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Artists as soap bubbles
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
In the book Afterglow, film critic Pauline Kael talks about a painful encounter she had with the director John Boorman. The critic had attended a screening of the director's latest film, and the two, who were friends, had agreed to meet for drinks after the movie ended. The next two hours were an agony for Kael, for though she had championed much of Boorman's earlier work, she hated the current film, and she dreaded that Boorman would ask her directly what her opinion was of the movie. The director, not an unobservant friend, sensed the critic's discomfort, and artfully maneuvered the conversation away from the screening and on to general topics at hand, and the two managed to avoid talking about the movie at all. With relief Kael was able to leave the bar that evening without having to tell her friend what she honestly thought of his recent work.
Most actors, writers, painters, musicians I know can probably relate to Kael's dilemma, for nobody wants to tell a friend that his current project sucks. And frankly, no artist wants to hear that their current project sucks, either. When a friend seeks your opinion about a recent performance, "tell me what you think" is usually code for "tell me that it's good." You're usually allowed one tiny bit of criticism about something utterly insignificant, like a costume piece or lighting choice, but in general it's expected that you give it an unqualified rave, regardless of your true opinion. It seems like such a contradiction, that artists should be this fragile, like soap bubbles — their job, by definition, it to put themselves on display for public view, for good or for ill, and it's hard to believe that they couldn't develop the requisite thick-skin to handle the consequences. It should be accepted as part of the gig — if you don't want to be judged, don't get up on the stage.
What is also incongruous is that the people most incapable of accepting criticism are often the bitchiest about other artists. It's an amazing thing, in theatre, to see how opinionated actors are about other actors — regardless of their own talent level, actors will rip into anybody performing in virtually any play, yet they're pathologically insecure about even mild criticism directed their way. I once saw a fellow actor overreact ridiculously to a note given by a director at the end of a rehearsal — a very judicious note, not mean-spirited, yet the actor challenged the note, got defensive, got combative. At the end of rehearsal, when everybody's tired and wants to go home, this is intolerable. "Take the f------' note," I heard another actor whisper, exhausted, clearly articulating what was on everybody's mind.
I know that nobody likes to get criticized, but if you're an artist and you want to mature, you have to recognize its importance. A well-thought out piece of criticism can do wonders for the growth of an artist. The problem is, it's hard to know who to trust — I have people who love everything I've written, and I've had people who despise everything I've published, and I can't rely on either. In a perfect world, an artist establishes an honest relationship with at least one person who can give reasoned and insightful responses to the project. It's not an easy thing, for either party, for it requires a great deal of trust and honesty and a minimum of cheerleading. But it can become invaluable to an artist.
I got raked over the coals by a reader who objected to the tone of my article concerning atheism. In the article, I portrayed the town of Petersburg, Indiana (which was the home of the country's first atheist museum) as an intolerant, yahoo fundamentalist backwater full of cardboard Baptists and gun-toting hicks. In the letter, the reader informed me that he had lived in Petersburg at the time, and that what I was describing was simply inaccurate. And he didn't appreciate the mean-spiritedness of the report. When I re-read the article, I realized he was right. I had based my article on a few newspaper reports of the time, which detailed the persecutions that the leader of the museum experienced, but I didn't know anything about the town itself, and it was cavalier in the extreme for me to make such unqualified suppositions about people I had never met. I didn't realize at the time, but I was doing to Petersburg the very thing that people often do to Fort Wayne: deride it from afar. And that snobbishness has always incenses me. Yet here I was, doing the same thing. I couldn't escape that I was writing like a pure hypocrite.
The "atheist" article is difficult for me to re-read, but I did learn an important lesson from it, and now I'm a little more conscious of the tone of my writing. Now, when I want to rip into somebody, I want to be sure that my attacks reflect what I'm actually trying to say, and that I'm at least a tiny bit judicious. I can be mean, all right, but I can't be unfair. If I hadn't got that trenchant bit of criticism from the reader, I probably wouldn't have ever tried to correct that prejudice.
That's not to say that I'm totally cool with people's criticism. I'm not. But I do have 3-4 people who I trust enough to show my current, chicken-scratched short story or play, and I'm confident in their capacities to articulate an honest response. And I've learned that it's important for artists not to freak out over the word "criticism" — the very word seems to conjure up negative connotations, like you're going to get blasted with an ad hominem attack. True criticism doesn't have to be negative, and it doesn't have to be positive, for that matter. It should be seen as an intellectual tool inserted into the process, as coolly rational as any cognitive exercise.
Ultimately, I hope to be in a position where I'm so self-critical that I know my own judgments will be a hundred times more harsh that any of my friends' opinions. I'd like to be so confident with my own voice that I won't need to seek out other views. Until then, though, I'm all ears. So I'll listen to the guy from Petersburg. And I'll listen to the anonymous guy who sent me a curt "You suck!" a few weeks back. A tad unsophisticated, I suppose, but perhaps not wholly inaccurate. I'm looking into it.