A Whole Different Way To Critique

And a clue about what consumerism costs us


Hi folks!

Something a little bit different today (for a change – ha!)

I have been drawing, making music and writing ever since I was a kid. There are years of my life when I did a lot more of one than the others, but no years in the last fifty plus, when I wasn’t busy making something.

But I’m also a freak – raised in a cult and hard-knocks since – so I have lived a working and underclass life, not ever a part of the comfy middle. The weird thing is that I love books and art culture so much that a lot of folks who are most like me in lifestyle, suspect that I am of a fancier and more vanity inspired cohort.

This is an easy mistake to make (and for those who find my language disappointingly non-rigorous or outright colloquial in places, this is that why – ‘kay?)

In a funny way, I can effectively “Pass” for one of the coddled and universitied – but the temporary acceptance I can win with my cleverness always has limits – and just like for many other people – the point where my working class ‘tells’ show, inevitably provokes clear disgust from those who almost ‘let down the side’ and thought me a worthy member.

Which is painful as heck, of course, but also fine (something I can say now, as a mature man, far more easily than when I was a kid having dreams crushed).

The reason the pain of the exclusion is worth-it (despite the real costs in not just hope and connection, but also work and pay), is that by refusing me membership, they have also spared me from having to drink their soul-deadening kool aid.

To be clear – I’m not claiming I ever had the moral strength to outright reject that temptation – I’m just saying that underclassers are still so profoundly unwelcome (in all culture fiefdoms) that I was never made to face the temptation for real. Even where no outsiders present as targets, “The Poor” have long been western culture’s favourite go-to untouchable caste.

It is well understood in psychology, that many people would rather preserve an advantage over others – than be much wealthier than before, but also lose that ‘better-than’ status.

In terms of middle class culture and its gatekeepers, fancy really doesn’t seem to feel entirely satisfying, unless they can point to those who aren’t, the lowlifes – the outs. (My team).

Or – as my working class creative and intellectual friends will already be chuckling to themselves “Yeeup – snobs be snobs – and that is for sure.”

What kind of Aphrodite do you take me for?

Because my childhood was upside down and seriously crazy, I’ve also spent years talking to other people who are trying to heal. Sometimes I meet someone far ahead of me on that path, who can offer me particularly well-tuned wisdom or consolation, and sometimes I meet someone who is still struggling in a place where I’ve already made a lot of progress, which gives me a chance to reach a hand out.

There is a ton of heartbreak that goes along with this sort of connection. Not everyone makes it, and not every effort lands right, or helps the way we wish it would. But for many of my friends who are working through deep damage, this sort of heartfelt outreach presents as their simple obvious duty. An act of respect and gratitude for the beautiful and often completely unexpected gifts of help we have ourselves received.

Creativity does not have to go with trauma (I swear), but it is not at all rare to find people who are creatively relentless for that reason. Personally, I have come to see that kind of creativity almost as a metaphysical immune response. A way to surround matters which are themselves impossibly painful, with a kernel of (hopefully useful) truth and then expel them into the world, and thus take that conflict off the ‘to do list’ of your heart (for a little while, anyhow).

Of course, there is some healing art which is just one person’s relationship with their own pain – and now (thanks to social media) the empathy and witness of their friends as well. But there is also art which rises far past our individual pain and somehow speaks to greater matters.

We don’t always know the difference ourselves (and some truly incredible art was made for deeply personal reasons, as all lovers of Van Gogh appreciate).

But it is right and reasonable to approach art made from this place with an open heart and a lot of sympathy. Sharp technical criticism is not just the wrong tool, it can feel outright mean (even when technically valid, in every last regard).

As many of you already know, I spent more than a dozen years as an art model – which let me observe a wild diversity of artistic struggles and approaches of others – and sit-in on hundreds of lectures and critiques as well.

This quiet discipline also gave me a lot of time to meditate on the difference between making something for yourself, and making yourself into a tool which is capable of saying bigger and more powerful things to many. A long term line of speculation which has always puzzled and fascinated me, in music especially.

Pro really is different, and skilled workers deserve respect for the sacrifices they made along the way, and their concentration of technique time and purpose.

But it is worth mentioning here – students in art school now get more of this healing empathy style critique, than the old exacting professional technical feedback my eighties art student friends all had (not quite drill sergeant tough, but definitely scarier – but also infinitely more respectful – because it represented treatment as a junior colleague, rather than the kid glove gentleness we’d want to see offered to a badly traumatized child). But – to be super clear – this isn’t the teachers idea of a positive change (and the drop-off in technical achievement by proportion is steep indeed – especially considering the increased tuition). But rather, it has been outright demanded by the students themselves.

I vividly remember one after class discussion with a student who was extremely frustrated, because his work was (truly) superb – top of his class and then some – and yet he wanted the teacher to tell him every last tiny thing which was still wrong with it, so that he could keep getting better. In fact, he found the bland and emotional-needs-first gold star encouragement he got at critique time, outright insulting! (and he had a point, it was in no way proportional to his own effort).

But had the teacher done that – picked apart the one piece of work which was self-evidently stronger than any other work in the entire class – all those gentle words he’d found for the mediocre work of the others would instantly have been revealed as critically false, and then their feel-good value would have evaporated!

Yes folks – he was prevented from being the superb art teacher that he actually was, because the entire institution (yes, officially) has now decided that babysitting is the unequivocally dominant priority, and the subject at hand (for which the students are paying quite handsomely) is in second place at best.

What did I tell that earnest and angry kid? “My friend, if the teachers gave students the kind of critiques they gave twenty years ago, half the class would show up the next day with their parents and a lawyer.” Which at least helped him laugh about the reasonable thing he wanted, which he would forever be denied, by his own classmates lack, of the true fire he so clearly had.

Had I Time to Paint

And how about a third bit of torque on my approach to culture? Even though I am a relentlessly creative guy, and I read more (and especially, more widely) than most other people I encounter, I have spent the bulk of my working life with tools in my hands and a cash register in front of me (which absolutely always comes with a “kick me” sign, for those who haven’t, or not in awhile).

Guess what counts when you’re a repairman – does it work?

Charm helps, super clear communication helps, skill, ethics and giving a shit all help – but all of those added up count for about two percent of the deal – the simple practical question of does it function is the one overwhelmingly important consideration – to everyone.

The everyone here is key. A lot of us work in jobs which sort-out the people we encounter as normal, in ways which it is very hard for us to see. Academics hang out with people trying to learn, so they think average people are smarter than they actually are. Psychiatrists spend time with pain, and feel average people are more upset than they are. Doctors spot signs of sickness everywhere. Veteran police officers come to think everyone is a liar, where for spies, that paranoia rises to such a height that alcoholism is more or less obligatory. And of course, artists see beauty and ugliness in high and often emotionally dramatic relief – all the time – even where most see nothing much at all. All of these people have learned a lot from their experience, but missed much too – big blind spots.
(English really needs to formally adopt the French phrase “Professional deformation”)

It might sound a bit eccentric, but ever since I was a teenager, I have considered every retail environment in which I worked, an ideal social science laboratory for my own research, complete with an effectively randomized sample-set of humans to study (anyone off the street – which is kind of the definition of retail).

I tried several things with this contextual laboratory project – just learning to talk effectively to people outside of my tribe, was the work of many years – especially because often as not (in an audiophile or musical repair shop), they began their side of the talk, fretting or even outright yelling (ah customers – sigh).

Does it work might seem too obvious to be worth thinking about – of course that’s the priority. But it’s actually amazing how often we find ways to split wildly, on questions which are only slightly less obvious and practical than the on-off switch on an old radio.

I am sure there is a clue about people’s politics and popular fronts here. The problem is, tribalism stirs emotion easily – so lazy people like to gather around it. But of course, if you gather by emotion only, you have no depth of purpose or staying power (you will have already heard me ranting about organizing – no doubt).

But seriously – just try to imagine what the world would look like if we all had that same shared clear and simple “Does it work?” priority about the economic and environmental plans our governments keep proposing (Hey! Stop laughing).

Try as you might, you’ll never convince me that the real world function of policy is less important than a pre-amp (not even a really really nice one).

Poison Berries, by any other name…

So – finally – here’s my funny approach to art criticism, which seems very much a minority position, but strikes me as both robust and very useful (over decades).

The very first question I ask myself about any piece of art is – what was this creator trying to achieve?

The word function feels kind of crude (aesthetics are rarely discussed in such practical terms) but it works here – what is this supposed to do?

Then I consider how well the creator achieved, whatever it seems they were after.

Does it please me personally? (the eternal consumer mantra – “would I buy this?”) does not even count at first. Just aims, means and realization.

Because I look at art starting from sympathy for the maker, I find myself brought into many new ideas I might not ever have considered, if I went only by the personal preferences I already had, going in.

Someone who worked really hard and well to say something which I find jarring, probably had a reason to work that hard and well – perhaps something I can learn from (sometimes something unexpectedly positive, and sometimes more familiarity with and understanding of arguments and ideas I continue to oppose).

Not infrequently, I find myself rooting for the artist, even though they are working in ways that don’t suit my taste, because I can feel how tasty they find their own exploration. The real stuff is the real stuff – doesn’t matter whether it goes with the credenza (even the metaphorical credenza of preference in our minds) or not!

The other thing which is great about this approach, is that I can take useful technical lessons from everything I see, rather than learning only from people who enter, wearing my own familiar tribal regalia. All tribes are too small, but I haven’t seen one yet (ancient or modern) which hasn’t figured at least one thing out. (Again, with the always present qualifier that valuable lessons can just as often be cautionary, as positive and encouraging).

Perhaps best of all, this anti-snob and function-first approach to creation (all workshop, no ivory tower) allows me precious scale and humility. That is, because I don’t mind being a fool, and enjoy spontaneous ‘naive’ culture, I can always enjoy the exhilarating fast-rise of the early learning curve in a new direction. This is the best anti-aging serum I have yet discovered, and something we must all remember. Trying something new is like growing a new kind of fruit from your same old branches – proves your vitality like nothing else – and so what if that isn’t the prettiest apple you’ve ever seen? You thought you were an an oak, but look – you made a freakin’ apple!

The humility part – recognizing superior accomplishment in goals, technique and realization – in any medium, art, science or discipline – is what reminds us (almost always lonely and disconnected moderns) that as hard as we may try, we ain’t too good to stop learning yet! And yes of course, we never will be, because even those great masters of the arts who have long impressed us, themselves never once stopped learning, or that light they shone on us would have gone out altogether.

I have said many times that I love being proven wrong – LOVE IT. That means I’m learning, and I’ll be a little bit less ignorant next time – hooray (and thanks!)

But even better than that (and by far), is being so awestruck and overtaken by a creative work that I don’t even get a chance to start thinking about it, because it has already stolen my heart away entirely, long before my brain has even got warmed up!

The ecstatic or the craftsperson – all you ever need in the gallery – leave that vain childish flatterable distractible consumerist mindset out of art altogether!
(And as much of the rest of life as possible, too)

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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