May 29th 2013
Reaching A Collaborative Perspective Through Criticism
"We are all failures- at least the best of us are." J.M. Barrie
Honesty is always, always a good thing. No reason to get bent out of shape if someone is just telling you the truth, right? Most artists, designers, writers, or creative professionals, who have shared their work extensively, if they were honest, would probably respond to these clichéd sentiments with a resounding, "No!" Sure, we all think frankness and candor are wonderful concepts until they're directed at our own babies. Our work, especially of the creative variety, whether or not we want to admit it, is inextricably tied to deep parts of ourselves. And this can, in all truthfulness, make criticism very, very hard to take. As Franklin P. Jones succinctly put it, "Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger."
Does that mean we should hide ourselves and our work away, protecting our egos at all costs, never exposing ourselves to criticism? Well sure, if we can also be content with never sharing our work with the world. But that is rarely the case. To expose one's work to others is to expose one's individuality, one's deepest self—at least it can feel that way—to possible disparagement. But the alternative would be not to share, and that, for most true artists, would be intolerable. To share what we craft is the lifeblood of creativity. And the risk is well worth the joy of seeing one's work strike a key with another human being. As Elbert Hubbard pointed out, the only way to avoid criticism is to " do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing." That said, not all criticism is constructive, just as the blanket policy of "honesty" is often merely a pretense for arbitrary rudeness. What is needed therefore, is not to blindly, masochistically learn to agree to any abuse masquerading as constructive critique, but to develop an armor strong enough (worn over our artist's skin, which will rightly and always be thin), and eyes clear enough, to separate the petty dross from the healing, skilled incision that's offered from a truly collaborative perspective.
"Don't abuse your friends and expect them to consider it criticism." – E. W. Howe
It has always been, and always will be, much easier to tear something down than to build it up. Observe any three-year-old, who could gleefully wreck an intricate Lego house and yet cry with frustration in the attempt to even build up a simple one. Survey a high school English class blithely tearing apart Shakespeare or Jane Austen with no real concept of, or investment in, what either artist was really trying to accomplish. The mere ability to criticize without scruple is not admirable or noteworthy. Let's not kid ourselves. We can all do that. But find a person who understands and supports your goals, and can honestly steer you back to the path when you've gone off your way a little or a lot, a person who can set aside his or her own ego in service to what you're trying to accomplish, without superfluous flattery or unnecessary harshness, and you've found a true ally in your creative endeavors.
Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots. – Frank A. Clark
The problem is that that kind of collaborator, while worth searching for and holding on to as a true find, is not easy to find. Most of us, in reality, have to make do with coworkers, classmates, bosses, or even friends who are less than constructive. We have a choice in these situations: We can throw out all suggestions or criticism from the poorly schooled critiquer (and sometimes, if someone is being truly ridiculous or abusive, this may be our only option) or we can stay calm, set aside our throbbing ego and our tendency to take the negative too seriously, and really think about what has been said. As Paul Thomas Anderson said, "How do I respond to criticism? Critically. I listen to all criticism critically." This requires a self-training in detachment that is not easy but well worth the effort. The world is far from perfect, after all, and we will probably never receive a flawless critique. All criticism is, in the final assessment, offered by fallible humans just like ourselves. And just as we with all our flaws can sometimes produce very promising art or design, we may be able to draw out something useful from a flawed analysis – even if that is merely to assess and solidify our own initial creative goal and disregard the advice altogether. It's a sticky, often painful process, unraveling one's own ego, holding onto respect for one's own initial goal, letting go of some less-than-stellar ideas that we previously thought were genius, or in some cases, digging in our heels and holding to our vision even when some don't understand it. Either way, being prepared for the inevitability of criticism in its highest and lowest forms is essential if we think we're ready to share our work with the world. Winston Churchill's analogy is helpful here: "Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things."
To wrap up, I'll offer some oh-so-humble advice of my own, gleaned from my own mistakes and experiences to those who wish to critique effectively:
- Never give your own ideas. If you're looking at a painting of a floral watercolor, say, and you hate floral watercolors, it's better to simply walk away admitting it's not your thing to say, "Why don't you do something a little more modern, abstract, with oils, and lose the damn flowers?" That's not taking the artist's goal, but merely your own subjective taste, into account. Not helpful.
- On a similar note, remember that your critique is about the work in front of you, so avoid comparing it to your own work. This is not about you, but helping the creator achieve his or her specific aim.
- Remember that your critique is not the final authority. Give the person accepting your criticism the freedom to accept it in the spirit it was given – critically. Even a good critique is not necessarily a flawless critique. This will allow you to approach the person you're trying to assist humbly and with empathy. The classic nugget of wisdom, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood," is an essential part of the process of offering valuable feedback. When asked about pressure from Hollywood to change his films, to make them shorter, Martin Scorsese has said he's had to learn the skill of "knowing when to accept their criticism, and knowing when to say no." The person you're critiquing does have the option to say no.
- Speaking of empathy, only critique to the level you yourself would honestly be willing to take. If you feel your critique getting emotional or spiraling into the realm of pettiness, step back and ask yourself, truthfully, if you'd be willing to take in what you're dishing out. For, as Henri Frederic Amiel wisely stated, "Sympathy is the first condition of criticism." And you can't offer any for what the artist is trying to achieve, however far off the mark, then you may not be suited to giving the critique. Keep it balanced between the positive and negative if you want your words to have anything more than a discouraging effect. Mary Poppins may have been onto something with that spoonful of sugar ploy, after all.
- Remember that "People ask for criticism, but they only want praise." – W. Somerset Maugham. Be prepared to meet with some level of defensiveness, even when your opinion has been sought. After all, even when we truly want and need the criticism, it takes a while for most of us to let the idea of change to sink in. Give the person time to process your advice, and realize that it will often take time and reflection for you to sort out and understand criticism from others.