Creation and Criticism

Woman looking at painting

The original title of this post was, “Criticism is easy, creation is hard.” I wrote that and then looked at it for a while. I realized that it was a good conversation starter but a drastic oversimplification of the truth.

The essence of my thought was this: creating something, whether it be a song, poem, painting, idea, system, process, tool, design, a piece of pottery, an app, a website, a logo, a blog post, anything, requires energy and vulnerability. To create, you freely pour energy into a process and then, at some moment, something exists that didn’t exist before.

Light breaking in to chaos

In Genesis, when God finished creating something, God “saw that it was good.” We do the same thing, on a more limited scale. When a developer creates an app, she might decide it is garbage and start over. She might decide it is okay, and it needs more work. Or, she might decide that it is good. When she does, she releases this creation she sees as good into the world. And that is always a courageous act of faith and vulnerability. Because every creator knows that it is incredibly likely that someone is going to say that this thing we call good is actually bad.

Gavel and Law BooksAnd that can feel really, really bad. But is criticism necessarily negative? That is a complicated question. “Critic” and “criticism”, as we look at them all the way back to their Latin and Greek roots, carry the meaning of “judgement.” For many “judgement” holds a negative connotation. However, all people and societies of have some mechanism for judging what is good or bad, right or wrong, legal or illegal. Judgement is not inherently wrong, but it can be wielded inappropriately.

It is standard to say that some sort of “constructive criticism” is necessary. We even help creatives learn how to receive criticism in a healthy way. Those things are likely true and important but still problematic because of language. The word “criticism” has itself gained a negative connotation over the years. This is recorded in many dictionary definitions like this one from Merriam-Webster

the act of expressing disapproval and of noting the problems or faults of a person or thing: the act of criticizing someone or something[1]

That is not the only definition, and that is not the only dictionary, but I think that is the feeling many attach to criticism. And that is what makes it hard on those who create. Of course, creators need thicker skin but critics also need to realize their role in the creative process.

What creatives need is feedback. Creatives need and want to get better at their craft and create better things. They want and need feedback to make that happen. A critical eye and a certain level of judgement can be helpful.

As one who creates and one is is often in a position to help other creatives get better at their craft, I need to ask myself some of questions before I open my mouth or start typing words of critique.

#1 Have I earned the right, responsibility and permission to offer feedback in this case?

Sermon Editing

I have developed and preached quite a few sermons in my time as a pastor. When I go to church, do I have the right, responsibility, and permission to walk up to the pastor afterward and critique the sermon? Probably not. If a pastor who is new to the ministry invites me to read or listen and offer feedback, likely yes. If I am on an interview team for someone’s ordination process, and they submit a sermon, then definitely yes.

We seem to live in a current reality where everyone feels they have the right, responsibility and permission to offer feedback. And really, in a society where free speech is so central, we really do all have the right. However, just because it is our right, it doesn’t mean we should always exercise it.

#2 Am I honoring the creator?

Thank you for creating this commentBefore I open my mouth, pick up my pen, or start typing, have I paused to realize that this thing I am evaluating is something that someone created and called good? This is different than just throwing out some flowery language to make someone feel better. This is about an internal remembrance that this song, sermon, app, Facebook post, process or whatever, is sacred in that it was created by a human being. It might not yet be the best it could be. It might need drastic help and revision. The creator might need to start completely from scratch. But there needs to be some thought and respect given to the act of creation itself.

There are times my wife and I sit down to watch a movie. Sometimes, somewhere during the film, we realize that it is not entertaining us, informing us, or causing us to think. We get to the end of the movie and sometimes reflect, “Wow. That was a terrible movie.” I often pause and wonder, “How did that happen?” To produce a modern movie at all takes an inordinate amount of money, effort and talent. Sometimes it doesn’t come out as expected and sometimes people don’t react as expected. I often wonder after watching a movie that just didn’t click, “Did the producer, director and talent watch the final version of this creation and call it good? Or, did they realize it didn’t work but had to release it anyway just to recoup costs?” Either way, they created something.

#3 Am I criticising to help someone? Or, am I just trying to make myself feel better?

This nasty comment will not really make me feel better about myself.

When I enter into the role of critic, I need to stop for some reflection and confession. Sometimes our own precious creations wilt a bit in the bright light of criticism. It can give us a moment of temporary relief if we can find some fault in someone else’s creation. I have to catch myself in those moments and stop. If that is what is in my mind, there is no point in trying to help. I need to change my perspective before I can add to someone else’s creation.

It is easier than ever to be a critic. With the arrival of social media, I can instantly express my opinion of anything. It is also easier than ever to be a creator. Anyone with access to a computer and the internet can release a creation into the world. These two forces combined create a world where creators can release something they call “good” into the world and in that world, that creation can be instantly crushed by criticism. That act of courage and faith can be ripped to shreds without anyone ever honoring that it was created in the first place.

So, creators, we need to be braver than ever. We need to find ways to celebrate our work and do our best to use criticism to help us tune our craft.

So, critics, we need to own our role in that creative process. We need to honor creators. We need to think through our judgments. If our motivations are pure, we can help in the creative process. If they are not, we can crush the spirits of those who are brave enough to make beautiful things. And what is the point of that?

I regularly blog, deliver sermons, produce videos, and create a myriad of other little things. I am used to the criticism. I try to use it to get better. But sometimes, it still hits a sore spot and makes me think twice about releasing the next “good” thing into the world.

Of course, I always welcome your feedback in the comments below. Although, it is always a little frightening to do so!

[1] “Simple Definition of Criticism”, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/criticism accessed 2/10/16

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