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We Need to Better Critics of Ourselves, Others, and the Times

We Need to Better Critics of Ourselves, Others, and the Times July 20, 2021

Critique gets bad press. We think of it in a negative light, because who likes to be told how bad something is, especially about their own work?

But that’s not the whole story for critique.

Good Critique is Essential for Learning

As a professional writer, I live in the world of immediate critique.

If I was thin-skinned, I’d have shrivelled long ago. But the weathering of critique helped my skin has grow thick. And it has all made me better.

Even that time when a former editorial director threw my article at me from across the table and said, “This is crap.” I’ll tell you that story later. Suffice it to say, that was bad critique. In every way.

Good critique is essential for learning and when done well, gives life.

When teaching young people or adults, one aim is to transfer the ability to think critically about the things we read, watch (film/television), listen to, and view (photographs/paintings). This act is known as cultivating ordor amores or ordinate affections. How will anyone learn how to discern bad literature (or art or music, etc.)  when he/she encounters it if they first do not understand what good literature is?

When my daughters and I paint or work on art projects together we like to ask each other, “What do we like and not like about this piece/work?”

It’s a simple exercise that lets them critique their own work and each other’s work. We don’t critique with the goal of tearing down the work. Instead, we do it with the goal of helping one another get better as artists.

My daughters, now accustomed to healthy critique, don’t get their feelings hurt. They understand critique makes us better.

Growing Up & Getting Beyond Hurt Feelings

If you and I can get beyond the negative perception of critique we will find that good critique requires humility from the critic. The good critic seeks to explain the value of a work or event or theological praxis.

The aim is to impart knowledge to the public about the work or project being reviewed, which leads to a nobler humbler society (polis).

The critic looks at works of art, literature (non-fiction and fiction), and music, even Church methodology, and helps shape it into something of beauty.

But such cultural shaping requires fearlessness in writing and people of some merit who are not afraid to say, “This is not good. We need to try to do better work.”

We also need to stop praising all artistic or literary endeavours just because the culture of popularity deems a certain work or artist or thought leader good or incisive. We need to free ourselves from liking what the cultural elite tell us to like and think critically for ourselves.

Like Works for Right Reasons, Not Because the Culture Says To 

The lack of good criticism breeds a culture of back-rubbers and hype followers.

We stop asking tough questions about the value of the things we create, endorse, and care about. For example, do we like Wendell Berry’s poetry because everyone else does, or do we know his work to be “good” based upon healthy critique?

Can we ask honest questions about church methodology or do we bow to the people making the dubious claim that the message never changes but our methods must? Really? Why?

Critique sharpens us. It quickens our art, our political engagement, and revives the “Beautiful” in society.

Dropping Our Pursuit for the Inner Ring

Perhaps our desire to be liked or in the in-crowd keeps us from being honest in our written critiques. C.S. Lewis said, “Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.” Lewis was addressing undergraduates in the 1940s when he said that.

The idea is that you and I try to fit in with the so-called “inner ring” by trying to be like them. We like what they like, and mimic their pathway towards popularity. But Lewis says that way is empty. He says embracing an outsider mentality is the key to thinking for yourself and really making a difference.

It is when we can pull ourselves away from the popular culture that we can give an honest critique of it. Popularity is not a credential.


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