Criticism: Any Idiot Can Tear Down…maybe, maybe not

Art CritiqueIn a sermon a few weeks, back the pastor at our church said, “Any idiot can tear down.” He then went on to discuss criticism and being critical. Certainly, there is a great deal of truth in what he said. We all know people who are really negative and who just tear everything down. But, it also occurred to me that we also run the risk of being uncritical. In fact, I would go so far as to say that much of contemporary evangelicalism is entirely uncritical.

I realized during that sermon that I am far more comfortable with criticism than many people. In fact, I consider it crucial. This may be because of my art training. A standard part of any studio art course is the “critique.” This is a part of the class where the student puts his or her work up for the class, and professor, to critique. The class will talk about what is good in the work but also, importantly, what doesn’t work. There is no doubt that there are professors out there who enjoy tearing down their students and tearing the work apart without an eye towards helping the students improve. But, the good professors offer honest critique in a gentle and helpful way. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t sometimes hurt the students feelings. In theory, the student has poured their heart and soul into the work and critique can be hard. But, it makes all the difference. I remember one student who broke down in tears during a critique but the comments were true and it became a real turning point for the student. That is the power of a good critique.

The same principle holds true in more purely academic work. Just this last semester I received comments back on a paper I wrote for an aesthetics class in my PhD program. When I reviewed the professors comments, I bristled. My immediate reaction was that my paper was great and without serious flaws. I spent a little while rationalizing why the weakness he pointed out wasn’t a weakness. Eventually, I realized I was wrong. Though it was a good paper and the professor could have easily just played on that, his job is also to help me improve. He could not do that with out some honest criticism.

I fear that in the church we often want to build the church without any critique. I’ve heard legitimate criticisms be shut down as not ‘edifying’. No doubt there is a need for balance. But, we also need to not clog our ears because we don’t like what we hear. I never like the truest criticisms when I first hear them but they are the ones which most help me grow.

I always tell my studio art students that artists need to learn two things- 1) Self Criticism and 2) Self Editing. The artist has to learn to look at their work and discern what works and what doesn’t and why. That is the only way they will improve. Secondly no matter how brilliant of an artist one is, that artist is going to produce some junk. It is important to realize what art work is junk and what isn’t. My wife, who is a photographer, often repeats a common phrase within photography that the difference between a professional photographer and an amateur is that the amateur puts all their work out to be seen while the professional only shows their best images. The professional artist has learned to self edit.

I think the church could learn some important lessons from art practice. As the body of Christ, we need to learn to be self-critical and begin examining both our theology and our practice. We also need to self-edit. Sometimes we have really stupid ideas. We need to learn to keep those ideas to ourselves.

Happy talk leads to a shallow faith. We need to strike a balance between being too critical and being uncritical. Ultimately, as with so many things it is a matter of the heart. Critique from a caring heart can make a world of difference.

Rondall Reynoso

Rondall is an artist, scholar, and speaker. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Lee University in Cleveland, TN. He holds an MFA in Painting and an MS in Art History from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and is completing a Ph.D. in Art History and Aesthetics from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.

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