"Destructive Criticism … Is Certainly the Most Helpful Criticism"

"Destructive Criticism … Is Certainly the Most Helpful Criticism"

"Destructive Criticism … Is Certainly the Most Helpful Criticism"

The painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) did a series of interviews during his career with David Sylvester.

Some of them are presented in Interviews with Francis Bacon: 1962-1979, by David Sylvester, published in 1980. I’m both interested in art and also pretty clueless, but when I’m interested, I don’t mind being clueless. (In fact, life story pretty much in a nutshell, there.) Beyond the comments focused narrowly on painting and art, Sylvester also draws out insights on the creative process, the role of inspiration, the role of risk-taking, how trying to capture a certain subject distorts the subject, when trying to take something good and push it further and end up with something less good, and other issues that seem to me more broadly relevant not just to art but to academic work as well. This exchange about criticism is at the end of Interview 2 (pp. 66-67 in my edition). FB is Francis Bacon; DS is David Sylvester.

FB: I’ve always thought of friendship as where two people really tear one another apart and perhaps in that way learn something from each other.

DS: Have you ever got anything from what’s called destructive criticism made by critics?

FB: I think that destructive criticism, especially by other artists, is certainly the most helpful criticism. Even if, when you analyze it, you may feel that it’s wrong, at least you analyze it and think about it. When people praise you, well, it’s very pleasant to be praised, but it doesn’t actually help you.

DS: Do you find you can bring yourself to make destructive criticism of your friends’ work?

FB: Unfortunately, with most of them I can’t if I want to keep them as friends.

DS: Do you find you can criticize their personalities and keep them as friends?

FB: It’s easier, because people are less vain of their personalities than they are of their work. They feel in an odd way, I think, that they’re not irrevocably committed to their personality, that they can work on it and change it, whereas the work that has gone out–nothing can be done about it. But I’ve always hoped to find another painter I could really talk to–somebody whose qualities and sensibility I’d really believe in-who really tore my things to bits and whose judgement I could actually believe in. I envy very much, for instance, going to another art, I envy very much the situation when Eliot and Pound and Yeats were all working together. And in fact Pound made a kind of caesarean operation on The Waste Land; he also had a very strong influence on Yeats–although both of them may have been very much better poets than Pound. I think it would be marvellous to have somebody who would say to you, “Do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that!” and give you the reasons. I think it would be very helpful.

DS: You feel you really could use that kind of help?

FB: I could. Very much. Yes, I long for people to tell me what to do, to tell me where I go wrong.

Here are some thoughts:

1) Generalizing wildly from my own experience, most of us are not looking for a “friendship” where two people “really tear one another apart.” However, it does seem to me as if close friends often bring temperaments that are in some ineluctable way complementary, and friendship arises in that interaction.

2) Can economists be also friends and determined opponents and critics? It’s possible! Perhaps the most famous example in the economics literature is that of David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus, who together with their wives were among the most devoted of friends. However, they disagreed substantially about economic issues, and wrote back and forth for a decade with detailed criticisms and refutations of each other’s work. For example, two weeks before Ricardo died, he wrote one more letter to Malthus about their disagreements on the theory of value, and concluded:

And now, my dear Malthus, I have done. Like other disputants, after much discussion we each retain our own opinions. These discussions, however, never influence our friendship; I could not like you more than I do if you agreed in my opinion with me. Pray give Mrs. Ricardo’s and my kind regards to Mrs. Malthus. Yours truly …

At Ricardo’s funeral, Malthus reportedly said:

I never loved anybody out of my own family so much. Our interchange of opinions was so unreserved, and the object after which we were both enquiring was so entirely the truth and nothing else, that I cannot but think we sooner or later must have agreed.

That combination of friendship and critique is of course rare. But Bacon is not wrong to yearn for it.

3) In my own career, working as Managing Editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives since 1987, I have been providing in-depth comments and hands-on editing to literally hundreds of economists over the years. When I took the job, one of my concerns was that I would have to wage a series of pitched battles with economists about standards of exposition. But over the years, less than a handful of the JEP authors have been bitter and resentful about my editing and comments–at least to my face. To the contrary, most of them have been quite pleased at getting editorial guidance. In Bacon’s words: “I think it would be marvellous to have somebody who would say to you, 'Do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that!’ and give you the reasons. I think it would be very helpful.” A few times over the years I have had an author respond that after working through my comments and editing, the author understood their own work better than they had previously–which as an editor is the highest of compliments.

Of course, authors don’t always agree with me, but as long as I feel that they have considered my reactions, that’s of course fine. I’m not challenging the authors in the sense of telling them that they are “wrong,” an accusation that carries heavy weight in academic work. Instead, my editorial goals are clarity, persuasiveness, and a degree of brevity. When it comes to criticism, tone seems especially important. Criticisms phrases in the form “I don’t understand” or “I don’t follow” or “the structure might work better this way” or “how do you respond to the common criticism that …” are not only more politic, but also usually more accurate, than “You’re wrong.”

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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