Random thoughts about The Four Agreements, opinions, and constructive criticism (at 3 AM)


photo by Beverly Crawford

Hey everyone.

I decided I wanted to start blogging more. I guess 3 in the morning is as good of a time as any to start, right?

I went to bed pretty early tonight and then I woke up randomly at 1 and couldn’t go back to sleep. I started reading The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time, but just recently borrowed from a friend at Unity (my “new agey/hippie” church, as I call it).

The first two agreements are very much connected. Be impeccable with your word and don’t take anything personally. Being impeccable with your word means not to say anything that goes against the truth of who you are. This means not having negative self-talk and not saying negative things about others. Not taking anything personally is a realization that whenever a person has an opinion about another person, it has much more to do with the person who holds the opinion than the person who the opinion is supposedly about.

I was thinking about this, and I was thinking about how our entire society is built around negative opinions. You can see this on a personal level—the person who complains about their co-workers, the person who calls up a sibling to talk shit about their parents, the person who spreads negative gossip around—or on a national or even international level. Turn on the TV. It’s full of pundits and politicians criticizing each other. It’s full of reality shows with judges giving negative opinions. “She can’t cook because of this.” “He can’t dance because of this.” “She can’t sing because of this.” You can’t even check your Facebook or Twitter without seeing one negative opinion after another. I am just as guilty of this as anyone else, though I try not to be.

Now, I’m not saying that you should never have a negative opinion. I think this is virtually impossible for the majority of humans. (Maybe Jesus pulled it off. But even he went off on people in the Bible from time to time.) I think the important thing, though, is that when we do have a negative opinion, we realize that we’re actually expressing a fear that we hold. When you do have a negative opinion, stop and ask yourself, "what does this say about me and how I feel?" And we also need to be aware that when another person expresses a negative opinion about us, it really has nothing to do with us.

When someone says, “she’s ugly,” it’s probably because that person has a fear that he or she is actually ugly. When a person says, “you are wrong” (which is basically what all political discourse can be boiled down to), it is really just because that is the only way that person can feel that he or she is “right.”

I was thinking about this in terms of art, and I realized that also applies. When a music critic says, “this album is boring,” it is telling us a lot more about the critic than it is the artist. It could be that the critic fears he or she is boring. It could be that the critic is afraid to be still and therefore enjoys music that is busier. It could be a number of things.

Positive opinions work the same way. If I really connect with an album and think it is great, that says a lot more about me and the things that I like about myself and my own life than it does the artist who created the album.

This is why all art is subjective. Because it depends entirely on the opinions of others.

Sure, each form of art has its own “rules” and techniques. And if someone masters those techniques, you could accurately say that that person is a skilled artist. But this is not the same as being a “good” or a “bad” artist because being “good” or “bad” assumes that someone has an opinion that that artist is “good” or “bad.” And I guarantee you that for every artist out there, you will find people who believe that he or she is “good,” and you will find people that believe that he or she is “bad.”

So. All art is subjective. I say this all of the time. Because I think it’s really important. This is one reason I really am opposed to reality shows where any work of art (whether it’s music, visual art, culinary arts, dancing, etc.) is being judged. Now, I'm not saying that these shows aren't fun to watch. I actually enjoy watching shows like Top Chef and Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, because I love seeing what people create in time constraints and given certain prompts. But I think everyone who watches these shows needs to realize that it's all subjective. You just can’t objectively judge art. I don’t personally care for the music of Justin Bieber, but there are a ton of people who connect with his music the way I connect with Radiohead. I’ll say it again because it's that important. All art is subjective.

So, I was thinking about this idea of all art being subjective and also thinking about the first two agreements. One thing I struggle with is how to reconcile these ideas (“all art is subjective,” “don’t take anything personally”) with constructive criticism. I’m working on my MFA in creative writing. I’m also a musician. I’m constantly putting my art out there. If I don’t “take criticism personally,” how can I improve as an artist?

Then I realized that it’s not about improvement. It’s about growth. A flower is no “better” or “worse” than a seed. It’s just two different things. That’s how artists are.

We create art that speaks to who we are at a particular time based on what we have experienced, what we have learned, what we feel, etc. These unique circumstances are the “tools” we have to work with. As time goes on, we grow and change as people. We learn more. We experience more. We develop more tools. This does not mean the art we once created was “bad” and now we are “good.” To put it in Radiohead terms, Pablo Honey is no better or worse than In Rainbows. Some people may connect with one more than the other, but the truth of the matter is that they are simply two different albums created in two different time periods by artists who had different sets of tools.

So going back to this idea of the workshop and constructive criticism, I think the best approach for any artist to take is to make sure that you are fully aware before you get feedback that this is someone’s opinion and has much more to do with that person than you or your art. It could be that the feedback genuinely has to do with what that person has learned about technique. Ideally, it should be, especially in a workshop or class setting. So keep that in mind first of all. Really don’t take it personally. (As the Dude would say, “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.”) Then, you should only use criticisms that inspire you to change the piece. For example, if my playwriting professor were to say “this part of the scene feels a little static” and this idea gets me thinking about and excited about all of the ways in which I can make it dynamic, I will ultimately use the criticism. Because it inspired growth and change in the piece. That growth and change didn’t come out of a negative idea (i.e. “I’m a horrible writer”) but a positive one (“I can do something different here because I have more tools now.”).

Take the “negative” opinions and use them in a positive way. If there’s a negative opinion that you can’t use to grow or change your piece, simply disregard it. I think this is a good way to think about constructive criticism, and I know I’m going to try to do this from now on.

1 comment

  • JMofNaples

    JMofNaples Naples, Fl.

    "Does not accept criticism well". In a review I was once given by a supervisor I was told I did not accept criticisms well. When I read this appraisal of myself I was furious to be judged this way, by my not too bright, not as well educated as me, bumbling supervisor. I knew if I said anything to him, or showed my displeasure this duel would immediately have been over and I would have lost. Instead I smiled a a polite smile and signed off on the report. I guess I was realized way back then, that his judgement was indeed his problem, as much or more so than it was mine.

    "Does not accept criticism well".
    In a review I was once given by a supervisor I was told I did not accept criticisms well.
    When I read this appraisal of myself I was furious to be judged this way, by my not too bright, not as well educated as me, bumbling supervisor.
    I knew if I said anything to him, or showed my displeasure this duel would immediately have been over and I would have lost. Instead I smiled a a polite smile and signed off on the report.
    I guess I was realized way back then, that his judgement was indeed his problem, as much or more so than it was mine.

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