Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Maintaining Critical Balance

One of the biggest challenges we face as people who rely on our creative output is to maintain the delicate balance between being creative, and engaging our critical eye. Too much in one direction, and we risk never reaching our potential in developing our technique or our design ability. Or, too much in the other direction, and we may never get beyond the sketching or thinking stage.

Criticism is a sharp knife. It can be used as a fine editing tool. Honing our design, refining our technique. All good chefs will tell you a well sharpened knife is an essential tool. A dull knife can make a mess of things, and make the job harder to accomplish. Without the critical eye looking at what we have done, we can only get so far. The critical eye can see the weaknesses that need shoring up, as well as the strengths that maybe should be amplified. It can see what is distracting and needs to be removed.

But that same sharp knife that can be a tool can turn into a weapon that shuts down our creative energy if we do not know how to rein it in properly.

Each needs it's time and place. Creativity is often best served by being unleashed without the critical constraints. Let it go where it wants to go, and play around and explore. Only when it reaches a resting point is it safe to let the critical forces out. Then it is time to step back from your creation, and see it as a product, an output, now removed from you, and ask, "What could be better?" This is not about whether you are an artist who is "good enough". It is about how you, where you are right now, can become better. How your work can become stronger. You are always good enough. But, your work can always be stronger. We never are at a point where our work is "perfect".

So, either alone, or with others, we must critique. Looking to see what worked, and what did not. How to make a piece even stronger than what we have already wrought. Without this important stage, we will never reach our full potential. Once we go through that stage of critiquing, we then need to tell the critical voices that their services are no longer needed for now, and we will call them back when we need them. Then we can get back to work, either reworking, or working anew on this idea that inspired us.

When we try to critique as we create, it is too easy to get caught up in out inadequacies when what we need to be doing, is getting caught up in the creative process. The other problem we often have is making the output of our creativity to be too precious. Our self-esteem becomes deeply entwined into the output. We can't hear the critique in a productive way, if our identity is enmeshed in our work. Our work is our work. It is not us. Some it is will be crap, and some of it will blow us away. We need to accept both for what they are, and learn from both. No one, not even the most amazing artist, whose work you adore, turns out one masterpiece after another. We all have a range. The challenge is to raise the quality overall....the junk is better than it used to be, and the best work gets better.

One of the important lessons I learned from the book Art & Fear, was the value of crappy work. This is when we can have fun. Take that piece that bombed, and have some fun. If you want to lose that sense of preciousness of your work, this is a perfect place to begin. Use those pieces as a place to learn. A place to explore and experiment, and to go places you wouldn't dare under normal circumstances. If you hate it, you can't ruin it. But you can have fun and learn.

The bottom line....The process of creating is precious. Protect it from the critics. The product is just product. It is not precious. It is not us. Let the critics come out and have their say when you are ready to pause. Listen. Notice. See it as a way to learn and grow. And then thank your critics for their input, and tell them to go back in their closet. And get back to having fun creating, testing, playing, experimenting..... Own the process. It is sacred. And control the critics, their weapons can be valuable tools or deadly weapons.

1 comment:

Elaine said...

A while ago, friends were naming their 'muses' on a forum. I thought this was silly because I am a working artist - my muse is not something that is absent one day, suddenly.

A friend and I did however name our Inner Critic. We called her Tallulah (tally for short).

So now, often, my new work starts with a reverse psychology of sorts - a bet with Tally to see how much I can try (and botch) and try again before giving up.

And believe me, after Tally, all the real world critics have been easy peasy.

To date, at least.