Folks in northwest Iowa have been seeing a number of political candidates come through the area as of late. It's almost as if there's an election cycle coming up in the near future. I kid of course. We Iowans know what's coming. Soon there will be a bombardment of campaign ads and recorded telephone messages from those seeking office. Without fail, those campaigns will both give and take criticism from their opponents as well as the public.
Now, many of us have said we'd like to put a damper on the division in this country. That's a worthy goal, and criticism can often be seen as something which spurs division. It can. It doesn't always have to, but it can. So, it's not too far a of a jump to believe mending our political division in this country will come about by cutting critical statements out of our social diet. However, I think that would be a mistake. Criticism is a tool and, when applied properly, results in change. Granted even well-applied criticism doesn't yield results 100 percent of the time, but I believe it always has that potential.
Some readers out there are aware I hold a studio arts degree from Iowa State University, and each studio course came with criticism to varying degrees — none more so than what we simply called critique days.
Yes. There were literally days set aside in which professors and classmates alike would criticize my work and that of my fellow students for up to three hours. It could be a devastating time, but it could also be a very edifying time. Either way, it was meant to ultimately guide us toward better work. And that's really the point. Criticism should be about the work, not so much the person.
Frankly, that's a concept I think we should hold tightly as the next election approaches. It's fine to be critical. It's fine and even beneficial to point out when things aren't working, but it's all in how we do it. I had professors who used critique days well and those who didn't, but the most effective uses were those in which critical words became motivators – when they reminded us why we wanted to be there in the first place.
In that regard, we should be craving criticism more rather than less.
Proper criticism shines a light on our weaknesses not to exploit them, but to help us see clearly as we fix them — as we change. Unfortunately, some choose to use their words merely for the former. And, even if it's not intended to tear us down, we often take it as such and dig our heals in, refusing to change and believing to concede is to somehow become less than we are.
There's a saying both writers and visual artists use from time to time. It's got a few permutations, but the meaning is the same — "Kill your darlings" is the way it was first posed to me. That is to say, those things we feel are central to our work can also be the things keeping us from truly successful work.
That's why criticism is necessary.
Case in point, my ceramics professor sat down at my workbench with me one day, and we talked about a piece I was working on at the time. It wasn't a long conversation, but it was an honest one. I was trying to express the emotions I felt after my brother had recently moved out of the country for a new job. My professor told me it simply wasn't coming through, and it needed more work – something more purposeful. I could have taken that as a personal insult (and trust me, some professors were aiming for that), but I didn't, because her criticism actually placed value on my goal. It was just that I had yet to reach it. So, I let my professor's criticism sink in for about a day, I came back to the studio one night, I carefully set my work on the bench, I found my fettling knife and cut it's top clean off.
I kept what worked, and I transformed what didn't. I reimagined the piece. I dove deeper into what a physical form inspired by bittersweet emotion – by loss coupled with growth – might look like. What I eventually created wasn't what I had set out to make in the beginning. However, being spurred by well-applied criticism resulted in work which more than exceeded my original vision of success.
Politically or artistically, that can't happen without someone first telling you what's not working, what you're doing wrong, what could be better, but it also can't happen without our critics testing us with the intent to better us.
As the election approaches, as the commercials return, and even as we debate our friends over morning coffee, let that be our intent. Let us keep in the forefront of our minds and at the core of our motives. Not superiority, not a name on a ballot, not a social offering to a political party, not even tradition, but betterment. And betterment for all.