Criticism and Creativity

You’ve started  your creative project. You are happy with it, for the most part. You decide to ask for a critque. Perhaps someone gets too enthusiastic. No one stops the critique which amps up into harsh criticism. You defend your project, then begin to believe  the crticism. Then there is no more project.

The next time you start a project, you create your own criticism and the project never gets started.

My Inner Critic. PittPen on watercolor paper. © Quinn McDonald, 2012

My Inner Critic. PittPen on watercolor paper. © Quinn McDonald, 2012

Criticism is hard to handle right, and harder to survive. Martha Beck wisely says, “Criticism is an alluring substitute for creation, because tearing things down, unlike building them up, really is as easy as falling off a stump. It’s blissfully simple to strike a savvy, sophisticated pose by attacking someone else’s creations, but the old  adage is right: Any fool can burn down a barn. Building one is something else again.” 

If you want opinions, don’t ask for “feedback,” or a “critique.” Don’t open your creative work for random, unfiltered opinions. Don’t ask “tell me what you think,” or “what’s missing?”  You really don’t want to know what  otheres think. Instead, be specific. Even if you are the only one critiquing, be specific with your thinking.

What do you want the outcome to be? A next step? Ask, “What’s my next step to complete this landscape?” Not sure of your color balance? Ask, “Do I need to lighten the shadows to make this less gloomy?” Once the conversation starts, you can switch from closed-ended questions (those answered with one or two words) to open-ended questions (those that require a thoughtful answer or open a conversation.)

If you are asked to lead a critique, ask the artist what specifically she would like to know about.  Color? Technique? Composition? Ask a few questions about what the artists was thinking and planning before you say anything. Listen to the intent, then work on content.

Building a barn is hard work. Contribute to the hard work, or step away.

—Quinn McDonald has a lot of torn down lumber for new creative  projects.

9 thoughts on “Criticism and Creativity

  1. Although it’s not quite the same as art, developing software entails intense criticism. It can be at the level of the smallest detail or the overall architecture or design. It can be in a small setting; just two of you in an office, and sometimes in a meeting of 40 people you’re suddenly the focus of attention.

    This could — and probably should — be withering. But it isn’t. It’s helpful; you learn. Sure, when your ongoing work is suddenly the focus of a room full of people it can be uncomfortable, but that has more to do with engineers being generally introverted.

    Why is it helpful rather than withering? I think it’s because:

    everybody offering criticism has similar skills; we don’t, for example, ask for feedback from the accountants
    all the criticism is considered; it’s not asked for on the spur of the moment.
    when you’re one of the critics, you care about your comments.
    everyone generally shares the same attitude: the problems are difficult, everybody makes mistakes, there’s always another way

  2. When I want self-justification I ask my DH ‘What do you think’. He always says, almost without raising his eyes from his book. ‘I see you’ve been playing again’. I’ve learned the hard way that there are some people you just don’t ask. Friends who can really off an objective critique are few and far between and need to be nurtured. Great post, thanks.

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