Criticism and Praise: In Search of Balance

chocolate dregs

chocolate dregs

Sitting drinking coffee today, my daughter was messing with the dregs of her hot chocolate, and showed me the interesting result. For what it’s worth, it is recorded for posterity below. I was interested enough to have a proper look, and said I thought it was really good. I think she thought I was joking. I don’t offer praise lightly, but in fact I really meant it (I liked the pattern it made, and I was intrigued about the tipping/balancing act she had had to employ to achieve the result…) But it did set me thinking about how much I praise or criticise, and whether I get the balance right at home or work or more generally.

J's coffee cup (original mess)

J's coffee cup (original mess)

I start from the point of being incapable of lying but not wanting to discourage or hurt any feelings. So I like looking for positives in everything, and would never be critical in the absence of praise. On the other hand, I am reluctant to rave about something unless I really mean it. This used to be very annoying for the children, who would come home brandishing some artifact or piece of work, only to get a mumbled “not bad’. They got used to it though, and on the occasions I feel moved to say “amazing!”, they know I mean it.

Being critical however is always more of a challenge. With those for whom you have nurturing, caring responsibilities, it has to be done constructively. Success, after all, is built on failure, and children need to know how they can learn from failure. But what of criticism in the big wide world? Say, the art world? It is I think always possible to find something of interest and worth in most work I encounter, and so there’s no issue there. But what of the more basic question of whether you actually like something? It’s obviously ok not to like something: experiencing art is an intensely personal experience. How comfortable are you though with openly declaring a purely subjective dislike of something? Is there a difference between discussing likes/dislikes amongst friends, for example, and unsolicited public declarations?

The question becomes more acute in this age of mass online self-publication of thoughts and feelings, likes and dislikes. Everyone can be a (self-proclaimed) critic, everyone is a potential reviewer, and potentially a reviewer of influence. I draw the line at saying I dislike something in the absence of anyone asking me. But is this a cop-out? Where do you draw the line?


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