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The Critics Who Matter

Kyria Abrams, a very funny writer and performer, posted a FB link to this article from a blog I hadn’t seen before. The author was dealing with something all artists experience – harsh negative criticism about his art – in this case an album he had released.

In theory, we should be able to adopt the position that critics who hate your stuff are wrong and critics who like your stuff are brilliant geniuses. We also know that some critics are talentless, frustrated artists themselves. They are unable to create anything worthwhile so they build their own self-esteem by putting down those who can.

But whenever we create something we do so with at least a bit of fear.  Deep in our hearts we fear that what we’ve created, that thing we’ve spent countless hours pouring our soul and our heart into, using talents we’ve cultivated and honed for years…sucks. And when a stranger tells us it does it confirms that fear.  We believe them, and it makes us miserable.

Any artist worth being called an artist should be plagued by self-doubt. We should be our own harshest critics, refusing to release anything to the public until we’ve honed it and shaped it and fixed it and edited it and fixed it some more. Creative people know the truth of the saying “No art is finished, only abandoned.” We get to the point where further futzing with it will not make it better, just different, and by then we’re tired of it anyway and eager to move on to something else.

On the flip side, have you ever met a musician or writer or painter who had no self-doubt or humility and thought their stuff was the greatest stuff on the planet? They really did suck, didn’t they?

There are critics you should listen to and whose advice and reactions you should take to heart: your audience. I’m specifically referring to your audience, the audience of fans that you’ve earned over time.

Artists are usually lousy judges of their own work. Quite often your fans will praise something you just tossed out there, something you don’t think is all that great. They will express disappointment (or respond with polite silence) to something you slaved over and think is brilliant.

Thirty years ago I was doing novelty songs in coffee houses and bars. I once wrote two songs within a week (a major accomplishment for me). One was “A Modern Major Pseudo-Intellectual,” written to the tune of “A Modern Major-General.” It was brilliant and clever and full of obscure historical references that would make the audience feel smart just for getting the jokes. (The only line I remember is “We’ll wonder if Bram Stoker enjoyed Modigliani.”) The other was a throw-away piece called “I Want To Be a Nerd.” The chorus was “I want to be a nerd, a geek, a wimp a gimp a pencil-necked geek. I know it sounds absurd but I want to be a nerd.” I polished them, practiced them, and headed to the open mike I frequented to try them out.  I figured “Modern Major..” would be part of my repertoire forever and “Nerd” one would be something I did a few times and then discarded.

The oh-so-smart oh-so-clever song got polite golf claps. The Nerd song got belly laughs and enthusiastic applause.

I tried again, in front of a different audience, and got the same results. Fans requested the Nerd song, and never ever requested “Modern Major…”   I waited a few weeks and gave “Modern Major” one more try.  Again, it got the kind of polite applause that’s more disappointing that booing and heckling.  I decided to listen to my audience and discarded “Modern Major…” I performed “I Want To Be A Nerd” for years afterward.

Ignore the critics. Trust your fans. They’re the only critics who matter.

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1 Comment(s)

  1. Absolutely spot on with this Dave. If I had the chance to expand the article on Tiny Buddha, I would have included some of the points you made here.

    “Artists are usually lousy judges of their own work. Quite often your fans will praise something you just tossed out there, something you don’t think is all that great. They will express disappointment (or respond with polite silence) to something you slaved over and think is brilliant” – I couldn’t agree more.

    “But whenever we create something we do so with at least a bit of fear. Deep in our hearts we fear that what we’ve created, that thing we’ve spent countless hours pouring our soul and our heart into, using talents we’ve cultivated and honed for years…sucks. And when a stranger tells us it does it confirms that fear. We believe them, and it makes us miserable”.

    That paragraph above sums it up perfectly! You’ve hit the nail on the head.

    Congrats on a stellar blog!

    Scott | Aug 8, 2012 | Reply

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