Hello there, Sarah the Frase here, steeling myself to talk to you about the subject that I find the most cringe-worthy: critique.
Artists often think being critiqued is the same thing as being shamed or misunderstood because of our past experiences. To be fair, some shaming can take place under the banner of critique. Even within a valid critique when one of the critiques is a failure to understand what the artist is doing, she can feel misunderstood. But critique and shaming and misunderstanding are NOT synonyms, regardless of how we perceive them.
Artists…So Many Feels
Perhaps you’ve noticed that artists don’t place a high value on normalcy. Many artists have described their need to create art almost as a compulsion. Others describe feeling like a deranged person when they’re doing that volcanic two-step often referred to as “the creative process.” Speaking of writers Anne Lamott writes:
“They want to know why they feel so crazy when they sit down to work…write one sentence and see with horror that it is a bad one, and then every major form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout—the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing… the paranoia.”[i]
In spite of this experience, we still want to reach an audience with our work. As consummate actor Marlon Brando put it, “I just want to be normally insane.”[ii]
Melodramatic? Maybe. Some artists play into that reputation as part of their branding. Yet many artists describe themselves matter-of-factly using neurotic or dramatic language because it speaks the most accurately about their experience. By writing in first person about myself I discovered that I related more to an autistic child in need of a weighted blanket than I did to the pop-song listening peer in the room with me.
Yes, I just spent a couple paragraphs telling you that Artists are sensitive people who feel things deeply. This is not breaking news. Where this reality intersects with critique is that Artists can let that sensitivity and their real emotional wounds cloud their ability to receive critique and weigh it rightly. An artist who has not prepared himself may become reactive to critique so that he falls somewhere on the spectrum between two destructive extremes: the impenetrable fortress or the blank check. Yet neither of these can be an option for a good artist.
The artist’s maturity and willingness to grant others the benefit of the doubt come into play when facing a critique.
Artists are called to critique. We don’t get to opt out because it is difficult or because God has chosen us to create art. To desire excellence, and servanthood, and to fight for beauty, truth, and goodness to bleed through our art, this is to desire Him. And Jesus has not left us orphans, nor taken us out of the world, He places us in communities and asks us to hear them.
To hear the voice of the other in regard to our art is to love the other as ourselves.
The Impenetrable Fortress Artist
In this case, the artist says in response to being critiqued: “Since I am only responsible to myself and to God for what I do in my art, ergo, nothing you say is valid.” You are perfectly justified in saying this if your name is Jesus and you are a member of the Trinity. If not, this stance towards critique is starkly similar to the Pharisees, the group that Jesus critiqued in scathing terms in His day. Even those seeking God and living righteous lives, those who, unlike the Pharisees, are filled with the Holy Spirit are capable of creating a poor mixed media painting or failing to fully develop a character in a short story. I’ve done both.
No artist is a fortress in himself. Not even Emily Dickinson.
One of the reasons impenetrable fortress artists exist is that post-modern world argues that because truth is subjective, aesthetic beauty must be subjective too. In other words, we can’t really determine what a good or well-written novel is, but only acknowledge that some people like it and some don’t: the “different strokes for different folks” mentality. But nobody really believes this argument as Rotten Tomatoes and online comment streams easily prove.
As artists and Christians, our belief in an absolute Triune God should shape our view of beauty.
One of my favorite seminary professors, Dr. Douglas K. Blount often observed that if as Christians we believe in the existence of absolute truth and absolute goodness then we must also believe that there is an absolute beauty. Which also means as artists we need to humble ourselves by recognizing that we do not always know what is beautiful or what will work best in our art.
To put it another way, “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgment” (Proverbs 18:1) and “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together… exhorting one another” (Hebrews 10:24–25).
The Blank Check Artist
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the impenetrable fortress, the blank check artist says in response to being critiqued, “To receive correction is a way to imitate Christ, therefore everything you say I should change about my art I must change in order to glorify God.” While the other artist spiritualized being accountable to no one, this artist spiritualizes being accountable to everyone. Without realizing it, she has stepped into an unhealthy fear of man. An artist who gives a blank check to all criticism she receives allows people who lack expertise or don’t have the big picture of what God has called her to do with her art to permanently change it.
If I share a rough draft short story with Stephen King and with a high school student, and one of them tells me that I should cut out a character that is just taking up space, the other disagrees that the character is critical to the wholeness of the story, who do I listen to? Even this is not an easy answer, for while King has the expertise, what if my short story audience is specifically teenagers? And what if instead of a short story I realize that this is actually the first chapter of a novel where that character is going to be developed later on? I know what I’m doing with this character and my readers don’t.
No Longer Reactionary: Free Yourself Up
I used to be so reactive to critiques that I either made all the changes immediately or I outright rejected them, because I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. And I fluctuate. Sometimes I am nearer to being an impenetrable fortress, other times I give my critics a blank check to change my work. This depends on the power I’ve given to the voice that is critiquing me. Do you privilege authority figures, artists who excel in excellence, peers in the trenches with you, the average joe or jane, or the stranger when it comes to reactions to your art? Knowing who you heed and who you don’t is the first step to understanding how you already interact with critique.
Once you know who you need to critique your art, it’s time to gird up your loins and set specific boundaries for yourself.
During the critique, remain silent, resisting the temptation to respond to what is being said. This is a critical practice for two reasons:
- If your art can’t speak for itself without you explaining it, then it’s not doing its job to communicate or invoke the reaction you want from your audience.
- Anything you say will shape how your audience perceives your art irrevocably, and you are robbed of honest or accurate reactions to your art.
Don’t Qualify Yourself or Your Work
If you’ve ever been to an open mic night, or a slam poetry session and cringed because the person gave a two minute introduction to their work such as they wrote it three days after the passing of their cat Princess Azalea, while inside the car at a carwash listening to the new Calvin Harris single on their way to a free-form dance class, realize this is exactly how you sound when you try to explain your work before it is critiqued. Resistance is NOT futile. Artists who desire critique can have the confidence and the self-control of reading only their work. Don’t qualify yourself, before or after.
Ask Clarifying Questions
It is okay to ask questions to clarify the feedback you’ve received in a critique. But again, there is a good way and a poor way of asking for clarity. Don’t ask a question that includes a defense of yourself or an explanation of your work.
Don’t ask: “When you say I need more sensory details, do I have to add them here when really I’m trying to show that my narrator is an android and doesn’t have conventional senses?”
Do ask: “What do you want more sensory details about?”
Do ask: “What part of the piece/performance is confusing?
Do ask: “Why did you like this part? What about it did you like?”
And really listen to the answers. Critiques may feel like standing before American Idol judges, but really they are closer to having your own captive test audience. Get all you can from them.
Be Aware of Your Triggers
Keep in mind that the terms people use in response to your work may hold different meanings for them than they do for you, and be aware of your own triggers. I had a fellow writer and close friend who wrote “Boo” several times on the margin of one the stories I shared in a graduate school creative writing class. That word destroyed me because as someone who had taught high school theatre for seven years, the word Boo communicated one thing to me: “Get the hell off the stage—you don’t belong.”
For two weeks I walked around in the grief that this repeated comment gave me before I finally talked to my friend about it. Growing up he and his brothers used “boo” as a term of playful dogging affection, meaning something along the lines of, “come on bro, you’re better than this.” He had used this term because of the closeness of our acquaintance, and here I was giving myself grief that he considered me the most terrible writer on the planet.
If you have a strong reaction to a critique, ask yourself, is this really about what’s being said or is something in what I heard triggering a reaction?
Have a Waiting Period
To keep from being reactive in your changes establish a waiting period. Mine is to read all the critiques the day I see them, but I am not allowed to make any changes for two days. If I have a stronger reaction to the critique, sometimes I make myself wait for a week. That two day waiting period also gives me time to cool off if I find I am summarily rejecting a critique in anger. Time passing puts distance between your emotional reactions to critique, allowing yourself to revisit the feedback with fresh eyes.
Build a Data Set
Not only do I weigh the power I should give to each critic in the conversation based on what I want to accomplish as an artist, I also look for patterns in all the critiques. If they are written, I literally lay them all out on the floor and visually scan for common markings or responses. If everybody found that sentence awkward, it’s awkward regardless of how much I am in love with the words it contains. If everybody lost interest at the four-minute mark of my performance, then I likely need to cut it down to three minutes.
All of this is hard work, it is even painful, but it is also good. By critique, I grow in excellence as an artist and in maturity as a person. No matter how successful my art has been, no matter how powerfully God has worked through my art in the past, I never get to just side-step the process.
So feel free to share your critiques in the comments below.
I hear you. I’m listening.
[i] Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. 1st Anchor Books Ed. (New York: Anchor Books, 1995) 10-11.
[ii] Mardy Grothe. Oxymoronica:Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths. 1st ed. (New York: Harper Resource, 2004) 126.