Critical Positions

First, all criticism must be done with love, can only be done from love. This is true in both arts criticism and critical art – or criticism of any kind. Criticism without love is spite. Those who criticize without loving what they criticize do so out of spite – too often because what they are criticizing is good, and they hate it for that very reason. Their only purpose is to tear down what they criticize. There are, of course, bad things that must be torn down, but one does not criticize these things – one attacks them.

We must criticize the arts or criticize through the arts as a parent criticizes a child (I use the word “criticize” here in the most positive way possible – as loving correction) – with the loving hope of bringing out what we know to be the best that child has to offer. But the child must know it is loved, must feel loved, before it can withstand criticism. Children who know they are loved can take loving criticism and use it to improve himself. Children who are not loved, who do not see the criticism as coming from love, will receive the criticism with resentment – and rightfully so. He will see criticism as something harmful, something meant to tear him down rather than lift him up. This lifting up, this is and should be the goal of all criticism.

My own particular field is literature, and so I shall use it as an example. In choosing a novel to critique, I would – and should – pick a novel I love, while avoiding novels I hate. There is an element of logic here – why would I want to spend more time with a novel I disliked and whose artistry I do not respect? Thus, I would never do a criticism of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I consider to be the single worst novel I have ever read. Instead, I would rather do a criticism of, say, Don DeLillo’s Underworld (to pick another contemporary novelist), which I love immensely and, in my love of it, am able to see both what is good about the novel, as well as what does not quite work, in my opinion. I can do this because I am approaching the novel from a position of love.
Now some may object that a better position is that of neutrality. But neutrality is the same as saying indifference, and you are certainly unable to say anything either positive or negative, or constructive in any way, if you are indifferent. Only someone who loves something or someone will want to take the time and make the effort to critique it. Only someone who loves something or someone will want what is best for it. Even hatred is preferable to indifference – one can gain something from it, if one views such criticism with a cool eye. With hatred, at least some emotion was involved – they cared enough to hate. With indifference, nothing is accomplished – it is the true opposite of love (and love’s twin, hatred).

A good example of a loving critique is the creation of new art in response to the work(s) in question. I would never write a novel in response to Blood Meridian – to do so would be to acknowledge value where, in fact, I find none. But even though I have various philosophical problems with DeLillo’s paranoia, conspiracy-mentality, and apocalyptic world view, all of which I reject, I do consider him worthy of emulating and of responding to artistically and philosophically. I have in fact worked on a novel that does just that – respond to DeLillo (and postmodernism in general) philosophically. Indeed, this novel (which I do need to get back to working on) would have been impossible without my having read Underworld.

So criticism must be done from love. Criticizing from hatred will not work because those being criticized will refuse to listen, meaning it cannot be constructive – and, in the end, what is criticism meant to be if not constructive? Criticizing from hatred will not work because we are blinded by that hatred to whatever value there is in the thing or person in question. And whose who are being critiqued will not listen to anything we have to say, because they know we do not have their best interests at heart. Thus, my position on not doing any criticism of Blood Meridian – lovers of the book will gain nothing from anything I have to say about it. But hopefully lovers of Underworld would be able to read a critique I wrote of it and be able to see it in a new light, uncover new beauties in it that had previously gone unseen, understand what I have a problem with in the book and why, and investigate with me the possible reasons for DeLillo’s choices. They will listen because they know I love the book.

The same is true of children – and of countries. Each must know the one being critical is only doing it out of love and only wants what is best – only wants to lift them up to greater heights, to make them a better person or a better country. Criticism from hatred is only meant to tear down, to destroy, not to build up – and the one who is being criticized knows this, no matter the objections of the one who criticizes from hatred. Everyone, from the time they were a small child, knows the difference. That is why criticism must always be done only from a position of love.

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