Reflection on “Why I Don’t Insist on ‘Constructive’ Criticism” by Davood Gozli

“Unleashing Criticism” Versus “Constructive Criticism”

Should criticism inspire?

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If you’re looking for insight on YouTube, you can’t do much better than Davood Gozli’s channel. Wonderful book reviews, profound explanations — the channel is rich. Recently, Davood explored the topic of criticism, which I couldn’t help but reflect on.

Does criticism “construct” creators? Are creators and artists balls of unformed clay that, without critical direction, spend all their days as lumps of nothing? That might be what critics like to think, for that makes them extremely important, and furthermore the metaphor makes creators out to be children lost in the dark, stumbling around, trying to figure out what to do. The children are forever lost until someone comes along with “a lamp of criticism” to help the creators find their way, and forever forth, the creators are in the debts of “the lamp bringer.”

Susan Sontag makes a convincing case that metaphors matter, that if we think of having cancer as a “war,” that this will impact how we fight it. Douglas Hofstadter, George Lakoff, Mark Johnson — all of them make it clear that the metaphors we use don’t merely express our thought but shape it. When it comes to criticism, Davood makes it clear that metaphoric carelessness has been costly. Critique needs critique.

In the movie Birdman, there’s a scene where Michael Keaton goes off on a stage critic:

‘There’s nothing here about technique! There’s nothing in here about structure! There’s nothing in here about intentions! It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons…You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what? None of this cost you [] anything! […] You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! […] This play cost me everything…’

Edward Norton drops another harsh line:

‘A man becomes a critic when he cannot become an artist, the same way a man becomes an informer when he cannot become a soldier.’

Ouch, talk about critiquing the critic— why so much bad blood? Well, the metaphor of “constructive criticism” could be part of the problem: the relationship between critics and creators can come off as “zero-sum” versus “non-zero-sum,” a “master-slave” connection versus a mutually beneficial partnership.

Note that the main criticism levied by Keaton at the critic is not that the critic says harsh things, but that she says things without having to pay a price for saying them (and toward people who have paid a heavy price). It seems unfair, especially if critics get to be made out to be “first movers,” those whose criticism is why artists become great. With this kind of language, social incentives favor becoming a critic — I mean, why would anyone risk being a creator if all the honor is found elsewhere? Hence, due to the wrong metaphors, we could end up in a less beautiful and developed world.

But criticism can make a big difference in the life of an artist and very much help a creator reach the next level, so how do we strike the right balance? Well, this is where I think Davood’s thinking can be so useful: changing our metaphoric language from orbing around “(de)construction” to “unleashing” and/or “inspiring” — artistic metaphors that suggest co-laboring versus judgment — could help critics understand their role better, and also help people in general know how they should provide feedback to their friends and neighbors. Furthermore, the critic and the creator will both better see their roles as part of the creative process.

Creators are the “first movers” in their creations, not critics, but a creator without feedback will probably stay a novice. We’re all prone to confirmation bias, psychological blind spots, overvaluing how clear our intentions are, etc. — we need to hear from others to escape the bubble of ourselves. But creators don’t so much need others to construct their work, but instead to stop them from holding themselves back. We ourselves can get in the way of our own creations; we can be our own leashes. But with the right critic who inspires us to face our confirmation biases, weaknesses, and the like, we can unleash ourselves.

Creators are the “first movers,” but critics can help creators keep moving. We need to both avoid elevating the critic so high that all the incentives rest on the side of becoming a critic over a creator, and simultaneously we need to avoid thinking of creators as delicate creatures who can’t handle criticism. That said, criticism that follows a “(de)constructive” metaphor will probably not be in the right spirit to stimulate the creator to produce better work — the difficult sting of criticism won’t necessarily prove productive or worth it.

We need to think of the purpose of criticism as a force that unleashes the creator, a source of inspiration. Critics need to be more inspiring than judgmental and validating: this would help creators and critics feel like they are on the same team, and social incentives would cease being overly on the side of criticism. Criticism is indeed a necessary part of the creative process, but not as a force of construction but as a force of inspiration. Therefore, when it comes time for us to offer a critique of someone’s work, we should tell them the truth, but also motivate them to unleash themselves. We should do what the best teachers do and inspire.

That said, providing inspiration doesn’t just “happen”: it takes work to have the ability to unleash others. In this way, the critic becomes responsible for developing his or her self: both the creator and the critic must engage in (self) creative acts. If I’m actually going to help a writer improve her work, I will need to have put countless hours into reading and studying literature; if I’m going to inspire an actor to become great, I will need to have glimpsed that greatness myself. Inspiration takes work, as does creation, and on these grounds, the creator and the critic can share mutual respect: “the master-slave relationship” can become more like the Bloomsbury Group.

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