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Parrying the poison pen

Criticism is a regular, inescapable, and even necessary part of the singing business. As developing artists --- and we are always developing --- we require frequent constructive criticism from our teachers and mentors in order to learn and grow. We must develop perception about our own work, as well. And of course, as we progress through our careers, we open ourselves to criticism from professional critics and the general public.

Any kind of criticism is hard to take --- we’re human, after all, and as artists we are deliberately making some very tender parts of our souls vulnerable ---  but inappropriate criticism is especially bothersome. We expect to be worked over by our teachers and coaches, to be evaluated by our managers; and to face review in the press and among fans of the art form.  This is part of what we sign on for as artists, and though it can be hard to take, it is useful. We can fairly be said to invite it.

Unfortunately, one must be prepared to hear uninvited criticism as well;  inappropriately applied criticism from sources which are uncredentialed, frequently uninformed, yet always eager to impose an opinion, often under the guise of helpfulness. With the Internet making it so easy to drop a “drive-by” opinion bomb from afar, without having to deal much with consequences, I suspect this sort of critique will become ever more common.  In fact, it recently happened to me.

Quick on the heels of a successful and very well-received performance and a lovely fan letter, a nastygram from a total stranger appeared. She offered no introduction, context, or credentials of her own, assuming (as such people usually do) that her opinion would be of value and interest to me. She “didn’t wish to be unkind”, but apparently being rude, condescending, and presumptuous was entirely acceptable.

Frankly, given how frank and public I am with my own opinions, it’s rather surprising that more such communiqués haven’t arrived in my mailbox over the years; and believe it or not, I’m not complaining.  I strongly believe and have written about the fact that, for better or for worse, for right or wrong, when you enter the public eye you are signing on for public opinion and you will get it, frequently from those least qualified to comment. And as a performer, I’ve certainly had my share of uninvited critiques from strangers --- especially as a young artist, but no one is immune. When you put yourself in the limelight, many of those observing feel that you are both more and less than human; they assume an extremely one-sided familiarity which emboldens them to speak their minds with impunity. Sometimes they believe they are being helpful; sometimes they believe you need to hear “the truth”; but most often, in my opinion; they simply feel entitled.

How are we, as artists, to handle such attacks?

Consider the source. Certainly everyone is entitled to their personal taste and opinions, but what kind of person takes it upon themselves to go out of their way to personally critique a stranger’s work? Perhaps they are jealous or angry at someone they perceive as unworthy having something they want; perhaps they suffer from an inflated sense of self-importance; perhaps they simply feel that since the artist has dared to stand up in public, they are entitled to have their opinion heard and considered. Clearly, whatever they have going on in their own lives is not enough.

Criticism from these types of people, however disguised, is about THEM and not about YOU. It’s about their need to impose themselves on you, and receive recognition from you. They are not professional writers whose job it is to offer educated opinions and observations to the public; they’re not the team members you have chosen to guide you; they’re not they’re not even fans enjoying a private debate over the players in their “sport” of choice. They have deliberately chosen to reach out to you personally and negatively in hopes of getting a piece of you, and that says a great deal about their own psyches.

Look for the consensus. It’s a simple and wonderful fact: not everyone is going to like our work. What makes it wonderful? A variety of tastes and ideas feed creativity --- more goodies for all of us! But what matters to an artist who is making a living by making art is consensus of opinion. If you are successful by your own personal definition --- not by that of others; if those mentors and team members who you trust to be both kind and unflinching agree that you are on target; if the majority of feedback you’re getting tells you that there are plenty of people who do enjoy your work; and most importantly if you yourself are happy with it … don’t worry about the occasional cranks.

Move on to the next project. After all, you’re an artist, and you’re in the business of making art. And art has never been well-behaved.  Art is meant to stir things up. This doesn’t mean that all art is good art, but it does mean that you shouldn’t worry too much about whether or not your art is “good”. Your concern is to make the art you want to make, the way that you want to make it. If it is good, then you will find a market and an audience (and sadly, there will be a few self-important cranks among them). If it’s not good, it will still teach you lessons and if you keep doing it and playing with it and tinkering, you’ll learn to be better. If nothing else, making art will make you feel better. Go draw or paint something. Go sing your favorite aria. Go dance.

And while you are doing your art, take a few deep breaths and spare a moment of compassion for the impoverished souls of the world who act out because they want what you have so badly, and don’t know how to get it for themselves.