Critical Compassion

My daughter brought me a wonderful piece of art that she had created titled “When the Birds Graduate From High School”. It contains no birds and no evidence of their school. Pine needles and dried flowers lay across the page against a blue background, the scattered remains of a party taking place higher up in the branches as the birds celebrate their passage into a new phase of life.

Taoism describes each unique aspect of our world as an expression, a manifestation, of a singular source. Each person, plant, object and phenomena stems from this source. We are not separable from it, so much as we are difference frequencies, or facets. At the core of it all we share the same substrate and origin, the same vibration and wellspring.

In this explanation of our existence, the source is constantly recreating itself, seeking to express itself in a variety of ways. It could be said that all of existence is itself creation. Each unique version of creation is following its own path of unfolding and its own undercurrents, seeking to be the most true version of itself that can possibly be.

As artists, working in such a world, we are necessarily meta creators. It is in our nature to express ourselves and our experience as truly and honestly as we possibly can.

I can’t see with your eyes or hear with your ears. The moments that inspire me to capture an image come into existence as a work of art behind layers of intangible decision-making. We must accept that the work of other artists is necessarily incomplete. That our understanding will require an acceptance of the inherent mystery.

Rebecca Solnit, a wide-ranging culture essayist tackles this issue as it relates to art criticism as one piece of writing from her book Men Explain Things To Me. She argues for a form of criticism that seeks to expand the works rather than reduce them. This is compassion at work, the act of injecting energy, hope and excitement into the dreams of others.

“This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective.”

Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable” from her book “Men Explain Things To Me

This is a wonderful expression of my belief in the power of curiosity and compassion. In a world where postmodern cynicism, irony and skepticism has been weaponized by those in power, and has trickled down as incomplete fragments to the general public, it is common for us to think about the work of other people as competitive. We have been trained to think of our world as a zero-sum game in which one good idea must rise above another in order to survive.

The world is complex enough without our help, but humans have done an amazing job adding layers of technological and social nuance over the infinite depths of basic biology, chemistry and physics. The Taoist perspective of our existence is that we are distant outposts from the core of the source. Like living our lives on the tips of a porcupine’s quills, we are all just trying to figure out what our world, and our place in it, is really like.

There is enough reality for everyone, and if any one of us thinks that we will be able to get our hands around it without the help and perspective of others, then we are sorely mistaken.

Solnit’s model of criticism isn’t simply a matter of giving the artist the benefit of the doubt. Compassion requires active engagement and vulnerability.

If I were to have seen my daughter’s picture without her description, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate what was actually happening or the complexity of her thought process. Knowing what she saw when she was creating it I can open up new possibilities for engaging with the image and new ideas that it can inspire.

Compassionate criticism does not mean that we change our views of what is beautiful. It does not require that we deem everything successful or compelling. It asks us to engage openly with the work and be open to a new perspective. It offers us a chance to find something extraordinary by looking for what the artist is trying to show us. We do not need to deem it beautiful, or hang it on our walls at the end of the day. The work’s success or failure does not imprint upon us. Enjoyment of a work of art does not alter our character, no matter what the exclusionary critics might say.

It is also not the artist’s responsibility to convince you or to “grip” you with their work.

Viewing art is not a passive engagement. It is an opportunity for us to gain a unique perspective on existence through a set of eyes that are not our own. Our inability or unwillingness to explore the pieces and seek deeper truths is a denial to ourselves, a missed opportunity, like spending time glued to a smartphone screen while walking through a national park. You certainly don’t have to enjoy the scenery, but if you don’t take the effort to engage with it, you will be missing an opportunity to experience a view of our world that you can’t find during your daily routine.

Those who are willing and able to seek inspiration from others will be living in a richer world with more opportunities for a nuanced perspective. Here’s to a bit more compassion in our criticism.