How Deep Though Art? (Critiquing the Critic)
This week’s post is for all the kids whose favorite memory from childhood is when Mister Rogers went to the crayon factory and you got to see how the crayons were made.
That feeling like everyone is watching what you do, and it’s just not doing it for them.
You did that thing wrong. You said that thing wrong. You wore the wrong thing. You look, talk, or smell the wrong way.
The painful reality is that you’re probably wrong. They’re not judging you negatively, so it’s just YOU projecting anxieties.
Also, you’re probably right. After all, you’re judging and criticizing their manner, talk, dress, odor, and a thousand other aspects of their context, and you’ve found fault.
Also, if you’re like me, you critiqued yourself far more harshly before ever entering into spaces to be judged in the first place, so your judgments are usually comparative.
In fact, the more revealing insight is that they’re not thinking about you much at all.
They’re thinking about what you think about them.
So, wait, what?
Occasionally I get into the metacritical weeds and I start to lose people.
I like thinking about thinking. I like unwrapping why humans do things, why humans behave the way they do.
It’s why my favorite show is How It’s Made.
I love seeing the sometimes near-magical transformation from raw material to finished goods, across literally all human-made products (after 32 seasons, they’ve got it basically covered).
But that isn’t my favorite part of the show.
I love thinking about the engineer that carefully designed and then built the one machine on the assembly line that makes sure the cap is flipped over and correctly positioned for the next step on the belt. It does that operation ten billion times in its life, and probably saves weeks in labor costs for that one tiny flip.
I love thinking about the graphic designer who meticulously crafted the label to convey the maximum emotional response in the customer, and knew which colors and shapes will achieve those responses.
I love thinking about the packaging designer who shaved 9% of the material off the final box design which will save the company $2 million in packaging costs over a 5-year period.
It didn’t occur to me until well into adulthood that not all humans think this deeply about their surroundings. This existential sensation. Not “Why didn’t he like me” but “what is this ‘liking’ thing anyway and why is it so important to my psychological safety?”
This makes me hypercritical. And believe me I know it. Sometimes people tell me to my face. Other times, I say it to myself.
When I was 13 years old I spent a week one summer living and working at a Renaissance Faire (One of my Two Truths and a Lie fun facts). It was up in a fairground near Syracuse, New York. The TL;DR is that my aunt was married to a book binder and they toured the country selling books and quills at various fairs, and one year I decided to visit the fam. They lived (at the time) in a trailer with my two young cousins and some dogs they kept outdoors.
This particular fair, my aunt’s booth was situated right next to the glass blower’s stall. And I was flipping IN (see above about loving seeing how shit was made). This guy was shaping molten glass into all manner of cool things, and I was a regular attendee to his shows. Until about day 3…
Literally I watched over 20 hours of this master craftsman working in a three day period. And I was excited, learning about glass, understanding where he succeeded with a piece and when he failed (haha spoiler).
Well, he’d just dipped a piece in water to create a shatter effect (Which was amazing and beautiful when done correctly) and by that point I could tell he wasn’t happy with the result for some reason and was just walking over to dump the project and start over.
I excitedly turned to some girls that were sitting near me and said “see he just kind of messed that up” thinking Man, how crazy is it that this dude’s GOAL is to mess it up, but just enough to be awesome but not so much that it’s broken. WOW!
As I turned back to the demo the guy was glowering at me.
And then he shouted, “Why don’t you fuck off you little shit!”
In retrospect, I now see that he was frustrated, and probably felt self-conscious, and maybe thought I was just being a bored little shit making fun of a master craftsman. Or maybe he just hated kids and was being a dick. It didn’t matter. I was gutted (and weirdly I hated glass-blowing for a while).
Looking on it now, the experience accented the idea that sometimes people do not want to hear criticism of their work.
I still occasionally learn this lesson the hard way (sorry cp).
For the record, in my career as a musician AND a writer, I rarely if ever critique within the genre I am creating. To do so seemed a potential conflict of interest, and also exposed me to real-life ass-whooping possibilities when I was a music reviewer and performing in the St. Louis music scene.
*** PHILOSOPHICAL TANGENT: I heard once the term that humans are “a conspiracy of atoms”, just a bunch of chemicals and electricity pulling in the same direction.
It’s an intense thought. And a fairly accurate way to describe existence.
But it’s woefully insufficient to explain sentience. And no matter how much we unpack the hows, it won’t ever fully unpack the 'whys'.
Why this mass of chemicals and electricity (me) can tap on a few pieces of plastic and a bunch of electricity sends my thoughts straight to another mass of chemicals and electricity (you) and register as more than just a vague firing of electrons. How sometimes these signals fire when we don't even realize it (marketing, confidence men, etc.)
Modern human brains face so much freaking stimulus. Not just sensual stimulus like touch, smell, sight and taste but also abstract stimulus like inspiration, dread, love, fear…
We literally cannot handle all the stimulus in our world, so our brain uses shortcuts. We stereotype/prejudice/bias. We create a heuristic, or ways of absorbing the information. And it’s gotten us (and our blood-line/ancestors) this far, despite its inefficiencies.
I'm far from understanding the topic, and even farther from my original point about critique.
“Absorb the criticism but always shook off the praise
Malign my ego though I feed off of it every day” - Doc Wattson “Worst Part”
I am definitely my own worst critic.
But actually, I don’t like this term, because it unnecessarily implies being hypercritical is a consistently negative trait.
I never believe that my efforts are perfect. I am always striving to improve, because I can always see where there is room for improvement. My former colleague Professor Leigh Thompson described this as having a “growth” mindset. Sure, it can manifest as perfectionism (annd that’s ANOTHER topic!) but as a general ethos the effort is worthy.
As a certified Grown-Ass Man, having a hypercritical lens has paradoxically freed my creativity (musically, but also in this weekly writing exercise).
I didn’t start calling myself a good rapper until I started making beats.
I realized how much I had to learn about creating drum patterns, or mixing the layers properly, or picking the right sounds. I was using Reason, a slightly idiosyncratic digital workspace, and building songs from synths and live instruments. And it was hard. And at first I wasn't impressed with the quality of my work.
I think I’m OK at it now, slightly better at it than my mixing/engineering ability, or my bass playing....
As my brain was shocked into these states of raw, unfiltered, and totally objective incompetence, I became much more acutely grateful of my writing skills. I obviously went through the same feelings of mediocrity and self-conscious loathing with my writing decades ago when I was just getting started. I used to wonder what if anything I could add to the world with my writing. But in these moments I knew I could write. And so I did. And I wrote, and I wrote...
And then I made myself cry writing a song about my father.
It’s a reaction to a stimulus, one I intentionally created. And your reaction to it (for most, non-psychos) is emotional and personal. Which was always the point of me making the song.
Yes, for me to express something personally, but also inviting you to feel and participate in that feeling as well. It’s an act of vulnerability but also an act of community. Of showing empathy.
Inviting critique feels wildly counter to being an anxious human.
It reveals to me that maybe my biggest anxiety is not being critiqued at all.
It would validate that sneaking suspicion that I’m invisible and I don’t matter. That suspicion I know isn’t true.
Thanks so much for reading everyone, sincerely!
Doc Wattson Native Stranger Productions