Sunday, July 18, 2010

Criticism: How We Miss Each Other

Today on twitter Rev. Naomi posted some interesting questions about criticism. As often happens with her broad, open ended questions, a discussion ensued.

It wasn't until we were far into the discussion that it hit home that her definition of criticism and my definition of criticism were two very different things.

Now, I'd like to think that I have an informed opinion on this. I took a year long class in dramatic criticism from Chris Jones, the Chicago Tribune Theatre Critic. I've hosted a panel discussion of local theatre critics, I've been to a panel discussion on the role of the critic in new play development, and I interviewed our local critics for The Dramatist magazine. I've also spent countless hours talking about the role of the critic and criticism with my friends.

I came to this discussion with all the following understandings of criticism:

1. Criticism isn't personal. Now, with many artists, we often feel that criticism of our work is an attack on our being. Not true, but it happens. I've been prone to it. That's why I like the Liz Lerman technique, because it allows for that necessary emotional distance to form. A personal attack is NOT criticism.

2. Criticism is specific. It isn't this thing sucks, but this thing is problematic because of x, y, and z.

3. Criticism is informed. If I have an opinion on something I know nothing about, it isn't criticism. It's just an uninformed opinion.

These are my basic tenants of criticism that I brought to this discussion.

I have a suspicion that I was the only one who brought this understanding of criticism to the table. It's been confirmed by Ila's separation of criticism and feedback. For me, part of criticism is the art of giving feedback.

I would like to think my opinion is informed -- I've spent a lot of time thinking about this. But it comes from a very specific cultural background and context.

And now I wonder what I missed because my understanding of what constitutes criticism is so very different from what everyone else's understanding in that discussion.

I wonder if I could go back and have that discussion again where we had one working definition of criticism. Would I have said that I love asking questions if my definition of criticism was the same as others? I'm not sure. I'm also still unsure of what the consensus of criticism means in that context. That definition, from what I can glean, seems to be a lot more personal and negative. To be honest, I'm not sure if that definition will be helpful to my furthering understanding of criticism.

The interesting aspect of this is that it proves that we all come to a discussion with our own definitions, contexts, and biases. If I had this conversation with the 2amt crowd, we would have had a similar working definition of criticism. But we all view the world from a very specific lens.

However, I seriously missed where others were coming from today and I think everyone missed me. We had a conversation, but we weren't able to really understand each other. It's a fascinating case study in how we can miss each other, even with people whom we know well and who know us extremely well.

I once complained that Unitarian Universalists constantly search for concrete meanings for abstract nouns. At the time, I was really annoyed because people were arguing over the term "faith development." I understand the impulse a little more now, but I think the better way to deal with it is to ascertain a common understanding, with the knowledge that concepts mean different things to different people. No one looks at the world in exactly the same way.