30 November 2012

The First Rule of Criticism

As a denizen of forums such as Sonic Retro, I am no stranger to seeing amateur (though often extremely talented) game designers, artists, musicians, and storytellers post a work-in-progress - with or without an explicit request for critique - which is then quickly followed by wildly varying and often contradictory feedback.

One such example is the Sonic Fan Remix project, which garnered comments that ranged from 'OMG! So much better than Sonic 4!' to 'Ugh, Sonic 4 is better than this.' You'd be hard pressed to find a broader spectrum, considering that the project managed to straddle the yawning chasm that divides the extremes of opinion on Sonic 4.

So what is one to do? Surely one cannot please everyone, not amidst calls of 'keep everything but X' and 'I like X but nothing else'. Short of mass brainwashing, getting everyone to agree is an insoluable problem.

It is tempting, then, to develop the attitude that it's all so much blather, don mirrorshades, and ignore criticism. However this isn't altogether helpful, because it is not uncommon for some criticism to be very useful. Clearly, one must heed some of it and discard the rest, and this is the standard practice.

But how does one determine the utile from the futile? Most creators have long since developed an intuition about criticism, and feel their way through feedback, managing just fine. But - as with most intuitions - when the brain is feeling stubborn that day and fails to provide a ready-cooked response like 'This guy's complaint is bullshit!', one can be set adrift with no clear path to resolving the anxiety a particular criticism has set abubble.

When intuitions fail us, rules - rote systems, invulnerable to the pitchings of mood - come to the rescue. And I have a rule, a deceptively simple one, but one which has proved its worth to me many times. I call it 'The First Rule of Criticism.' It has come in particularly useful to me, because my core personality is a volatile and unfortunate mix of extremely egotistical ('Holy crap, I just came up with the best thing ever! I rule!') and extremely empathetic ('I can see exactly why they hate this, even though I love it... what should I do?').

The rule is this: 'Only take criticism that you agree with.' It seems simple - obvious even - and that's probably because it's been intuition all along. But once it's a rule, you can rely on it to pull you out of nuanced situations that intuition fails to navigate.

But why should this rule be? What makes you the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong? Isn't the very nature of criticism someone disagreeing with you?

Well, no. It's not. And here's why: There's no objective truth when it comes to art. You can dig and dig, and you will never find one. Like, never. I meant it; you can put the shovel away.

And this isn't just some metaphysical relativistic mumbo jumbo philosophy that I'm asserting because I believe in it really hard, because I want everyone to be equal and happy. No, it's a physical reality.

Leaving aside that no one can even seem to define what art is for a moment (which is a whole other discussion) let's consider art to be 'a form of communication for which the primary purpose is the elicitation of emotions'. (You can contrast this with education, propaganda, and the many other forms of communication and find that it's a pretty solid definition.) And the reality is that different individuals have different emotional responses from the same stimulus. It's a fact about our brains; beyond our shared humanity and the mutable, transient whorls of culture, we have almost nothing in common. I'm the only member of my family that likes Jazz music, for example... and surely some of you have friends who either love Dubstep or are driven by it to grievously harm themselves or others.

So why make art if the demons that drive you are potentially shadows and smoke to everyone else? Well, the first reason that comes to mind is that - for most artists - they have to. It's not up for discussion. But for me the best reason is that art is both the best way to explore and understand one's own psyche and passions, and to connect with those who have been shaped in such a way as that they are resonant with yours. Art is, after all, a form of communication, and without it you may never discover those who truly understand you.

This is perhaps why there are "fandoms", communities that form around pieces of art and entertainment, with fiercely guarded borders. They are no mere casual alliance - they are a deep identity.

Ergo the rule: 'Only take criticism that you agree with.' Art is not about reaching the most people, it's about reaching the right people - and the first and most important person that fits that definition is you.

So I will leave you with a finer point on the rule, to help put it into practice: When you are confronted with a criticism, e.g. 'I hate the way your character is dressed', the natural response is to view it as a problem to be solved. How do I make this problem go away? (for me, this is almost pathological - as a programmer, I see every bad thing as a bug to be squashed). But that, to reiterate, is a poor response - it will only generate anxiety as you come against an insuperable wall with the lyrics of Rick Nelson's 'Garden Party' grafittied on it. The correct response is to ask yourself, 'has this criticism identified an actual problem that I have with my art, and has it given me any helpful insight for resolving it?'

If the answer is no, then it's time for the mirrorshades.