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A critique on criticism?

April 15, 2010

Have art and literary critics been around as long as art and literature? Have critics in general been around as long as mankind? It does seem a human tendency to criticize. What is easier than to criticize another? To criticize is human, to create is of the divine. To create is to build, to criticize is to tear down. Of course, there is room for critical analysis, but that doesn’t necessarily mean to critique. Criticism is not necessarily constructive. ‘Constructive criticism’ seems an oxymoron.

It is often said that criticism kills creativity. Criticism at least stifles creativity. And to the sensitive artist (and many true artists are highly sensitive), criticism does have a certain power to kill confidence and the courage to keep creating. I’ve known many artists over the decades: some highly talented artists, and even geniuses. One thing I’ve noticed about many of those artists is that they are perfectionists, and that internal perfectionism tends to propel them to work tirelessly to try to perfect their works. That obsession with perfection in their own work can also push an artist to be crippled by their own criticism. Add any external criticism of others (if they take any of it to heart or mind), and they may give up altogether. I have seen this happen and it is tragic. The world loses, the artist loses, and the critic has caused the loss.

A genius sculptor I once knew smashed his work of perfection if anybody said anything (even highly complementary) before he was done to his own satisfaction. I sometimes wonder how many highly sensitive, perfectionistic, self-critical artists have stopped sharing their creations or even genius with the world because the criticism of someone outside themselves has put them over the edge. And, I dare say that those mouthy critics could not begin to create anything akin to that which they tear down. Shame on them. I have little patience for critics. I don’t see that they do any good, but they do a deal of harm.

Growing up with excessive criticism and feeling those negative effects, I decided early that I would rebel against the ‘negative’ of my upbringing and raise my own kids with generous praise instead. In fact, I began complimenting my younger siblings as much as possible and tried to encourage them every step of the way. I never lied. I never praised anything not praiseworthy, but I did look for anything good that I could honestly compliment. I encouraged. I cheered my siblings and friends on. I made myself a cheerleader for good things in many people.

A good deal later (about 30 years ago), as a still young mother, I read ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie and what I remember most about the key advice in that book was: to praise instead of criticize. I continued to believe in praise, not criticism, and I kept on complimenting people instead of otherwise. My own stance on raising children or even relating to others, is to praise. Compliment generously. Count to ten before you criticize, and then tread very carefully if you are certain that you really must critique… but you probably shouldn’t criticize at all.

Try praising whatever and whomever you can, as much as you can, instead of falling into the criticism trap. Criticism is a trap of tearing down that raises nobody up. Everybody falls in a way, into the critic’s pit. It seems that insecure people tend to criticize others to try to focus away from their own inadequacies. I suppose small people who want to feel big think they can raise themselves up by tearing others down. But, nobody is lifted up by criticism. Only praise lifts both the giver and receiver. Criticism seems a colossal waste of time. Criticism is negative. Compliments are positive. Why not build instead of demolish? Why not put your energies into positive things rather than the negative. The true power is in the praise. Compliments nurture creativity. Praise sparks more creativity. Encouragement builds lives.

Stop with the negative waves, man. Don’t harsh anybody else’s mellow. Accentuate the positives, baby. Yes, self-reflection with a critical eye is definitely useful, but take care not to overdo it.  If you want to criticize your own work, that’s your deal, but don’t impose your negatives on anybody else. If somebody doesn’t ask for your opinion on their work, why would you push your personal opinion on them? Just because you have an opinion doesn’t make your preferences more valid than those of another. An opinion is simply opinion. Thinking that you are a critic is just falsely thinking lofty of yourself simply because you have an opinion that you think is more important than the opinions of others. Everyone has their own opinion and anyone can criticize. I would challenge the critic type to focus on creating something of worth instead of falling into old destructive habits of the human unkind.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2010 11:46 pm

    i’ve ad a few experiences like this.
    What i try to remember is that the crtisism is just one opinion.
    So an artist should try to reach as many as possible to get a more realistic opinion

  2. April 16, 2010 3:36 am

    Thanks for your thoughtful thoughts. Exactly. Critique equals opinion. It’s easy to let one downer crowd out the uppers, but you have to look beyond the one negative opinion to see the positive ones.

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