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Big Ideas

A Modest Proposal: Better Criticism, More Art

Why waste time tearing someone else’s work down when you could respond a bit more... creatively?

Read a news piece you disagree with? Leave a raging comment (sometimes in ALL CAPS) or down-vote it. Buy a $0.99 app that doesn’t have every feature we think it should? Post a one-star review. Take to Twitter, time to badmouth it. We’ve all been there.

As a former 20-something snarky, criticizing jerk, I can tell you that there’s another way. We don’t need to cut each other down with off-hand dismissals or “I would have…” That’s both too easy and doesn’t achieve anything. How many times have we commented, tweeted or reviewed work that may have taken hundreds of hours to make, and reduced it to a scathing sentence or a single star? As creatives, we deserve better criticism than that.

And there is always someone on the other end of a scathing comment that probably poured everything into creating what you cut down.

Instead, I propose an alternative: disagreements should spawn more art instead of more arguments. The mechanisms for complaining (Twitter, comment forms, Facebook) are easy to access. However, the mechanisms for creating art take time and thought.

Disagreements should spawn more art instead of more arguments.

Instead of all of this time and energy being put into drive-by opinions and critiques, we would end up with a vast amount of new and creative work and useful criticism that makes the work better. The world would be richer by having a grand and diverse body of work with varying opinions and ideas on every subject. It may be easier and definitely faster to judge someone else’s work than it is to create your own. But I guarantee you that in the long run, it’s more fulfilling to do the latter.

After all, not all criticism is created equal. Actual, useful critiquing typically comes from solicitation on the part of the creator. Can you please proofread my writing? Does this website work for your company and speak to your audience? Does this video hit the right notes and is it on-brand?

By releasing work into the world, we are opening it up for feedback and criticism. This happens, and mostly, isn’t wrong or even harmful. But when something has taken weeks, months or even years to create—only to be cast down with a single sentence that took five seconds and little thought to write, how valid is it? Should we not put more thought and mindfulness into the criticism we publicly dole out?

Not all criticism is created equal.

Imagine I wrote a book to illustrate a point or to teach you something that I hope will help in your journey towards working for yourself. Let’s say it doesn’t resonate with you. Instead of opinionating about it, why not use that as fuel to write your own book? Fill it with points you think will help others. You can even cite mine as a reference as a case study for precisely what doesn’t work. And if people aren’t helped by it and find no value in it, maybe they can then write their own books. The same can apply to movies, paintings, anything. This advances a larger discussion around the work’s subject, far more than pot-shot Internet comments do.

We can all learn and grow from hearing what other people think of our work in the right context, and most of the time, when it’s solicited. It can challenge us to change and propel us in new directions or just break down our spirits.

Everything creative and meaningful is subjective and thus subjected to, “You could have done this better by…” When instead, maybe it should be, “I can do this better by…” and seeing new creative endeavors as the end result. 

Go create what you’d like to see, use, or enjoy. That’s really what the world needs. The next time you want to criticize, channel that energy toward your own voice, your own art.

And, yes, by all means, let me know what you think of this article in the comments below…

More Posts by Paul Jarvis

Comments (38)
  • Steve Viens

    Challenge accepted, you delightfully eloquent bastard.

    • Paul Jarvis

      I think I’ll add that to my bio, “Paul Jarvis—delightfully eloquent bastard”, I love it!

  • Gerry

    “By releasing work into the word”

    Should that be “world”?

  • Inte1ekt

    There’s a typo in the third sentence of the intro caption. It should be every, not ever.

    • Julia Kuzmenko McKim

      So unnecessary.

  • Beth

    I agree! Away with the armchair critics! Those who are working on their own products would also be in a position to give us more useable criticism. Thanks for the article.

  • Paul Jarvis

    Completely agree, the same logic applies to more than just the topic here.

  • Steve G. Bisig

    There is so much negative out there criticizing the hard work and creative efforts of others. Many of these people get their self worth by these efforts. I simply ignore them, especilally if it’s a pattern for them. Real constructive crititsim is welcome and a blessing. It can open your mind to new ideas and creativity or even sometimes lead you back to the drawing board to start over.

  • Evie_L

    Smarmy article is smarmy. I’d rather see some honest snark any day.

    • Tim Hall

      Not it isn’t. There’s a huge difference between informed constructive criiticism which is intended as part of process towards creating better art, and lazy trashing of an artists work without even attempting to engage with it. This article is calling for more of the former and less of the latter.

      Music criticism suffers from both too much snark *and* too much smarm.

      I would agree that the idea that you cannot critique art unless you have created equivalent art yourself is hogwash; if you are part of an artist’s intended audience, you’re able to express an option about the effect that art has on you.

  • mcatlett

    Reading stuff we disagree with is change-inspiring. I sometimes search out books – or posts – knowing that I’ll dislike what the author has to say just to challenge my perspective.

    That said, I’ve been known to throw some books in the trash.

  • clover

    I realized some time back that the all-opinions-no-deliverables crowd just plain bores me. These days I just tune out their noise. Constructive, actionable feedback from people who understand the creative process, though? That’s great stuff.

  • lloyd

    The point you make throughout the article is valid. However, your suggestion is quite hard to come to reality. Especially for those who do not participate in creative fields (they simply don’t understand!). I think it should be an artist’s job to actually see through those negative comments and make improvements with what is given as feedback.

  • Tim Hall

    I work as a software tester by day, and music critic by night. Both of them have a lot in common, in that they’re easy to do badly but a lot harder to do well. And both can occasionally involve treading on egos,

    Artists who cannot handle feedback that isn’t uncritical praise need to grow up. They’re as bad as the programmer who takes personal offence when a tester finds bugs in their code.

    I actually had musician (Ironically a software developer by day and rock star by night) who told me his scene needs more honest criticism. There are far too many uncritical fan reviewers who let artists get away with sub-par performances, and some artists need to be told when they need to sharpen up their act.

    Not that it excuses the snarky dismissals by some so-called professional reviewers who haven’t even tried to engage with what the artist is doing.

  • Julia Kuzmenko McKim

    Thank you! Yes, those who have not ever created anything that takes a lot of sweat, blood and tears to create, are so quick to judge and usually negatively. I will make sure to spread your article around, only I’m afraid folks of that type still won’t understand how hurtful, empty and pointless their quick judgmental comments are.

  • deconai

    Thank you, Paul, for such an inspirational idea. I have too often been the voice of criticism. It is all too easy. This is a great way to harness criticism into something more useful.

  • erik_rodne

    Perfectly positive pivot for the New Year, thank you for taking the time to write and share such a constructive article.

  • Celso Luiz

    Perfect, Douglas!

  • Sarah Peterson

    I completely agree with this crux of your article: “But when something has taken weeks, months or even years to create—only to be cast down with a single sentence that took five seconds and little thought to write, how valid is it?” Boy, how things would be different if we all used that little measuring stick to gauge our criticism! 🙂 I love that you’ve turned this around to a call for being more thoughtful, creative, and innovative. As we look through history, most innovation was born out of discontent with what was readily available. Great article! Thanks for this!

  • Tracy Jones

    Be the vehicle of creativity, rather than the derailing cynic.
    Revelation to an OCD spinster.
    Thank you.

  • Tim Hall

    What is and isn’t appreciated varies hugely from musician to musician, and that’s something I’ve found out the hard way. Some people get really touchy if you describe their music using comparisons with other artists, for exampe.

    One think I realise is that you do need to be part of an artist’s intended audience to be able to critique what they do. A lot of the worst snark in music writing comes from people trying to review things which just aren’t for them; often the whole thing degenerates into an extended sneer at the rest of the audience, who are derided for being too young/old/white/middle-class/whatever. Reviewing the audience rather than the art is one of the cardinal sins of music writing.

  • Peggy McElgunn

    great post — feedback is both difficult to give and receive. If you can’t do it well, refocusing on creating art is a great solution!! Love it!! PS — a possible definition of given feedback well is having the receiver understand and act on the guidance given!

  • Eli Neugeboren

    Criticism IRL should echo criticism we gave and got while in art school (if you went): if you don’t like something you should be able to articulate why you don’t like it and offer solutions to fix it. Same goes if you like something, you should be able to articulate why you like it.

    Knee-jerk reactions are fine, so long as you take the time to look at where that reaction came from and why you responded to the work that way. 140 characters don’t always allow us to unpack these reactions, and our culture today is much more about everyone having a reaction, any reaction, than having a deeper critical understanding of our reaction.

  • Darrin Of Davis

    This was really beautiful. I wholeheartedly agree. Be the change, yup.
    Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  • Kristen Kidder

    This applies in the corporate context too. One just has to understand that the “art” may have been a report, or a presentation, or a process. Corporate workers are “creating” all time. And criticism can be given well or poorly in any context. Whatever work we put ourselves into is creative work, and the instruction to choose growth and creativity over choosing to be stunted by poor criticism is a good reminder for us all.

  • David Crompton

    Thanks for this, Paul. I wholeheartedly agree with you and, more and more, find myself frustrated with the widespread outbreak of knee-jerk criticism. Well stated, sir!

  • The Mayor of There

    Interesting points, Paul. If I may respond?

    First, not all of us want to create in the same way as the art or craft we consume. I enjoy watching dance but I have no desire to be a dancer. That doesn’t mean that I, as a consumer of dance, as the audience for dance, can’t give helpful feedback.

    Secondly, sometimes a piece of work will resonate with me, but the resonance will foster a reaction of revulsion or disgust. Is my emotional response to that particular piece any less valid because I am moved in a way the artist was not likely intending?

    Thirdly, when it comes to criticism, we all have to learn to keep ourselves apart from our art once it has been released into the world. You may have spent hours or days, lovingly crafting this essay and it may hold a special place in your heart for the work you’ve put into it and the views it reflects. Yet none of that matters to me as the reader. I am looking at and critiquing the finished product. As such, my criticisms –should I offer them– are not of you, but of your completed work. Artists who take the stance that criticism of a piece of art is personal criticism very rarely grow as artists. Or as people.

    Thank you for fostering conversation on this very interesting topic.

  • Larry Nocella

    I’m with you 99%. I think not all criticism needs to result in, “Oh yeah, I can do better!” but not all criticism needs to be unconstructive, either. Regardless, a great article.

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