I spent my late 20s and early 30s critiquing: mostly movies & books or politics & international affairs, but also other people and their choices. I told myself that I was trying to make the world better, which is how a critic justifies it. It’s worth doing, it means something, because it’s a torch on the path to a better world.
It is possible to be a good critic. I’ve read them. But criticism — GOOD criticism — is as much an art as art itself, and so your average critic is as worthy of critique (of their criticism) as the artist or writer he criticizes! But sadly there are no professional critic-critics. Regular professional critics eschew it as a kind of professional courtesy (although it does occasionally happen).
So being a critic is safe, certainly safer than being a creator.
People who go around critiquing everything — and this very much applied to me — believe their opinion matters, that it’s worth voicing, that they’re smart, and that they need to be conspicuously smart so you’ll recognize it. Smart people feel capable. Immature smart people have no life experience save their education, which values smarts over other things like character or even hard work. You don’t have to work hard in school if you’re very smart. You can just cram the night before the test and ace it.
But smarts alone only take you so far in the world, and people who get so much of their self-esteem from being smart that they need to be conspicuously smart all the time — hence the constant critiquing — leave school and immediately fall into the gap between their sense of their self-worth and the world’s actual valuation of them.
It’s a big fucking hole.
Within a few years they realize that, from the world’s point of view, they’ve done nothing to deserve what they expect they’re owed. They’ve achieved little — if only because achievement usually takes time and sacrifice — so they go around pointing out that no one else has achieved either.
Just like the loudest homophobes are always secretly gay, projecting their self-loathing onto the world, so the constant critiquer is acting out what they themselves fear: that if they created something, that if they tried to do something more than cram the night before the test, it wouldn’t measure up, that theywouldn’t measure up.
A good, artful critique takes time to create. As an art itself, it takes all the same effort, maybe even more. An artful critique is poetry and philosophy, educational and intriguing, informative and fair. It demonstrates mastery without having to strut. And that is something else entirely.
“But I’m trying to make things better you see.”
No, you’re not.
Sometime in my middle 30s, I stopped critiquing everything. I suppose I grew up a little. I realized that critiquing the world doesn’t make it any better. Making the world better makes it better.
Go do that.
Art by Brecht Vandenbrouke