On The Morality Of The Critical Arts

Why should you care about criticism?  As is often the case, I speak mainly from my own experience, but at least in my own observation and personal experience I think that most if not all of us care about criticism.  Many of us, myself included, are fairly thin-skinned about the criticism that we receive about so many things, and I must freely admit that this generally thin-skinned nature fuels a great deal of my writing, so that I can maintain a sense of equanimity in the face of what I view as unkind and malicious and unwarranted criticism.  Some people are of the opinion, probably cultivated since childhood, that telling others that they don’t care will convey that point to others even though many people are sophisticated enough to understand that when someone says that they do not care about criticism that means that they care very much about it [1].  On the other hand, we should not only care about criticism because we generally dislike and resent receiving it, but because in one sense all of us are critics.  I would dare say that no one I have ever seen has made it even to elementary school, perhaps not even preschool, without having become a critic.  Any time a small child turns their nose up at some sort of food that they dislike, whether or not they can articulate the reasons why, they have become a critic.  They have weighed and balanced some aspect of their world, be it a book or a television show or an item of food or a color or style of clothing that has been offered for them and they have found it wanting.  From that point onward we are all critics, whether or not anyone cares about our opinion or not, or whether we in fact realize that we are critics, and once we are critics, the subject of the legitimacy of criticism as we direct it at the world around us and the world directs it at us is a subject of interest to all of us, whether or not we think about it in a formal sense.

Why is being a critic so appealing?  Given that so few of us appreciate receiving criticism, why is dishing it out so appealing to us?  I hate criticism perhaps even more than most people do, but I dish out criticism on a massive scale.  How massive?  Well, considering that I review around a couple of books a day on top of the occasional movie, restaurant, hotel, or other product, it is fair to say that I dish out a lot of criticism.  Even if most of my reviews are positive, they are still critical.  I dish out plenty of criticism, even if much of it is gentle and friendly in nature.  The same is probably true for most people.  If we are critics of the food our loved ones prepare, for example, we are critics who want to like the food and do not wish to be unfriendly by our comments.  Being a critic is appealing, at least as someone who gives criticism a lot, on several grounds.  For one, it allows us to air our opinions in a way that communicates to others something that we would like to see them change or, alternatively, keep doing.  Whether positive or negative, criticism includes what the critic is paying attention to, whether they like it or not.  What questions and concerns drive the critic will be plain to see from the aspects of a work they draw attention to, or charitably and silently pass over.  For another, once our opinion is recognized by others as being worthwhile, or at least important enough to answer when we feel it mistaken or potentially harmful to us, the general regard our criticism is held in allows us to be a judge or a gatekeeper, because our opinion is seen as one that matters, and once that happens, our criticism carries a certain amount of weight and influence upon others who do not want to take the time that we have to become familiar something but want to outsource at least some of their gatekeeping responsibilities to someone else with more time and energy to spare.

Given, then, that we are all critics in some fashion, whether or not we like receiving it, and that criticism is appealing to us on some level, where is the moral legitimacy we have for being critics?  Whether or not it is strictly necessary, those engaged in the critical arts feel it necessary to justify their existence.  I once had a friend who struggled mightily with depression who came to the same undergraduate university I did with the aim of becoming a film critic, and found himself deeply weighed down by the negativity of his area of study.  He chose, in the interests of his own sanity, to change his major to something that was less negative in nature, and I do not think that blameworthy.  As a Christian, I tend to look at the Bible when it comes to providing the legitimacy of a given task, and certainly the critical arts fall under this.  Psalm 141:5 gives us the perspective of David on criticism:  “Let the righteous strike me; it shall be a kindness.  And let him rebuke me; it shall be as excellent oil; let my head not refuse it.”  Clearly, David was someone who accepted the legitimacy of the criticism of the righteous; let us hope at least that we are righteous when it comes to dishing out rebuke.  2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  While this is a good place to go to in order to support one’s belief in plenary inspiration, it also serves as a reminder that Paul was under no illusions as to the fact that the Bible often gives us stern rebuke and correction of our ways where they fall short of God’s ways, and they often do.  If we read the books of 1 and 2 Kings, we will see over and over again that the anonymous chronicler provides pithy and critical statements about all of the monarchs to reign over Judah and Israel.  Let us look at one example chosen at random from 2 Kings 15:1-5:  “In the twenty-seventh year of Jeroboam king of Israel, Azariah the son of Amaziah, king of Judah, became king.  He was sixteen years old when he became king, and he reigned fifty-two years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jecholiah of Jerusalem.  And he did what was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father Amaziah had done, except that the high places were not removed; the people still sacrificed and burned incense on the high places.  Then the Lord struck the king, so that he was a leper until the day of his death; so he dwelt in an isolated house. And Jotham the king’s son was over the royal house, judging the people of the land.”  Here we see a generally but not completely positive review of a ruler that indicates that the author of this book was someone who had a consistent standard of criticism by which he judged the rulers of God’s people, who likely appreciated criticism even less than most people, and unlike most people had the power to make criticism a dangerous task requiring a fair amount of bravery.  There are dozens more reviews like it in 1 and 2 Kings, most of them far more negative.

What can we do about criticism?  Try as we might, there is little that we do about the criticism of other people to us or to others.  We may, somewhat hypocritically, criticize them for their critical attitudes, but we cannot attempt to delegitimize the criticism of others without showing ourselves to be critics and therefore attacking the ground that we stand on when we criticize others.  What we can do is examine how it is that we criticize others and how it is that we handle criticism towards us.  Despite the considerable pleasures we have in sharing our opinion about various matters, our awareness and recognition of our sensitivities towards the criticism we receive should at least serve to remove the sting from our own criticisms of others.  It is generally safe to assume that others are as sensitive as we are, even if their sensitivities are different from our own, and that we should treat others with the graciousness that we want others to treat us with.  Likewise, if we want to become better people, or better at what we do, we are likely going to have to get used to handling criticism in a productive way.  If others are too awkward and clumsy in delivering their own critiques, we might have to remove some of the sting we feel from such criticism before we can profit from it, but even the most unkind of critics is doing us a favor by airing their criticism rather than keeping it hidden in their hearts.  After all, a critic reveals a great deal about himself (or herself) in the act of criticism.  A critic reveals the standards by which they judge the works of others, their concerns and their own sensitivities, and in so doing we owe them a favor, for by acquainting ourselves with the criticisms of others we can get to know others better, as long as we can avoid being stuck on our own pain and displeasure at receiving the criticism of others.  Our critics do us a favor by pointing out areas we fall short in, matters we neglect to pay attention to of interest and concern to others, and faults in our logic and reasoning that we would do well to tighten up.  Whether or not we like hearing or reading such criticism, we would do well to pay attention to it and use it to spur our own growth and development.  There is always room for us to improve ourselves, and so there is no end to the criticism that we receive, just as this world offers us no shortage of things to criticize ourselves.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/08/22/shake-it-off/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/12/14/we-drink-your-milkshake/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/04/05/shakespeare-must-die/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/01/17/book-review-breaking-up-is-hard-to-do-but-you-could-have-done-better/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/01/03/look-what-you-made-me-do/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/12/16/book-review-how-to-tame-dragons-and-hush-hyenas/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On The Morality Of The Critical Arts

  1. Pingback: Interview With A Critic | Edge Induced Cohesion

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