5 Rules For Being a Good Critic

A few jobs back, I worked with a guy who had strong opinions…about everything. There were obvious sources of contention—music choices, coffee brands, cats-vs-dogs. But there were also less obvious flashpoints, like the “right” number of desk toys or the proper time to order pizza. Bring up anything, and he’d have (or come up with) an opinion before you could finish your sentence.

Maybe some people found this traint annoying, but I thought it was entertaining and all in good fun. In part, because I have so few strong opinions myself. We could really get into it on creativity or improv (thing I’ve spent a lot of time learning and thinking about), but when it comes to most other things, I just haven’t invested the time to generate an informed opinion.

Because American (and internet) culture prizes punditry, I sometimes feel like I should have more opinions. Like I should speak up a bit more. That is, until I learned about philosopher David Hume’s essay “Of the Standard of Taste.

In it, he describes the ideal art critic, but I think his criteria apply equally well to criticism of any kind:

“Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”

On the wonderful Philosophize This! Podcast, the host, Steven West, breaks it down:

Delicate sentiment: The idea here is that if you’re going to be on of David Hume’s ideal critics of art, you should at least be able to look at something and actually SEE the entire work that you’re judging, including all of the finer details and choices that were made that makes the piece of art what it is.

Practice: The more you practice something, the better you get at it. The more you practice judging art, the better you become at judging art.

Comparison. The thinking is, you are a better critic of art when you understand the piece of art you’re judging within its proper context.

Freedom from prejudice. Whatever personally brings you nostalgia or mistaking things to be novel when they really aren’t…removing the prejudice you carry because you like or dislike the person that made the piece of artwork? Or think of how tempting it would be to say that you absolutely LOVE a painting simply because you just spent two million dollars on it?

Strong sense. To put it simply, you need to be able to see or hear or just be present to be able to experience the actual art that you’re judging.

Hume sets the bar pretty high. It’s not easy to be a critic. Just like making art, critiquing it requires a degree of knowledge and skill that doesn’t come easily.

That same day that, I listened to another podcast about journalism and politics. One of the hosts was talking about the importance of backing up your point of view with a strong argument:

“You should wake up in the morning, no matter what kind of journalist you are, and be absolutely sweating blood over one thing—and this is one reason why Michael is so unproductive—and Camille—[two of the hosts] my god. Two of the least productive people in the entire world—with the written word. But part of it…is that you both take seriously the question—what if I write something that is wrong? It takes time to be worried about that. It takes a lot of time.”

I probably take Hume’s criteria too seriously. Maybe I should take more risks. After all, one tenet of good criticism is practice, and that requires trying and failing. But there is another side to putting forth an opinion. It takes a lot of time to make sure your argument is well-informed and well-supported. Everyone’s a critic, but maybe some of those people shouldn’t be.

Bonus

Some other useful advice I came across after I had already finished the post:

  • Economist Arnold Kling: “My main point is that I am becoming quite allergic to phrases like “economists say” or “economics says.” I know that I used to employ such phrases, but I have done so only sparingly, and from now on I plan to avoid them completely. Don’t argue from authority. Just state your proposition and defend it.”

  • Seth Godin: If your cause is important enough, it’s worth taking the time and emotional energy to make your case without an argument. The opportunity is to recast your outcome in terms of the other person’s worldview, not insist that they change what they want or what they think they know.

  • Austin Kleon: When someone asks my opinion about something I could not stand but I don’t want to get into how much I couldn’t stand it: “It wasn’t for me.” When someone expresses their loathing for something that I love: “Oh, well. More for me!”

Each Monday, I share strategies to help you pursue your passions. Try it. You’ll like it.

Photo by Handy Wicaksono on Unsplash

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