Back in the mid-90s, there was a television program starring Jon Lovitz called The Critic. The show followed Lovitz’s character, Jay Sherman, through his slightly sad, often comical existence as a critic reviewing terrible movies. I was ten years old when I first saw it, and I was unaware of the more adult themes of the show, but I can say with confidence it was the first time that I was introduced to the concept of criticizing people and being paid for it. I fell in love with that concept, and my crusade to defend it was born.
In my adulthood now, I spend an exorbitant amount of time critiquing all sorts of things. We all do it, whether it’s making a comment about someone’s outfit or whining about a movie we saw. I want to be sure to include all of society in there, because no one is innocent in this topic of discussion. The thing is, a lot of people tend to look down on critiques, and, oddly enough, that’s fair. People are often harsh in their criticism, and sometimes it seems unnecessary (someone with multiple DUIs, say, criticizing a first time cocaine user as a criminal, is a good example). Some people in society might even make the claim that criticism is non-constructive, that the act of criticizing is nowhere near as important as the act of doing. I would argue against that point with a couple of examples from both experience and observation.
Imagine this scene (and it shouldn’t prove difficult): everyone in your community suddenly agrees with you, and you with them, on every topic. Theaters all play the same movie over and over, the same Creed song plays on repeat on all the radio stations, and there’s only one book on bookshelves. Every street name is the same, cities are planned the same way, and everything is uniform. This bizarre dystopia is possible in the absence of criticism.
Before you start to argue (“opinion isn’t criticism”, I imagine you saying), let me stop you: you’re right. Opinion isn’t criticism, but it is the krux of it. You can’t form an opinion without also forming some basic method of critique. The idea behind criticism is improvement; it comes from the belief that something can be done in a more effective way. An example of this comes from the basic teacher/student, parent/offspring, or coach/player relationship. Think of any time in your life when you’ve been subjected to that. Whenever you falter, the other member in the relationship sees your error, makes a critique, and that criticism has a profound effect. Even at its worst, criticism is still important for growth.
On the other hand, when criticism is fully ignored, artists suffer. Let’s take a look at something near and dear to me: the Star Wars universe. Whether or not you’re the biggest fan of Star Wars and its universe, you most certainly have heard of the films at some point in your life: they’re huge. Beloved by many, the original trilogy captivated audiences and blah blah blah: I could sing its praises all day, but I don’t have to, because they are so incredibly well known and popular. Skip ahead to the end of Return of the Jedi, and people began to ask themselves: “now what?” George Lucas, the man who brought the films to audiences, began work on three prequel movies, and after over a decade of wait, they released. Fans went nuts. I remember going to the first film, titled The Phantom Menace and being so underwhelmed and disappointed that I almost left the theater. So gone was the magic, so far from the original trilogy was this film that I questioned whether this was in the same galaxy (cue: rimshot) as the original films.
Certainly, smarter people than I began to have similar criticisms for Mr. Lucas: what was he thinking? Why was this new prequel trilogy so different? Critics lambasted Lucas over his efforts to make his series of films more child-friendly and non-violent, taking away from the previously established story telling mode that had magic wielding knights flying across the galaxy and swinging futuristic swords. Then, the second film was released. Much to everyone’s chagrin, it wasn’t much better, I suspect because Mr. Lucas didn’t take his critics seriously.
Now, one could argue that he is still wildly successful, and that there are plans for another trilogy of Star Wars films due out this summer, and that person might be correct: monetarily, Lucas is probably sitting pretty on his throne of money. I, however, believe that as someone who created something so big, so popular, so life changing (a topic for another essay, I think), he owed something to his fans & critics.
Without these people, the people pushing him up onto his throne of cash, the shoulders of popularity carrying him through life, where would he be? Would he have been afforded the opportunities he had? Would he have the same lifestyle if, say, earlier in his career he had abandoned the critics that got him to the end of that original trilogy and into the hearts of people everywhere? I argue that he wouldn’t.
My experience has also taught me that criticism is intrinsically positive. There’s no ignoring that fact that everyone has, at some point in their life, had a positive experience with criticism. Through either positive, uplifting critique of work or play, or through self-fulfilling prophecy, criticism helps guide people in a better direction. Even the type of criticism that hurts a person deep down can still be constructive; knowing when to shrug things off is a basic lesson from this type of criticism. I believe that I would be far worse off if it weren’t for the criticisms of my parents. I might go as far as to claim that I was inherently evil as a child, but through my terrible actions, and the reactions (usually a criticism from parents or authority figures), I learned that I can’t simply be evil without repercussions.
Criticism has played a major role in my life; how would I know how to shave without critique from someone who is better at it, for example? How would I know how to find a job? To talk to people? To be a better partner in relationships? It can’t just be a guessing game. Even submitting this essay involves a form of criticism: it might not get picked because the opinion of the person reading this might not align with my own! In the end, the opponents of criticism are the very people who are criticizing it, which proves my point: criticism is essential.
At the end of the day, criticism affects all of us, and I believe the effect is far more positive than negative. It’s impossible to avoid, and it’s impossible to take away from people. As long as things exist, and people exist alongside them, criticism will help guide things. I’d say, thankfully, that this is inevitable. What do you think?