The other day I mentioned a comment by friend Kim Kirkpatrick made years and years ago that was so right that it has stuck with me ever since. The comment was "he edits out all his best ones!" That whole issue—the danger of not seeing your best "hits" and mistaking them for "misses"—has been in my consciousness ever since then.
It points up an interesting thing about criticism that I've noticed consistently through my life: little comments can be very vivid when they're right on.
Many years ago, when David Letterman was on NBC, another friend was commenting about what a good musician Paul Shaffer is. I demurred, saying I thought he was a facile musician rather than a good one. Facility isn't creativity. About the band, I said I thought it was "rock and roll Muzak." That friend said that comment always kept coming back to him whenever he watched the show. Little "almost-asides" like that is what I'm talking about. When they land, they last.
Connecting or cutting off
Criticism isn't a central art in our culture. Often, it's a chess-move, another aspect of game-playing. Its purpose is to make covert claims that are separate from whatever its overt purpose seems to be. Often, now, criticism is intended to be armor, to protect claims of value. It can mean to cut you off from the art: it says "you can't understand this, so your reactions or objections don't count." The classic goals of criticism—to explain and enlighten, to clarify rather than obfuscate—are thought to be somewhat quaint, even middlebrow.
But in my alternate reality, truth still matters in criticism. That is, criticism is better when it's right. And you can sometimes tell it's right because the critique really does stay with you. Even if it's just a comment.
I've written down many of these over the years. Of course then I lose them, so they only come up when something brings them up.
Over the years I've built up a sort of mental list of good criticism from various fields—writings that "pop" for me because of real insight and actual truth (rather than their facility and meta-functioning). I'll give just one example: one of the writers I follow, media critic Mark Crispin Miller, wrote an essay about Stanley Kubrick's film "Barry Lyndon" called Barry Lyndon Reconsidered* that really opened up that movie for me. It's an example of commodious criticism, criticism that helps. I've re-read it several times.
Back on the level of day-to-day reality, those little observations occasionally do have the power to stick. Be on the lookout for when they do. They can come from any source and they can be about anything you care about, whether it's car racing or a video game or whatever. When something like that won't go out of your head, it could be the Universe trying to tell you something. Pay attention.
(Thanks to KK)
*The online version linked here, possibly the product of early OCR software, contains lots of typos.
"Open Mike" is Yr. Hmbl. Ed.'s weekly aimless meander.
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Featured Comments from:
Richard Newman: "Re 'he edits out all his best ones!', why is this the case? Apparently the creator has different criteria than other evaluators. Is this that the creator finds some output meets the intent better, but the intent isn't communicated to other folk? Or is there some other issue? Or is there even any consistent factor involved?
Mike replies: It's not always the case, of course. Maybe not even often the case. The idea that it expresses, as you say, is just that people edit differently. By applying one set of criteria and going after one type of picture, the editor (who might be the photographer) might exclude pictures from the set that other people would value the most. That possibility is both a good cautionary for editors as they work, as well as a reminder that editing is an essential part of the accomplishment in photographic work.
Scott Johnston: "See 'Young Minds in Critical Condition,' by Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth, in the New York Times for additional interesting thoughts on criticism."
Joe Holmes: "I think I know exactly what you're talking about, though it happened to me in a slightly different context, so I may be off topic. I drew a lucky straw and had Alec Soth as my portfolio reviewer one year, and at the time I was on a misguided streak where I was influenced by that whole German school led by Bernd and Hilda Becher—not that they weren't amazing photographers, but my particular shyness had latched onto their architectual typology as a way to avoid dealing with people.
"And after I showed Alec my portfolio and explained my German School influences, he was silent for a moment and then he looked me in the eye and said, 'You don't seem very German to me.' He convinced me that I had the social tools to be good at portraits, and he turned out to be right, turning my practice around and opening up a much more satisfying set of projects in the long run. Actually maybe this story is right on point after all. His way of putting it was so gentle that it barely felt like a criticism of my work. Alec is a sweetheart in any case."
John Leathwick: "I recall reading long ago a comment by one of the leaders of the Venetian renaissance who was asked what had enabled them to pioneer such creativity when surrounded by almost universal artistic mediocrity. His reply—'We have learned the art of constructive criticism.' It is stuck in my mind ever since."
tax andrews: "Please let me share two beauties that have stayed with me for more 25 years.
"The first is about your own (or others') work. It was said to me by one of my professors in grad school: 'Don't let the technique get in the way of the work.' What's wonderful about this is that it cuts both ways. It was said to me while I was obsessing about craft issues in my work, but it can also be used to get someone to understand that they must tighten up on their craft. Superb advice.
"The other is about criticism itself, and its validity or lack thereof. It was something said in a seminar on Greek tregedy I was auditing with another professor, the rest of the class made up of some of the brighter students at the college where I was teaching in the '80s to early '90s. The man who said it was doing a visiting professor stint for a semester at the behest of a former student, now professor. I forget the man's name, but he was the dramaturg at Yale at the time, and incredibly erudite and wise man. I unfortunately have to paraphrase: 'Criticism is only valid if it is critical within the terms of the object of the criticism.' Crudely, then, don't criticize comedy for being insufficiently serious. You can immediately understand how this can clarify even some of the densest criticism. A superb observation, very pithy."
Mike replies: That second one also gets at a lot of why so much art is dismissed by the establishment. The artist isn't working within the criticial context and doesn't even understand the conversation, so of course they can't understand how their work functions within the critical context. Outsider art is almost like someone showing up at a party who speaks Mongolian but expects to be understood.
Ernest Zarate: "This is very much the advice I give my photo students: show your work to a lot of people. If for no other reason than to give the work the chance to see the light of day. As these people look at your work, pay close attention to them—the person, not the work. What do they linger over? What do they skip by? If one is fortunate enough to get a viewer who offers more than platitudes, listen carefully to what they say. A lot of it will be useless....but if you're lucky, every once in awhile, someone will say something that rings true! It will ring true because you already knew it, at some level. Their comment, even if it's a tossed off aside, if it rings true for you...that is a real gift. Cherish it. But the only way to get such gifts is to take that first step and show your work. No one said art was easy, or fun."
Mike replies: I'd say that cuts the other way, too. So many viewers of shows don't have any notion that that artist might like to hear what they think, when, in my experience, many artists actually do want to hear from people. I've had some good experiences over the years taking the time or trouble to contact artists whose work I have a reaction to.