read their reactions. There is a big possibility that both scripts touched a hot nerve.. but then again, it doesn’t matter :).. I need to focus on my novel 🙂

9 02 2010
Kate T.W.

I saw the small indy movie ‘the price of milk’ before it was reviewed because the blurb talked about it being a modern fairytale and I like that sort of thing, and because it said that there was an agoraphobic dog in the story. My then boyfriend (now husband) and I both adored the movie. A few days later the New York Times published a scathing review and it closed within a week. I still have the review. I’ve kept it to remind myself just how… individual criticism can be. It has become a talisman.

9 02 2010
whollyjeanne

i am flat-out allergic to wagging fingers and red ink and nice, neat bows.

9 02 2010
Crystal Jigsaw

So agree with this very insightful post. As a writer, I have been criticised often and occasionally, if I’m in the wrong mood, have got huffy and turned off the computer! Not a wise move when the criticism is constructive. Now, I have learnt to accept it as feedback, and all feedback is positive. Makes one realise where they are going wrong, and in some cases, where they are going right.

Thanks for directing me to your blog, nice to make your acquaintance.
Crystal Jigsaw xx

10 02 2010
Julie

A teacher once told me, true freedom only comes when we no longer care what another thinks of us. (Adyashanti)
This is freedom. This is liberation.
I’ve always wondered about the exercise of critiquing. How much does it really help the artist to flower?

10 02 2010
Duff McDuffee

It sounds like you are referring to art criticism specifically. Walt Disney had a particular strategy for creativity where he would alternatively take the perspectives of Dreamer, Realist, and Critic (as called by Robert Dilts) until all three perspectives came to agreement. I think this is an excellent model for the various roles involved in making art.

Does Roger Ebert not matter? Certainly his perspective matters a lot to many moviegoers, and even to many movie directors. But if a director makes a movie for Ebert, that will probably not make for a good movie.

Alternatively, if a narcissist artist creates without any regard for critics (inner and outer), they will likely go down a strange avant-garde path, making their art utterly irrelevant to whole, lived experience.

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