“You had a chance to write about KARAOKE and you wrote about something I could line my birdcage with,” wrote one of my early critics. Hey, at least my first column was useful for sopping up bird shit.
When I first started writing my weekly column I got a whole slew of intense feedback. That very first column, which was called “Karaoke etiquette: Stink responsibly,” chronicling my adventures as a karaoke host, garnered the above bon mots as well as an in-bold 30-point-font email from the president himself of the American Karaoke Association telling me all the ways I was wrong and how I wasn’t treating the art form with the requisite respect.
I tried to write back to these early critics, but eventually gave up and took my email address off my column (for nearly ten years) and asked my editor not to forward me any feedback unless she thought it was interesting or important. Even going back through my emails now and finding those old barbs makes my stomach turn. But it turns a lot less than it used to.
Sensitivity is that one-two double-edged gift-sword for artists. I’m glad to say, with more doing and writing and being and sharing, I no longer weep when someone wants their birds to shit on my work (“What kind of birds?” might enter my mind). It doesn’t feel good, but it’s not debilitating anymore, either. Of course I’m 41 and it would be nice to give even fewer shits at this point, but here we are.
The other side of the criticism coin is being the critic. Which I also have been (and am). I haven’t been doing as much of it lately, but I wrote a lot of film criticism and reviews for the Newport Mercury. And, to be honest, I always feel a little weird about it. Do I want to stand on the sidelines and critique other people’s work — people who are out there DOING it? Or do I want to be the one DOING it? The answer is DOING it. And I try really hard to celebrate the work others are doing and never to let my desire to be DOING it cloud my judgement or poison my criticism.
I’ve noticed, too, that Facebook has become (or has always been) either critical or confessional. I prefer confessional, because enough with everyone being up each other’s asses for this thing or that thing. For having a “been there done that” attitude toward all things art. “It’s been done” is one of my least favorite sentences uttered by humankind. I always say, “Yeah, having eyes has been done, too, but you know what? I’m happy to be derivative in that respect so that I can see [, motherfucker].” Of course criticism about our society and how we can treat each other better is always welcome. I guess it’s always a matter of where it’s coming from, right? Intention informs and colors everything.
Here’s a poem I wrote a while back after seeing someone alienate himself again and again with his unwavering and unrivaled coolness:
“Upon a Mountain of My Own Good Taste”
Upon a mountain of my own good taste
Gold, paintbrush, into a corner crag
It makes me feel like a god
My tongue is my lightning bolt
You don’t like what I like
You’re not worthy to climb
You like Taylor Swift?
We all start to forget who likes what and requirements to climb each other’s mountains
I stand in immovable protest to anything mediocre
I stand in immovable protest to anyone mediocre
I stand in immovable protest to anywhere mediocre
Anything but that which fits
I’m starting to forget what’s allowed up here
And my mountain starts to become
So, I guess my point is, I’m trying to DO more CRITIQUE less. And I’m trying to see the fear inside the non-constructive critic because that is a fear I also harbor.
I think this is related — Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “Ultimately, forgiveness is a choice we make, and the ability to forgive others comes from the recognition that we are all flawed and all human. We all have made mistakes and harmed others. We will again. We find it easier to practice forgiveness when we can recognize that the roles could have been reversed. Each of us could have been the perpetrator rather than the victim. Each of us has the capacity to commit the wrongs against others that were committed against us. Although I might say, ‘I would never . . .’ genuine humility will answer, ‘Never say never.’ Rather say, ‘I hope that, given the same set of circumstances, I would not . . .’ But can we ever really know?”
And Australian musician Courtney Barnett sings, “If you can’t see me / I can’t see you.” Same diff.
What’s the difference between a critic and a trampoline? People take off their shoes before jumping on a trampoline. (That’s an old ukulele joke I slightly amended for our purposes.)
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.