I say to-may-to, you say to-mah-to…
Why Critique Shouldn’t Tell You What and How to Create
– Vladimir Nabokov
Creativity is a multi-faceted rainbow projected through a complex prism, passing through all the audio frequencies of the universe at every possible volume, filtered through textures from smooth fragile soft to dusty harsh and rough, tastes of chocolate, salt, lemons, blood sausage, endive and goat cheese, floats on a musky floral breeze, and lives in temperatures from absolute zero to hotter than the heart of a sun.
Art is the warm heartbeat that pulses beneath your fingertips, and the cold clutch of the grave.
Words, music, pictures, objects, cloth, stone, and growing things.
Art can’t be evaluated though a single lens.
This is the main problem when an artist faces critical exploration of their work. The process of creation is a very personal thing: the artist is taking a part of their soul and trying to express it in the medium that calls to them the most. My life and your life are extremely different, our histories and societies make us see things differently for for different reasons… and that influences not only what I make but how I view your creations.
What I make? Sometimes I have to doodle. Other times I need to knit or sew. Sometimes I need to sing, or act. Most of the time, I need to write.
Then I need to share it.
It is with that act of sharing, exposing the work to the world, where each artist opens themselves to the glorious pain of encouragement and defeat. In that gulf between praise and derision is a whole morass of conflicted opinions about what is good, what is bad, how to do something better, what one should never do but some people can do it and get away with it, and what was good then/bad then being the opposite now.
Artistic critique is the very definition of the term “your milage may vary.”
Yes, there are some basic standards that anyone can call on and usually they are used to identify bad things; for example, a story with grammar that is so atrocious the reader can hardly get through a sentence is bad writing. A costume where the cut and the seams are so sloppy that the model looks like they’re wearing a sack (when that wasn’t the intent of the costumer) just looks sloppy at best. A meal that is so burnt that any flavors incorporated are indistinguishable from carbon, is both horrible *and* inedible. A new wooden chair that falls apart when a small child sits on it… these are all things that can easily be identified as bad.
[As a side note: sometimes these are deliberate choices on the part of the artist, whether you agree with them or not. That’s also a fairly touchy topic – when can someone get away with breaking the rules and what rules can/should be broken. It’s a subject that gets brought up every time someone does break the rules.]
The problem is, once that threshold of bad workmanship or inexperienced craftsmanship has been overcome, how does a creator know that their work is actually “good”?
In truth, we never do, especially if we base the worth of our work solely on the response of others. We never know what the mix of positive and negative responses we’re going to get is when we post a picture, video, song, or story. We just hope that we get more positive responses than bad ones, and that every response has something that we can learn from. We hope that the audience gets the little references we snuck in, or recognize the fact that we’re melding in a new or old technique so it’s not going to look/sound/taste like something they’re familiar with.
In a way, as we learn our craft, learn how to express that piece of us that won’t be silent or still, we also learn what people like and don’t like… and choose the people are we want to listen to.
We have to learn that just because the person saying something is a friend, or a blogger we hate, one we respect, or a critic with years of articles and books to back up their authority, a fellow artist, a publisher or buyer, that they will not have the same response to the work as another person, and that usually you can find at someone who will appreciate your endeavors and someone who doesn’t think they’re worth the medium you presented them on.
We learn to filter out the people that just say “you suck” and don’t give a reason why. We smile and appreciate the “That was great” comments which don’t provide any information what made it great, so we have to set them aside because there’s nothing useful in the praise.
Critique, either good or caustic, that has reasons backed up into them are the most helpful comments that we can. Others more experienced and wiser than me have discussed what makes good critique, and I suggest you consider their thoughts on the topic.
However, while being helpful, there’s a balance to be made in how much it will effect our work.
Other things that we have to remember, is that how some people like liver and onions, some like creme brulee, and some are allergic to chocolate.
Some people want their stories so tight that you could bounce a corner off the pages like a barracks inspection, some want questions left unanswered to debate afterwards, and some people think that books are just things to take up space on shelves.
Some people appreciate the softness of Picasso, others insist that only Magritte captured the essence of reality, and others only would look at family photo album from time to time.
Then, adding to the mix of likes and dislikes, a person’s opinion can change with the passage of a couple of days; say if the reader was in a bad mood but felt better hours after writing that really scathing letter just tearing the poet apart and on a second read sees more merit in the words. It also may take years for a work to tip over into the lofty halls of “worthy” art, as is the case for many an artist who only found appreciation after death.
Really, it’s that wide range of response, that makes criticism a tricky thing to listen to. The inconsistencies can be particularly difficult if the fear of what will be said by others about our work is holding the creator back, just as it holds back many an artist. Most people don’t like hearing bad things, particularly if it’s about their work. But changing the art in response to a criticism might gain you a couple of people who like it more, but may also turn others off. Swapping out nuts for fruit in a tart will lose you anyone who really liked the texture of those nuts and dislikes the fruit you chose.
However, the most important lesson to learn as an artist is when to listen to anyone else at all or to just listen to ourselves.
My advice? Just damn the torpedoes, like Admiral Farragut, and create.
Express what you have to, because you’ll be driven crazy if you don’t. Just always consider criticism to be just as changeable as the people who are giving it, and if you want to let it inform how you develop as an artist, don’t let it rule every creation.