Photo by: Protopito
Can you separate what you like from what is quality and of value? Ouch! Starting out with a tough question, but bear with me. There are two ways to see creative work. One way is to pass a judgement of personal taste. You like it, or you don't. The other is to pass a judgement of quality or value. It's good and well done, or it's not. Some people are unable to separate these two views, pronouncing anything they don't like as crap and anything they do like as perfection. I'll be the first to admit that I was well into high school before I even realized the distinction, but being able to separate what we prefer from what has value makes art much more three-dimensional and allows us to have a better perspective on our personal preferences in relation to technical and creative quality, not to mention on what our culture has deemed as valuable or not valuable.
When I was a junior in high school, my aunt and uncle took my sister and me to New York on our very first trip to the city. Wandering amongst the skyscrapers, cruising around on crazy, double-decker tourist busses, and taking as many landmark photos as our cameras would hold were all experiences entirely new to me. Another novelty was dinner theater. How fancy! I didn't even know such a thing existed, but I love live theater and adding food to that is a major win in my book. We headed to Broadway and were seated right near the stage, just to the side, and had a wonderful view. The plush seats were gathered around wide tables and all around us people sipped drinks, chatted in low voices, and waited for the lights to be fully dimmed and the play to begin. I can't even remember what the play was now, but I do remember the red curtains and being sucked into the story completely.
Photo by: Mickey Thurman
On our way out, passing through the lobby and into the city once again, we discussed the play. "Did you like it?" someone asked. I thought it was good, I said, but I didn't really like it. There was a pause. I think I shocked myself! It was the first time I'd been able to fully recognize the separation between my own tastes and the quality of a creative work, and having a clear view of my preferences versus the actual value of the play was a revelation for me. For the rest of the trip, I tested myself on what I liked versus what I was able to acknowledge as 'good.' Once you start paying attention to that distinction, you'll be amazed at what you discover.
As consumers of art, allowing preference to separate from true value judgement gives us a whole new perspective. We become more informed by realizing the elements of art that appeal to us and those that are technically and creatively good or innovative. This might sound like a lot of work, but really, it's not. Nor does it take a background in art, music, or literature. The next time you see a work of art, watch a play, or read a book, start with the easy stuff: "Do I like this?" From there, you can ask yourself if it's good. Look for the qualities which make it valuable and those that might be stale, overworked, or incongruous. Comparing our likes to what we see as quality can inform us of our own artistic preferences as well as those of our surrounding culture.
Similarly, we need to be able to make that distinction as as creative beings and producers of art. Many times, artists find discouragement in the judgements of others, but even if viewers are not able to separate their preferences from the value of a work, we can do it for them and realize that just because people don't like what we do does not, in any way, mean that our work is not valuable. Our responsibility as artists is to step back from time to time to take an objective look at our work and ask ourselves if we just like it or if it really has value. It's easy to like something or hate something simply because you are the creator, but creating meaningfully depends on a more objective perspective and a separation of personal interest from time to time. If you love and believe in what you're doing, you can bet there's probably value there, but offering yourself the chance to judge your work based solely on its merits can push you further than ever before and can give you an idea of where you stand within the creative realm of your time and of times before you.
Use those simple questions—Do I like it? Does it have value?—over the next couple of weeks. When you start bouncing to a song, ask yourself those questions. When you find yourself cringing over someone's fashion choices, ask them. When you read a book, hear a speech, or find yourself ogling images on Pinterest, ask those questions! It's just one more way to come to know yourself better and to become more aware of the way things affect us and our world.
I'd love to hear your experiences in asking these questions. Be brave! Share what you discover with us!