The Generosity Of Criticism

One night, I found myself in my regular bar surprised to find there was an amateur stand up comedy event happening. The young comedians were not very good — they were aping the all too familiar tropes. But one comedian broke from his script a couple of times to engage the audience — which was a tad rambunctious — and in those brief moments he showed signs of vitality.

“Critical thinking is simply not a part of American education.”

I wanted to discuss his act with him. I didn’t just want to say good job or, for that matter, crappy job — because what do either of those things accomplish? I wanted to talk about what worked and what didn’t, his ethos, his rhythm, how he stands towards other comedians, comedy in general, how he wants to stand towards the crowd, what his desired terms of engagement are.  Which is to say, I wanted to critique his performance.

But there was no way, socially, I could do that — at least in my position as some random dude drinking at the bar. From strangers, from the general audience, we expect either thumbs up or thumbs down or a so-so.  Now, he may very well be right not to listen to me — who the heck am I? — but that’s not my point. My point is that we expect judgment from each other but when it comes to critique, we take offense.

And this just seems insane as what is more generous than critique? It demands time and energy, a lending of oneself to the performance of another. Judgment leans back in its chair and, exerting the bare minimum of energy, points a thumb up or down. But critique leans forward in its chair, poised and attentive, heeding and contemplating, digesting and imagining.

To say whether you like or dislike something is, alas, not very interesting to anyone outside of your immediate circle of friends. To them, the mere fact of you liking something might say quite a bit. After all, they know your taste, what you’ve liked and disliked in the past and, hopefully, why. You have a style; you are an algorithm of selection. But to anyone not familiar with this algorithm, the passing of judgment is as boring as a stranger’s dream.

To be critical is to go with something. It is to make sense of its style, how it metabolizes the world, what it takes up and how. It doesn’t just say, “Cool” or “Duh.” It lends its own body to the performance, follows its moves and motivations.  To reckon the style of a thing — of a booze, book, or band — is to fully digest that thing, let it run through you to see what kind of sense you can make of it. And then to extend that sense, to follow it beyond this performance to see how it can go, its possibilities and extensions.

One of my favorite things to do when I was teaching MFA students in fine arts was to do studio visits, especially as I’m not a visual artist. I’d go to the student’s studio and look at work in whatever state  and lend some words. Imagine, now, if all I said was, “That’s good! I like it!” or “Man, that’s not good.” Both are equally worthless. My job and my pleasure — a rare alignment of the two — was to articulate what I saw happening and then wonder how else it might go, what other trajectories it might take, how it might inflect the world.

Judgment has little to do with the other; it is solipsistic. And, often, that is great — after all, few things are worthy of one’s time and energy, worthy of one’s critique. Like it or hate it and move on. Judgment is brutal and callous — whether you like something or hate it — and as such can be a good parry for a world full of shit (although I prefer indifference to judgment — less energy expenditure).

Critique, on the other hand, is generous: it engages the other on its own terms — or on terms of the event.  It lets the other do its thing and then wonders how the other can extend it and it, in turn, can extend the other. It is a glorious repartee.

I had a former art student of mine ask me to write about his work even though he knew I didn’t necessarily like it (I’d been hard on him in class). And, without batting an eye, I agreed. Because whether I liked it or not, I knew that he was up to something and that spending time with that something would push me, teach me, extend me. I wrote one of my favorite essays from that experience as his work asked me to think and see and experience differently. And I, in turn, asked it — and him — to think and see and experience differently.

I’d like to say that to critique is, quite literally, to make love.

The things I love exist beyond judgement (isn’t that what love is — to take something up without judgement?) They live in a place where things flourish in the totality of their becoming, multifarious and glorious and strange. They live in a place of critique. I don’t even need to conjure them: they live in me. They are me.

Unfortunately, we don’t teach being critical. I know as I taught critical writing for 10 years at UC Berkeley and had to negotiate 18 year olds who’d had 18 years of ill training. Across the board, they had no idea what being critical meant or demanded. Teaching them was like teaching an alien the infield fly rule (and I loved almost every moment of it). Critical thinking is simply not a part of American education.

As a nation, we don’t read or hear much that is critical. Thumbs up, thumbs down; like, dislike: this is how we engage the world. For the most part, we experience judgment and a regurgitation of the known — I’m liberal but he’s not so I hate him! 

Critical practice is all but dead, murdered by cliche and vapidity and the royal ease of judgment. It’s become so bad that we associate being critical not just with being judgmental but being an asshole about it. (No doubt, it’s not in capital’s or power’s best interest to teach criticism.)

But if we want to be a vital society — or you just want to be a vital human being —, then we must learn to forgo judgment and take up being critical, take up being generous and thoughtful, take up the will to proliferate and extend possibilities: take up the love of life. TC mark

image – ShutterStock


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  • ogoodnightireneo

    Well said, and thank you for saying it. I’m an undergrad in art school right now (whoo, art school!) and unfortunately some students and professors get away with being judgemental, rather than critical. I try to practice what you preach in this article and luckily we have some professors who are great at it, too.

  • Mike T.

    Lovely article here (though I think criticism has too often been muddled up with lingo and obfuscation by the wrong people), but I guess part of why it is so taboo nowadays stems from its tight relation with authority structure- criticism almost seemingly must come from a higher level to even be accepted with any effort.

    An equal exchange? The artist/performer/designer scoffs, takes offense, and works his/her defense mechanisms internally- sometimes even unabashedly too. So I do believe that ultimately our judgement is a retreat, a default, rather than a miseducation (kids always ask the darndest questions, no?)

    It’s really bad here in design school in Singapore- people will shut up primarily in an interest not to offend, but also in the unwillingness to help you too. Because critique is kinda like… making love with… somebody’s baby, and damn that sex feels great on all sides other than the parents.

  • Alianoza

    One of the most inspiring pieces in ThoughtCatalog so far. Amazing how watching a stand up comedian could get you thinking as such. Where else can I find your writings, Sir?

  • Jon the Kid

    It’s sad how we now have to distinguish what you are saying as CONSTRUCTIVE criticism, in an attempt not to offend.  I’d say as a freshman college kid that I definitly agree that I have not been taught to think critically, rather a Facebook mindset of clicking a like button.  Not only do our high schools teach to be judgemental in general, so does our society as a whole.

  • Connor Bennette

    Wow, simply the best article I have read on TC in weeks.  It is of vital importance that we reflect on our experience both individually and socially.  Thank you so much for contributing.  


    This is far too intelligent for Thought Catalog and simultaneously it is precisely what the site needs: articles that are not easily consumable lists of things we like or dislike, or rants about being young. This piece is itself a critique of each and every piece on Thought Catalog, and each commenter’s words that typically denote a carefree and unthinking attitude. Except this piece seems to be operating effectively – I enjoyed reading everyone’s opinions on the matter; a rare internet occurrence indeed.

  • Thank You

    can you please write every article on TC from now on.

    i thank you for how eloquent and poignant this piece is, and i agree whole-heartedly with the sentiment. criticism has such a negative connotation in our modern society, and i really dont know why. maybe because its complex, not so cut and dry as like/dislike. maybe its just not very PC to say WHY you dont like something. maybe we dont value the opinions of others, or even worse, our own opinions. whatever it may be, i think you’ve made quite a strong case for injecting healthy criticism (back?) into out daily lives.

    im gonna make everyone i know read this. thank you, sincerely.

  • Justin T

    One of the best articles that I’ve ever read in TC. Serious, rare occasions of finding articles like these are what keeping me coming back to TC. Man, I hate finding myself back into TC because articles like these fool me that TC is a place for intellectual minded people.

    This doesn’t belong to TC. It deserves more.

  • Nishant

    So true. And very well written. This is also the reason why so many TC readers (including myself) enjoy the comments section as much as (if not more) than most articles!

  • Guest

    This is very good, but if you want criticism then here it is: criticism is not literally making love. Figuratively perhaps. Apart from that minor error, a great article with a valid argument.

    • Tripletriple

      but making love is not literally having sex. so isn’t the term kind of up for grabs if someone wants to stake a claim for what it means literally?

    • Daniel Coffeen

      Having sex is not literally making love — it’s a euphemism. It makes sweat and sometimes it makes semen and other excretions and, yes, sometimes it makes love. Critique, however, always makes love — that is, it creates love, adds it to the world.  Literally.  

    • Joshua Logan

      Does anyone know the expression “turn of phrase”

  • Jo

    This was such a delightful read! When I came to college, I realized that I only knew the definition of “critical thinking” but I’d never practiced it. It was a struggle to change perspectives at first because I’d gotten so accustomed to simply nodding to the “right” answers and not engaging actively with a piece of work – be it an author’s, my teacher’s, or my peer’s –  and seeing the need to challenge positions. But my passionate, dedicated teachers changed that. Critiques from my teachers and peers have made me so much more appreciative of my education. Thank you for being that teacher to your students.

  • Anonymous

    The  problem with critique is the assumption that the person giving it holds. Indirectly, it is a claim that this person is suited to give criticism on the performance based on their  own pedestrian opinion. Critique from those who have excelled in the field is greatly valued. 
    Beautifully written article.

  • Bealtaine

    What about english poetry?Idk how you guys do it in America but I imagine it’s similar to Europe. While reading poetry you are expected to express why you liked/disliked the poem but give well founded sound arguments as to why you felt that way along with analysis of the poem. Could that be seen as critical writing?Poetry was just the first example that sprung to mind :)

  • Sophia

    “My point is that we expect judgment from each other but when it comes to critique, we take offense.” Wow, I loved this. I’ve never thought about criticism this way before, and you’re completely right. 

  • Joshua Logan

    Wonderful article.  I’ve often wondered why you bother writing on TC.  Now I think I know why.

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  • shabazzz

    omg YES. I appreciate this, as a performing musician. it’s way more helpful to get constructive criticism rather than “good set, man”.  I wish more people were cool with giving/accepting suggestions.

  • Matthew Marchand

    I don’t think this is true

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