Critics

I have an aversion to criticism. I suppose we all do in our own way, and I’ve always been aware of it, but lately I’m recognizing the damage that can do. It has, from time to time, stopped me from being who I really am, or at least stopped me from fulfilling my potential as a worker among workers. That’s bad no matter what you do but it’s especially bad for those who make things and put them out there as gifts to whoever in the world might come across them and feel they need them and can use them or simply enjoy them: It’s bad for artists.

And don’t get me wrong, I can be critical of others. I can be disapproving and judgmental. And I’m perfectly willing – those who know me will agree – to point out when someone is intolerant. I’m extremely intolerant, as some are so fond of saying, of those who are intolerant.  But it has become harder and harder for me to be critical of those who create things, of artists, even if they’re amateurs or make mistakes – unless, of course, they’re mistakes of intolerance or works in support of it. Then they’re fair game and will receive a well-deserved verbal thumping. But even then, I try to offer alternatives or constructive criticism while mocking and ridiculing them mercilessly. 

But if it’s someone who takes a photograph, paints a picture, sings a song or does a dance, I’m more tolerant, more accepting of their efforts. I’ve always been “process oriented” but I’m starting to believe – and I’m not all the way there yet, admittedly – that the effort itself is the success. We’ve been conditioned, after all, to be critics of each other’s efforts. We see it on TV, in print, at home, in our schools and places of worship. We’re taught to create judgment to fill a void we believe exists where simple appreciation of the effort would be enough and live just fine.

Even those of us who strive to create what was not there before in an attempt to entertain, amuse or make people think or see the world in a different way practice the creation of criticism. With no attempt whatsoever at being constructive. Just to show how much we think we know by showing we know what we don’t like.  As if that, in itself, is a creation. It’s not as if what we criticize when we do this is going to change anyone’s mind, way of life or living conditions. It’s not like we’re going to affect change at all, as if, say, we became politically active or held our leader’s feet to the fire. That’s different, isn’t it?

We call our elected official’s decisions into question and someone’s life might be altered for the better. Someone who is hungry might be fed, or a road might be repaired, a disease might be eradicated or a terrorist attack might be prevented.  A life might literally be saved. But to criticize a singer for how they sing a song or a painter for how they applied paint to a canvas will change nothing. Unless it eases our pain, or inadequacy or however else we may we feel about our own inability to create something worthwhile to share with the world. Even criticizing that artist for expressing their opinion about politics, how to treat each other, religion, the weather or anything else proves nothing but how intolerant we are of other’s opinions.

My point is this: Which is more noble, to stand up and criticize those who seek to rule you, or sit there and criticize the artist who seeks to set you free?

You hear artists, actors, musicians, all creative souls no matter their discipline, disparage critics. And rightly so, most of them are hacks who wish they could do what they’re criticizing. I suppose there’s a role in society for the critic of movies, plays, literature and art, but I’ve never been able to figure out what it is exactly. To issue a warning, maybe?  To protect us from a creative effort that might “hurt” us if we see it? Someone is so wise they know something we don’t about what’s good or bad for us? Are some of us so lost we cannot explore for ourselves and make up our own minds about something without being led there by a stranger who has gone before?

My acting teacher and friend, Harry Mastrogeorge, has said: 

If, as an actor, as an instrument of illusion, you place “good” or “bad” before or after the creation, you diminish the result.

He’s trying to get us out of the habit of being self-critical, of stepping outside the conditions and circumstances of the story to judge our performance. Some artists mistake that for being self-aware or self-sufficient. I’ve been working on letting go of that for years, sometimes more successfully than others, which is why I still seek him as a teacher to help me remember it. And I think that, at its essence, is the critic’s job: To diminish the result. And we’re subjected to it more and more since the Internet has opened us up to each other the way it has.  Everyone has the means to be a critic so they are. And the need to please them has become even more pathological than it was already. 

I’ve been creating stuff, making stuff to share with people, for over 40 years now. I could say it doesn’t matter to me what people think of it – or me, since that’s what I offer up - but I’d be lying in an attempt to make myself sound “better than all that” or “above it all”.

What I can honestly say I don’t care about is what others think about my feelings about how we should treat each other. I believe, as Ram Dass said:

We’re just walking each other home.

If someone impedes that walk based on their intolerance, I’ll object to it. I’m intolerant of that impedance and those who create it. If you take issue with that, if my worldview offends you, I respectfully disinvite you from my world. I have no use for you until you need me to help you somehow, then I’ll do everything I can to do so. It’s how I was taught, how I was raised, I’m quite happy with it. It works.

As a performer, I’ve always considered myself an actor, sometimes an actor who sings. In the last 5 years I’ve returned to writing and singing my own songs, something I started doing when I was still in high school, which is a logical progression from writing prose and poetry, I think. Especially if you were raised on Bob Dylan and the Beatles.

My son Seamus and I were talking about writing songs yesterday as we drove home. We were talking about composers, he loves Chopin especially, and songwriters, and he said, "I can't think of a bigger compliment a songwriter could get than to have someone else play or sing their song." As a writer, I agreed. I can’t imagine any songwriter worth their salt disagreeing. I imagine it's only matched by someone wanting to perform a play you wrote. It's why we write them. What more is there? What opinion matters more? What people think of you and what you do? What you think of yourself doing it? Is a song just about hitting the notes? No, none of that is enough. In fact, I don't even care if a singer hits the notes. If they tell the story, if the song is well acted and by that I mean they’ve been true to the writer’s intent and the conditions and circumstances, they've done their job.

Sure, it’s nice to listen to pleasing sounds when sung by those with beautiful instruments. But do you think characters in a musical break out in song at that moment because they have to hit the notes or sound good? No! They bust out in song because it's the only way for them to express the enormity of what they're feeling. Their emotions are so huge they have to sing about them. Singing is just screaming emotion when it's too big to be spoken in my opinion. Nothing else will do it. Why is any other song in any other context any different? I wish I could remember that when I sing. I wish I could do it when I remember it. For someone to stand in front of people and sing, man. That's naked, that’s exposed. People take it for granted. There are whole cultures built upon singing as a way of expressing the real self. In some cultures, you don’t even exist if you don't have a song to sing. In fact, you have to have a song and sing it to even belong.

I want to live in that world. The critics would disappear.

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