Thursday, August 03, 2006

On Beauty and our Critical Culture

My friend Jon has mentioned a few times how most blog post and comments come from people who are critical and what to complain about something. Our criticism can be about art, politics, life, social issues, religion, current events, entertainment or any other trivial pursuit category.

And it seems to me that in modern times our society highly values being critical. And of course, almost my definition, we can't be critical unless we say some things are negative.

Schools encourage us to write papers that use critical sources, and as non-professionals we are expected to examine the criticism of professional and say what is good and bad about it.

We take music appreciation and art appreciation. Yet it seems that the primary goal of these courses is to make us see unrefined quality in the contemporary and popular music and art. These classes in turn are filled with disappreciation.

We read movie and music reviews, sometimes to find something new that we like, but often to validate our own lack-of-interest and critical perspective.

And there is a point where criticism is one way to have higher thought, but on the other hand it's carry over into society makes us people who over-evaluate and find minute criticisms in people. We are often a Seinfeld generation where we character type people by their uniqueness. "He's a close-talker," or "She has really large nose, I don't think I could date her."

And we create archetypes for normality, and compare everyone and their failings to that. It becomes socially divisive as some people choose Target over Walmart or a local coffee shop over Starbucks as people try to avoid being "that type of person."

And then there's things like myspace and social networks were people openly evaluate their relationships deciding who should be in there "Top 8" or be mentioned in the list of 100 ridiculous questions.

Hear me out, criticism is healthy, evaluation is healthy, but I think it must be balanced with something. I think that something is beauty. That we might be able to see something and say that's beautiful, and not just because it's a mountain peering over a lake, a proportionate supermodel or tiny baby.

No, we need to look at eachother, and the way we interact and the general tic-tock of life and find beauty in it.

In the 1950 film Harvey, James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd says:
Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world, Elwood, you must be" - she always called me Elwood - "In this world, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. And you may quote me.

I want to be smart, and I know a lot of smart people. But if being smart means being critical at every turn, then I don't know if I want to live my life. If I believe God is the starter of everything, the maker of everything, then I should search for God and the beauty that I can uncover all around me.

If there must be a tradeoff, I would rather learn to be pleasant than smart -- searching for beauty over criticism.

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Will said...

RC, brilliant post here. I'm a fellow believer in the Elwood P. Dowd philosophy of life (well, most of it anyway :-).
Hopefully I'm not one of the critical jerks you're writing about here, but it is very easy, being a fallen image-bearer (read: selfish pig) to see imperfections in everything. Perhaps God can turn that tendency to good by allowing it to grow into a longing for His perfections (now and in our future) as well as into a love for fellow-imperfect-beings like ourselves, whom God loved enough not only to imagine, but to turn from imagination into being.

By the way, my favorite line from Harvey is: "You've got a lot to learn, Myrtle Mae, and I hope you never learn it!" A truly brilliant comedy.

Jordan M. Poss said...

Wow--great post. I've been noticing the same tendency lately, too, not only in the world at large, but sometimes in myself, which I don't like. I also hope, though, that I'm not one of the perpetual critics you had in mind. :D

The worst example I know of, though, is today's political scene. Politics have always been dirty, but the last decade or so has seen a rise in vindictiveness, spite, and savagery rarely seen outside the Roman Forum (e.g: Tiberius Gracchus being beaten to death with chairs by opponents to a land reform proposal). The vitriol of people like Al Franken, Cindy Sheehan, Michael Moore, and Ann Coulter really needs to stop, but I'm afraid it's a neverending cycle--civil discussion doesn't go anywhere until all involved are civil.

Beats me as to what the solution is, but nonetheless--good thoughts!

Todd M said...

Wow. Great post. Glad I visited your blog.

For many people, being critical is the result of low self-esteem, I think. Folks make themselves feel better by tearing down others. ("Well, I may be bad but I'm not as bad as that or them!")

Feeling comfortable with oneself, knowing that your ultimate worth rests not in this world, being in the world but not of the world -- those are all answers for the critical nature of our culture.

Tom said...

I try to remain as positive as possible, focusing on the blessings of life rather than the other stuff but I do not always succeed. Always good to see a reference to Jimmy Stewart and his work Last September I even bought a Harvey coffee mug at the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, PA. Harvey is invisible until hot liquid is poured in and then he magically appears!

Anomie-Atlanta said...

If you are pleasant enough, no one will hold being smart against you. ;) Your writing is both smart and pleasant.

Kimberly Ann said...

I love the post. Very thoughtful and insightful.

Oh yea, and I really enjoy the movie 'Harvey.' Fun quote :-)

Sheri Ann said...

That is a terrible post and let me list the reasons why.....

Just kidding! Great thoughts, especially the closing one!

Paula said...

Criticism can also come from a profound sense of longing for perfection, which in itself isn't a bad thing if we realize that the longing is actually a place in our heart than only God can fill.

I am often "homesick". I am happily married, but even a good marriage isn't a perfect one, and when things aren't right, I know it. I know it is supposed to be better, I'm not supposed to hurt the ones I love, and they aren't supposed to hurt me. If I focus on the shortcomings, I become critical. Same with story--it is supposed to be true, it is supposed to engage my mind and my heart, and when it doesn't, I become critical.

But criticism without love...the term "clanging cymbal" comes to mind.

kludge said...

I'm a VERY critical person not just in saying "that's wrong" but also "why do you...".
Sometimes this is a good thing for honing ideas and streghting beliefs and moving people from neutral to "for" or "aganist". But when your always critical it can steal joy. Joy is command of God, and should not be ignored. As humans we need joy and He knows it.

Good post, I enjoyed it.

Bennett said...

I met Harvey once. He's not as tall as he seems. It's the ears I guess.

So evaluation is the thing. A society based on evaluation. Is that the result of democracy? Capitalism? The value of everything is calculated by how many people like it. You know, America's Funniest Home Videos, American Idol, the Presidential Election, Box Office results, the Kids' Choice Awards. Opinions are soooo important that people can make a living just by giving their opinion all the time. Because there is no standard. But we really want a standard, so we ask everyone else. Society becomes a standard, but it is no standard at all.

The snake bites its own tail...

Kim Ayres said...

It's too easy to pull things down and so much harder to build viable alternatives. In the UK there's a programme on TV called "Grumpy Old Men" which has a bunch of C list celebs saying what they hate about this day and age and how it was different when they were young. The success of it led to a sister programme called "Grumpy old Women" doing exactly the same thing, only with C list female celebs, obviously.

Although I occasionally lapse into it, I do try to actively avoid just moaning about things - I think it just makes you come across as a sad git.

Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog by the way :)

Sven said...

RC: Funny thing, that. I find it is far easier to be (or think I'm being) funny/witty when I am being critical. The opposite is much more difficult. I've also felt that when I've written proudly of my kids that I'm bragging. Talk about screwed up.

In praise of his uncle, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was quoted once as saying, "My uncle Alex Vonnegut, a Harvard-educated life insurance salesman who lived at 5033 North Pennsylvania Street, taught me something very important. He said that when things were really going well we should be sure to notice it.

"He was talking about the simple occasions, not great victories: maybe drinking lemonade on a hot afternoon in the shade, or smelling the aroma of a nearby bakery, or fishing and not caring if we catch anything or not, or hearing somebody all alone playing a piano really well in the house next door.

"Uncle Alex urged me to say this out loud during such epiphanies: 'If this isn’t nice, what is?'"

Martha Elaine Belden said...

I love this post... and I agree. I think I succeed more at the pleasant, but I pride myself sometimes in the intelligence... I find, however, that when I'm overly concerned with the smart... I become more and more unpleasant.

great Harvey quote, by the way. I LOVE that movie... I even wrote it about it in a past post myself. Not enough people have seen or appreciate it, but I think it's a beautiful film.

Thanks for stopping by my blog, by the way.

Martha Elaine Belden said...

i just realized that probably came across as very prideful... i didn't mean it to. i just meant that i'm typically known for being the nice girl... but sometimes i rather prefer the smart-girl label (this may still seem prideful... in which case, i'm sorry) i'm just trying to echo your sentiment :)

Atul said...

Great post. It's interesting that our culture does value critical analysis and not creativity. I actually put a quote on my blog a while ago advocating the opposite...

Take it easy and thanks for stopping by and commenting on my blog.

Shing said...

Hi RC! I agree with your post...I too can be very critical, but it's tiring that way, isn't it? Sometimes, it's just much more, er, pleasant if we look at the world through our rose-colored glasses...

sometimes, we just need to adjust and re-adjust them, focus and the end, there is indeed, a wonderful photograph... :)


revtom said...

wow... this is very thoughtful... as i consider myself, i must ask myself, am i too critical? i think todd is right about the self esteem thing... and i think that the self esteem thing get screwed up when we look at the wrong place for worth...

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