Igor Stravinsky. Oft-criticized in his day.
I’d like to propose a new rule of thumb, which we could title the Criticism Corollary: the more stuff you make, the more criticism you will receive.
This says absolutely nothing about the quality of the stuff you make. It doesn’t matter if every single thing you create is better than last or a huge step backward. That stuff doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the more you create, the more criticism you receive.
Let’s say you’re an artist, and you’ve just put on a new show. Some segment of your fans is going to really dig it. Another segment of your fans is going to dislike it because, say, it’s too different from your previous work – whatever they connected with before just isn’t there now. Another segment of your audience, no matter how different your new work is, will point to the similarities with your earlier work and decide that you haven’t evolved enough. Some segment of your fans is going to have moved on from you altogether and be really into jazz, now.
Every time you produce a new piece these segments of your audience will divide and expand. New fans will move into each subgroup as new work is produced. As a function of this, no matter what you put out – no matter how awesome it is – the volume of criticism you receive will increase.
This is all well and good, and in any case it’s inevitable. But if you’re an artist, then more than likely you’re a fairly sensitive person. I’d wager that even artists who pride themselves on going against public opinion are still secretly pretty concerned with what people think. Artists are fairly narcissistic in general.
And so there is a perverse incentive here – if you care about what people think it is actually easier on you to stop working. After all, more work means more criticism, which means more people who think you’re full of shit, stupid, pretentious, or whatever.
The further you push against people’s expectations – either good or bad – the more criticism you’ll receive.
I want to be clear, this doesn’t mean that criticism is inaccurate or unwarranted. Criticism is an integral and vital part of culture. Criticism makes art better and makes artists better. I’m just saying that there isn’t much you can do to avoid it.
Handling criticism, then, is very important if your goal is to produce work you care about. How do you avoid subconsciously dreading each new release if you know there’s a lot of negativity waiting on the other side?
The common advice is to just “not read it.” As someone who compulsively googles themself, I’m not sure I could manage that. Everyone is curious what people think of them, and as an artist especially I am curious how people react to the stuff I make. In any case, in an age where anyone can tweet at an artist to let them know that their new move sucks giant balls, you’d have to be pretty reclusive to avoid all criticism.
I’m not sure that shutting out all outside opinion is a good way to go about making better art, anyway.
For me, there’s only one thing that I’ve found to have any effect on how I perceive criticism, and it involves shifting my mindset towards the entire process, destroying an old idea and putting a new one in its place.
First off, we have to disconnect ourselves from the idea that the amount of criticism a work of art receives has any relationship to its worth.
The famous example is the Rite of Spring, at the debut of which the audience literally lost its shit and started rioting. This, during a piece scored by Stravinsky and choreographed by Diaghilev, towering figures widely identified as two of the most influential artists of the 20th century.*
Clearly, great works are sometimes criticized. Likewise, horrible things are often praised or successful – I’m sure you can think of a few dozen examples offhand.
It’s clear, then, that the amount of criticism a work receives doesn’t necessarily reflect its quality. Either good or bad, criticism has to be taken with a grain of salt.
The second part of this process involves how we think about ourselves in seeking out criticism of our work. Instead of feeling like an artist, think of yourself as a scientist.
We already know that your work isn’t made good nor bad by the criticism it receives; so what, exactly, does drive criticism? Are people startled by a change in style, is the work too different from what they’re familiar with? Did you use a new recording technique that some love, but most hate? Why is that? Did the artwork turn people off? Does the artwork have a penis on it? Could that have been it?
The key here is to break your work down into it’s component pieces and see which pieces had the effect you wanted, and which didn’t.
To use an example from my recent past:
I recently put out an experimental digital release that aimed to use long, nearly abstract song structures and binaural beats to elicit trances and out of body experiences. The goal was to use music to create a real, physical change in someone – long distance mind-control.
I put out the album and didn’t expect much of a response. It was, after all, an experiment. To my surprise, it got a lot of response – and a lot of criticism.
At first, I have to admit that I was a bit hurt and defensive. It is this way whenever you work on something. I, in particular, tend to vastly overestimate the weight of any criticism I receive, and diminish the value of any praise. In this world view, everyone who likes your album is an idiot (including you), and everyone who hates it is a genius. This tends to be my default view of the universe.
It was very upsetting, and the experience drove me to write this post. If I choose to ignore criticism of the stuff I do – or, inversely, completely agree with every insult someone hurls my way – I’ll never get any better, or make cooler stuff, or fix my mistakes. There needs to be a healthy middle ground.
And so, as stated above, I came to the conclusion that the amount of criticism a work receives doesn’t necessarily reflect its quality. The record is neither good nor bad because more or less people criticize it. That took a lot of the emotional intensity out of the equation, and let me think about things objectively.
After that, I decided to break my work into its component pieces and see which pieces had the effect I wanted, and which didn’t.
For example, I didn’t care if people complained that the record was too long, too formless, hard to listen to, etc. After all, that was the point: the songs were deliberately made in such a way that casual listening would be impossible.
There were other bits of criticism that were fair, however. One song in particular was so long that it bordered on antagonism and probably should’ve been cut. People complained that some of my writing, especially in the description of the album, was pretentious, and I can see how it came off that way. Even more importantly, I’m not sure I would release that record today under the name that I did; the styles of this and my previous release were so drastically different that I think it created inaccurate expectations in some, no matter how often I tried to play that down.
Seeking out and really interacting with people’s opinions and criticisms of the things I do means that I can spot problems and make changes where I think they’re needed. It’s a difficult thing, trying to connect with other human beings, and if you never read a word of criticism you’ll never know that you’ve been successful.
Likewise, I feel completely comfortable in dismissing criticism that missed the point or had nothing to do with the goals of the piece. Those people just weren’t the target audience for the work, expecting something different from what they got, and that’s too bad. As stand-up comedian Marc Maron has related a few times, this is the process of feeling compassion for people who don’t like your stuff. We weren’t a good fit; that’s not anyone’s fault.
Criticism is everywhere, and it’s only getting more intense. If you’re going to try and make a life in which you create things and put them out into the world, you will need a plan for dealing with criticism. Otherwise, you risk two different, but equally distasteful fates: one in which you let everyone’s critiques lower your confidence so much that you stop the work altogether, and another in which you retreat infinitely into yourself, never growing and maturing as a creative person.
Trust me, take the middle route. It’s a lot less stressful.
*Yes, I am aware of the historical ambiguities in calling this a “riot.” For a fascinating take on the subject, look up Modris Ekstein’s “Rites of Spring”.