Criticism-art - 12/4/11
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Criticism: Giving and Receiving
by The Honorable Lady Teleri the Well-Prepared
Most of us in the SCA do something. Whether it's an art or a science, or heavy or rapier, or autocratting or reigning, we put ourselves out there in an active role. Often, we want to improve ourselves in that role, and seek feedback from others. Often, we get this feedback whether we want it or not!
Constructive criticism is offering both positive and negative feedback in a helpful and honest manner. It is important to offer it when asked, to recognize it when offered, and to be able to differentiate it from unhelpful or cruel comments.
Giving Constructive Criticism
Before you undertake to offer constructive criticism, consider two things:
Is it needful?
If you have been asked to provide feedback, as an A&S judge, as a trainer, or as a friend, you should make your best effort to do so. If you have not been asked, consider if it is your place to step in, or if you should mind your own business. Generally speaking, it is more polite to keep your nose out of other peoples' doings. However, if they are doing something which could hurt others, you may feel a duty to speak up.
Bad garb requires no comment. Bad polearm technique very well may. Bad rumors very well may.
Do not assume malice. People often spread misinformation with the best of intentions; they do not know they are repeating bad information.
Are you qualified to comment?
Very often, a local A&S expert will be called upon to judge a local A&S display. The local expert may know quite a lot about her field, but very little about the variety of fields entered into the competition.
This does not mean the expert can make no comment at all, as she is probably a most experienced researcher and can judge the quality of the research that has gone into each project. The embroiderer should not, however, tell the glassblower how to do his glassblowing better. The embroiderer can express her preferences - she likes this piece better than that one - but should make it clear, to herself and to the glassblower, that this is her subjective opinion.
Once your opinion has been solicited or you feel obliged to offer advice, and once you have made clear what kind of advice you feel qualified to give, continue onward.
Find one to three specific things that you liked.
Very first thing, let them know what was genuinely good. Even if the performer was shaking like a leaf, dropped his instrument, and nearly destroyed the song he played, you can congratulate him on his courage for getting up on stage, and for sticking through the piece until its end.
A novice who proudly presents a well-done commercial counted cross-stitch pillow at an A&S can be lauded for the consistency and evenness of her stitching and the neatness of the reverse of the piece.
Don't be patronizing. Find something you can honestly say was done right or done well.
Do be specific. "I liked it" isn't helpful. "I liked how you matched the calligraphy and the illumination to the scroll recipient's persona; that really personalized it" tells someone what you liked and why you liked it, and whether or not they accomplished their artistic goals.
Find one to three specific things that you find troubling and which can be amended.
There is little point in bringing up issues that the other person cannot solve at this particular time. If you suggest that the poor college student should make his tunic from linen instead of cheap cotton, and he tells you that cheap cotton is all he can afford, either drop it or help him find cheap linen. Work within his constraints, and help him make a better tunic out of the materials he has.
"I don't like it" is a very unhelpful comment. So is "You are doing it wrong." Neither offers any clue as to what is distasteful or incorrect, or as to what a better way of going about things might be. Your task is to be very specific, and to offer suggestions that could help.
"You read your poem so quickly I couldn't follow it. Could you read it again, more slowly, please?"
"Your hand-spun yarn is a bit uneven. Show me how you're using your drop spindle, and maybe we can figure out how to fix that."
"HOLD! You are going to break someone's neck with a thrust like that. Lightly, like this. Drill it until you get it right and if I see you pop someone like that again, you're off the field."
People can only process so much advice at a time. A litany of the sixteen things you see wrong in their work will overwhelm most people. Address the top one or three concerns that you have, and let the others go for now. Rome wasn't built in a day.
Do not make it personal.
You are addressing a piece of art, a technique (martial, managerial, other), or a stage presence. You are not making value judgments on the person who produced it. This can be hard to communicate, because many creators are very invested in their works. Do your best.
Clearly, phrases like "I don't think you tried hard enough" or "How could you mess that up?" are just not appropriate.
Accepting Constructive Criticism
Don't ask for it if you don't want to hear it.
None of us are perfect. If you ask someone for criticism, expect to get some. If you cannot handle that, do not request it.
Learn to handle it; learn to love it.
If you find someone who can give good constructive criticism, hold on to that person! Most of us who do things in the SCA, while we hope we're good at what we do, are happy to improve. Yes, it is hard to hear that we're not the shining paragons we hoped we were. But, unless you can identify what is wrong, you can never fix it.
Some problems, we are already aware of. We know the chair we made isn't quite level, or that we have a hard time delegating to our drop-dead deputy. But some other problems we may not even know are there: you were just frustrated with yourself for forgetting the banners to decorate the hall, but the rest of the event staff thought you were angry with all of them because of your scowling face and clipped tone. An outside perspective can be invaluable.
A genuinely helpful person isn't offering you criticism to tear down your ego. Really, they care enough about you to want to help you to do better.
Drop your defenses.
Listen to what your critic has to say without interrupting to leap to your own defense. When she is done, if you felt any of her comments were unfair, don't assume she's mean. Ask her questions to try and clarify the issue.
"I don't understand your objection to the hat. It's based off of the same portrait I used to re-create the dress."
Maybe you will educate your critic. Maybe the hat was worn by someone else in the portrait, and it never was worn with that style of gown even though they existed at the same time.
On the other hand, don't be a doormat.
Not every critic knows as much as they think they do. And, just like you, they are not perfect. Sometimes, they may offer you advice that you just plain believe to be bad.
You do not have to take bad advice.
Sometimes, depending on your relationship with your critic, discussing their advice and why you believe it to be unsuitable for you can be a wonderful and enlightening conversation. It may be that their advice is perfectly good for them, but not for you. It may be that you have learned some new thing which renders their old advice obsolete - in which case, they will probably be pleased to be corrected!
On the other hand, sometimes it is better to nod thoughtfully, tell the critic you will consider his words carefully, send him on his way - and ignore what he said.
Do be careful to distinguish bad advice (which would have you act contrary to your best knowledge on a subject) from difficult advice (which is just something that would be hard to do). It is tempting to dismiss difficult advice as "bad." Be honest with yourself.
Some people want to be helpful but don't know how. Some people are, regrettably, just mean.
If you encounter someone who gives you nasty, unhelpful, unsolicited advice, try to do them the courtesy of assuming that they mean well. If they have upset you or flustered you, it may be best to briefly "thank" them for their concern and move away to recover your composure. Try and not to give too much weight to their words.
If you are neither upset nor flustered, but rather annoyed with their presumption, again thank them for their concern. In gratitude, offer them your own unsolicited advice that they might upset a person of delicate sensibility with such words, and that they would do well to offer their advice in a more constructive and friendly manner, or else not offer it at all.
In the http://www.sca.org/">SCA, I'm known as Teleri the Well-Prepared. I sing, play the harp and lyre, and write the occasional poem. I really like doing research.
Photo by Bellavene Scollard
Copyright 2007 by Jamie Lennon, PhD. <sca_bard at yahoo.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.