On Criticism

Ever heard the expression “everyone’s a critic”? My grandfather has a poster of this phrase; it depicts an art student thumb-and-penciling a masterwork sculpture. The title reads:

Everyone’s a critic!

Be as critical of your own work as you are of others’.

So simple, so true.

Nowadays, with the experiences I’ve had as a self-proclaimed writer, that poster comes to mind very often. It sucks to receive criticism. But as an artist, you must learn to feed off of it. Way easier said than done.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the poster and what I think it means. It revealed to me a simple way of dealing with criticism and growing from it that has worked for me ever since. Not only because of the truth behind the words, but also because of where this poster was.

Let me explain, and hopefully it will reveal something useful for you too.

I’m going to write this, as the poster depicts, from the point of view of a content creator. This isn’t meant to be descriptions of hard facts, but simply my thoughts regarding the subject.

So, let’s think about each part of this seperately …

“Everyone’s a critic!”

This saying is as classic as it gets, right? The reason it sticks around is because it’s true; if you are a creator of any kind, you know this already. Everyone is a critic. Everyone thinks they can do it better. Everyone thinks you are doing it wrong. Or, everyone loves your work, thinks it’s perfect, thinks you’re doing it right. And other times, people’s opinions are somewhere in-between all that.

muppet-critics
“Or maybe you’re just bad!”

But the phrase on its own has two meanings, and the key word here is ‘everyone’.

The first meaning is that when we say ‘everyone’s a critic’, we are saying that judging a piece of work is built into people’s nature. This will never change. Everyone will do it. Since the earliest days, humans had to have a judgmental eye when making tools, buildings, and yes, art as well. The tool must work efficiently, the building must hold up, the art must communicate. Without our ability to critique or judge, our creations can fall flat, have no meaning, or have no use. It’s even pretty obvious that we value judgement. A writer, for example, needs an editor to find any errors in the writing that were missed, like spelling, grammar, and style.

But whatever the case, being critical is necessary part of the creation process, and the point of it is to make the end-result better (I do want to say here, quickly, that criticizing something without the intent of improvement is counter-productive, but I will touch on this further on).

So, if everyone is a critic, if criticizing and judging is in our nature, if criticism is necessary to improve our creations, then …

The second meaning of the phrase: accept criticism.

I’m serious. This is the number one thing that really relieved me of a lot of stress. No matter what you do, where you go, how big you get, you will always be criticized for something. Instead of worrying about what people will say about what you made, disagreeing with comments, trying to explain your intentions, arguing, defending — just accept what people thought. And that’s all criticism is; it’s just what people think, not a truth set in stone. Take it all with a grain of salt. Don’t let it bother you. I promise you that despite the haters there will also be people that “get” you.

But you still should look for the good ideas. If you are too closed off from other concepts, then you will have a much harder time improving. Open the doors to criticism, and let it work for you. And ultimately, the decision of what goes into a piece of work is the creator’s. No one can force you to do what you don’t want. So, what’s the harm? You may learn something that you never would have otherwise!

Besides, even if you don’t think so; you do it already. Even the toughest of us who shrug off negative comments like they’re only rubber bullets will suddenly warm to comments that praise us.

72820246e081eece09d208a9f39bd952
Unfortunately, Malcom X’s critics had real bullets instead of rubber ones.

So we must admit that our critics have value.

“Be as critical of your own work as you are of others’.”

If only more people followed this rule. Too many times do we critique someone else’s work, when we ourselves are barely able to hold our own creations together. Again, this phrase has two meanings.

Number one, and the obvious: apply the same level of keen observations to your own work as you do to others. If, when you look at someone else’s work, you see so many ways it could be improved — look for that many ways you could improve your own stuff. This will encourage you to create the best quality work you are capable of.

Number two: be honest about your standards.

This might come off as a tangent, but I know people who like bad movies. That’s fine, there are bad movies I like too. But admit it’s bad, don’t mask your love for trash by saying something like “it’s so bad it’s good” and leaving it at that. It just seems like a cop-out. By that logic, I could also say “it’s so bad it’s bad”; it’s a circular way of saying something. At least try to shift the context of something sounding “inherently good because it’s bad”, to something more along the lines of “this appeals to certain tastes”. If we start calling bad good, then good can be bad, and things get all muddled up and lost in translation and then suddenly no one can tell the difference between a sculpture and a rock. We have to be like the Oxford Dictionary: concise!

Whoops, am I catasrphizing here? Ah. Sure am.

Anyway! The point I’m trying to make is that being “as critical of your own work as you are of others’” isn’t just a free ticket to shame good work. Nor is it a free ticket to praise bad work. Just because you are an absurdly harsh critic of yourself doesn’t mean that you now have an excuse to hold other people to unreasonable standards. What I take away from that sentance is simply to be fair to your own work and by extention the things you judge — because I would also want people to be fair of my work. If you aren’t setting out to create the best thing ever, don’t pressure yourself to do so. It’s perfectly okay to just create what you feel needs to come out. When someone creates something that isn’t meant to be the best thing ever, realize that too. Keep your criticisms in context. See (and love) things for what they are, not for what they try to be, or what you personally think they should be.

The location of the poster …

The last important thing about that poster, to me, is that it’s hanging in my grandpa’s workshop. This is where he does all kinds of wood and metal work with a lathe. When he creates something, it usually serves a purpose; table legs, handles, parts for things.

I’m a writer. I don’t use metal, I don’t use wood. I write words and the things I create tell stories — it’s not stuff, like what my grandpa makes.

But he keeps that poster, regarding art, in a place where “creating art”certainly isn’t the first thing that would come to people’s minds. Yet he knows the concept still applies; whether we are making a painting, a piece of writing, or constructing a house or parts of a house, being critical of our works is of the utmost importance. There is another word that is hidden in that poster, and that word is ‘expertise’ — we should strive to be experts and professionals in our crafts. Art, like a trade, is a matter of application. If we can’t convert criticism into something useful, and if we can’t be critical of our own work in the same way any other laborer is, then we are destined to stay behind our perceived walls of safety, seldom coming out for a bit of fresh air.

In closing, I want to point out that — even with all this said — there will still be those who have a desire or need to just make you feel bad, who don’t actually understand the point of a critique. They think that giving a critique is their time to only point out everything wrong with the given subject; this is the path of someone with the goal of destroying. They can do it on purpose, and sometimes they do it without consciously knowing that’s what they’re doing. But, for whatever reason, they have that urge. It is the same reason why certain people throw a fit when they’re mad, or yell and scream if they don’t get their way; they feel inadequete and they want to make the object of their disposition seem smaller than them. From what I have seen, these people are often miserable folks who are emotionally empty, have never produced anything, and, while they may have extensive knowledge on a subject, think that whatever comes out of their mouth has inherent value without regard for how they present their thoughts or how what they’re saying might get interpereted. They use negative language to emphasize their points. They never ask questions. They only tell, tell, tell …

Beware of those people. There is a fine line between a critic and a windbag, and if you’re vigilant, you’ll know the latter shortly after they open their big mouths. The windbag thinks they can dismantle your resolve by picking apart their interpretaion of your work. Not so. Your work will stand no matter how much hot air they blow at it. It will serve as a testament of what the windbag could not achieve, and that alone is enough. Besides, if someone can not get their point across without being an ass about it, then they probably dont even know what they’re trying to say or the core of what they’re trying to say is just nonsense, so being an ass and shocking people by being rude is the only way they feel they can have any potency.

As I said before, you just have to take what you can, and disregard the rest.

star-wars-poster-of-original-film
Many of our favourite movies wouldn’t exist if the nay-sayers had their way.

In the professional world, a critique is careful process that is used to build a piece of honest work, using what works to improve the piece, if not for the present then for the future. And a good agent will use positive and reinforcing language, and ask for clarification when needed, to get a clear picture of what your intentions are. They will use that to search for the great idea within, and then use constructive criticism to secure it, feed it, and help it blossom.

So — don’t stress, be honest, and apply. Look for the good ideas, disregard the bad. And the next time someone is bashing your work, just take a breath and remember: everyone’s a critic!

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