From the Archives: How to Offer Artists Criticism Without Being a Jerk
Here’s one of my favorites posts from the past, with some new additions.
Artists (“Artists” applies to musicians, singers, painters, graphic designers, actors, dancers, etc) in the church receive a tremendous amount of criticism. Musicians especially seem to have a never-ending stream of complainers. I’ve heard everything from “the music was too loud,” “don’t use that song again – I didn’t like it,” and, one of my personal favorites “did you know you messed up on that one part?” (As if I was not aware that a train wreck had occurred).
I think there are two kinds of people out there when it comes to criticism. First, there are those who want to point out something that was less than perfect. Whether it’s a song choice they didn’t like or something that was just wrong, they can’t wait to let you know. Most of the time, it seems these people just want to bring you down a peg. Second, there are those who genuinely want to help make things better by offering constructive criticism. These people are on your side and support what you’re doing. They noticed something that could be better and they want to help you. This post is written to the second group of people. (Let’s face it, the first group doesn’t really care if there’s a better way or not.) I want to help the second group understand how to offer constructive criticism without being a jerk.
First off, two important things to understand about artists:
- Their art is an extension of themselves. For most artists, they can spend hours, days – even weeks – crafting their art. They pour every ounce of their being into making this art what it is. To criticize or even imply that it could be better in any way can be devastating to them. For me, this used to happen (OK it still does, just not as often) with something as simple as the setlist for Sunday mornings. I would spend hours combing through lyrics and songs to find ones that matched perfectly with the theme. Then I’d carefully plan out the order of the service so that it flowed nicely. Then someone would tell me they hated one of those songs or they didn’t like the selections and it would be like a kick in the teeth. Sure, it was never meant that way but when it’s that much a part of you, it’s hard for it not to be taken that way.
- Great art is our holy grail. It’s what we’re all hoping to achieve. We’re big dreamers and it’s hard even for us to live up to our own dreams. The problem is that we want so bad for our art to be great that we live in constant fear that we’re not going to create great art. The thing we’re most afraid of is not that we’re going to create bad art but that our art will be mediocre. We’d rather create no art than mediocre art.
When you feel the urge to offer criticism, follow these steps to help from coming off as the wrong kind of person.
- Pray. First pray about it. Make sure it’s not just a matter of personal taste.
- Check your motives. Do I want to point out this person’s flaws and bring them down a notch? Or do I genuinely want to help them and see them succeed?
- Ask the important question: Am I the right person to offer this criticism? What is my relationship with the person? Are they apt to listen to me or should it come from someone else? If so, who?
- Find the right time. When I’m getting ready to walk on stage Sunday morning, don’t tell me that you don’t like the opening song. When that happens (yes, it really has happened) it derails my mind making it hard to focus on worship and it zaps all the energy clean out of me.
- Don’t make it personal. This actually goes both ways. Please don’t make it personal to me, the one being criticized. eg. If the song isn’t your favorite, don’t call me stupid for picking it. Likewise, don’t take it personally if it doesn’t change. (When it happens on a Sunday morning, it’s really too late to change it anyway. The reason I’m keeping it is because it’s too late, not because I don’t like you!)
- Remember that even constructive criticism is still criticism. No matter how nice you try to put it, you’re still criticizing. Don’t expect to be thanked and praised right away for offering up your criticism, no matter how much sugar you pour on it. It might happen, but it also might not.
- Let it go. Once you’ve offered up your thoughts, let it go. If the person chooses to not to listen, believe that they have good reason to do so. It’s their call. Don’t keep pestering them about it and definitely don’t take matters into your own hands (unless the other person is in actual physical danger, of course.).
Offering up criticism is never easy, but if you really care about the person and believe it’s something they need to hear, find a good time and share your thoughts with them. Don’t expect to be the hero at first, but if they are willing to listen and it helps them, that’s all the thanks you need.