I learn about life through my experiences. I have become cynical about some things, but overall, I believe I am optimistic and generally happy. I rarely have to look far to remember why.
I was fortunate enough to have a blog article published on the Huffington Post site recently. Not an article I wrote for my own blogs, but one I wrote in response to an open call for blog posts that dealt with America’s working poor. I figured my story fit the bill. I work. I am poor.
Some of you may have read the article. For those of you who didn’t, let me just say that it was an anecdotal summary of my career in about 1000 words or so. I didn’t try to pass the blame to anyone for any professional shortcomings I may have experienced and I wasn’t trying to garner sympathy for my plight. I just told my story — plain and simple — so people could see that hard work was not necessarily a ticket to success. I knew that there would be a percentage of the readers that responded negatively.
The feedback was mixed as expected, with about as many supportive comments as there were critical comments (and there were almost a thousand comments in all). The supporters applauded my candor and continued resolve, and generally seemed to understand the nuances of the purely expository purpose of the article. The detractors, on the other hand, were almost universally judgmental and insulting. They happily filled the informational blanks with their own assumptions to rationalize their outbursts. For example, one critic said he had no sympathy for a “pot-smoking loser” when he addressed the fact that I had initially dropped out of my first attempt at college. I never mentioned anything about smoking pot in the article (probably because I didn’t smoke pot. I preferred gin). I just said the temptations of a big university were too much for me. The critic obviously didn’t like the fact I had left out details he needed to make a hasty generalization, so he filled in the gap arbitrarily.
Initially, I read most the comments just to see what kind of feedback I was getting. But I soon realized there was nothing for me in any of them. Comments of support were nice, gave some momentum to my self esteem, but were fundamentally unnecessary. I love my life. I think the trade-offs I’ve made instead of following a traditional path have been worth it. I like the way I view the world. Sure, I have complaints and things to say about areas where I believe society can improve, but that doesn’t mean I need a hug to be happy. I always need hugs, but not for that reason. Hugs are just healthy and good for people.
But it was within the critical comments I found the most waste. Not one person told me anything that I didn’t already know. Many said I had made “reckless decisions” and deserved what I got. Hell, I knew THAT! My entire life has been a model of how a person can survive quite happily on a wave of reckless decisions. And I have never argued against my own accountability within that model that has had both good and bad results. Most of the other negative comments, however, were just venomous insults, striking out at me. It was as if they were trying to injure me for what I could only guess was some pervasive disgust in their own lives that manifested itself as some form of pompous self-righteousness and could only be expressed through the degradation of another human being.
I found it very, very interesting.
It confirmed to me a simple truth — there are people who want to help and then there are just some people who want to hurt. Negative criticism is not necessarily hurtful. If it is based on reasonable interpretations and is offered with the purpose of benefiting someone than it can be a very valuable tool. Unfortunately, I believe the bulk of critical expression these days is usually a misguided cry for acknowledgement by the critic in hopes of being recognized as an intelligent, valid, and relevant creature.
As an artist, it is important to be able to separate the two types of critics — the helpful apart from the hurtful. Luckily, I have not encountered either yet. Probably because few have actually seen my art.
But unlike the comments of support for my Huffington Post article that I found fundamentally unnecessary, I’d be a liar if I didn’t confess I enjoy comments of support for my painting. Perhaps it’s because it is all so new and I have yet to completely synthesize the truism “ars gratia artis”, art for arts sake, into my own psyche. I still like to hear that I’m not wasting my time nor my paint.
One of my good friends, George, never fails to let me know how much he likes my art. In fact, he doesn’t stop with the compliments, he proactively seeks out opportunities to get my pieces out into the world. He is an artist himself, a chef who uses food as his medium, so he can identify with the risk of putting one’s art on the table for the consumption, thus the criticism, of the public. We are brothers cut from the same cloth — we both believe a life should be explored during its entirety and not just when you’re young. George is the proprietor of Shier’s Artisan Foods (awesome eats) and currently operates a food wagon in cooperation with the Midland Brewing Company, a craft brewer in Midland, Michigan. Last month, George facilitated the hanging of a number of my pieces around the walls of MBC’s publc tasting room.
They hang there as I write this now, available for anyone to view and criticize to their hearts content. I must admit, it’s a little scary having my babies out there where I can’t defend them, but I can’t worry about the negative things people might say. Ars gratia artis, right?
All I can do is be thankful that there are people out there like George and the folks at Midland Brewing Company. And I know there are others out there as well. It is important to focus on the people trying to help instead of dwelling on those trying to hurt.
“Your stuff is great and it needs to be seen,” George says.
Thanks, George. That means a lot coming from you.
This is one of the pictures hanging at MBC in Midland. For George’s sake, I hope it doesn’t make anyone lose their appetite.