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.

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