Critiquing the Critic?

The relationship between artists and critics is by its very nature one of wariness.  Ideally an artist works to create their best and most honest work and present it as their own truth to the public.  Obviously every artist wants their work to be well-received by the audience, but the best work is done by being as faithful as possible to the work and its creation with the goal of sharing the result.  Working toward the applause is an exercise in failure.

Like all artists, I have had wonderful and truly terrible things said about my work.  I remember several of the worst to remind me when the critical response is great that it is all relative.  Of course, it is a business, and the critical response can drive the business of art to great success or to abject failure, and that is the greatest cause for friction between the two parties.  Artists need an audience to pay to allow them make the art; the critic can bring them in droves or ensure that no one ever shows up.

It is, then, the job of the critic to offer an informed and intelligent response to the art.  They serve as a voice of translation and reaction to the art on behalf of the intended audience.  As a result, the critic and artist are inherently at odds, every artist believes their work is genius – as they should, why else would they present it?  The discerning critic serves to determine if, in fact, the result truly is genius.  As Shaw, arguably the father of sorts of modern criticism, said, “a drama critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned.”  It is this stoning that causes so many artists to find critics frustrating.

The conversation between the critic and the artist is a brief one.  The artist says something, and the critic provides a response.  Then the interaction is done.  I’ve recently had a front row seat to a situation where the artist determined they were not satisfied with that and responded again to the critics.  The specifics are not actually important, they were a jumping off point for something it made me consider.  Why can’t the dialogue longer?  At least sometimes?  Why isn’t there the opportunity for the critic to give a response they deem an analysis of the art and information for the public, and then allow the artist to respond again and engage in conversation with the critic as proxy for the public.  Obviously it is unproductive if either party is unwilling to listen and hear what the other is saying, but if both parties can come together and genuinely move the art forward, there may be something fascinating to gain that benefits the audience that is the intended recipient of the work.

All of this presumes several things of course.  First, the artist must be willing to submit their work for analysis and be willing to allow their work to be adjusted or redirected by the response to it.  I’m sure many would argue this is would be disastrous because the artist is no longer being “true” to their vision by allowing input.  However, a great deal of brilliant art is created through collaboration, so only the most egotistical artist can argue that there is no room for improvement or growth in their work.  The artist must also be willing to engage in civil dialogue.  A defense of the work would be a logical part of the conversation, but so would the ability to actually listen to articulate and productive criticism.

It also requires a particularly skilled critic.  I personally follow critics all over the country for various things.  Film critics, television critics, theatre critics, literary critics.  In Los Angeles, Dallas and various national and syndicated news outlets.  Among them there are some I consider truly brilliant and others I consider complete morons without either the awareness of their subject or the skills to articulate their opinion.  Obviously I am personally most critical of theatre critics because it is the area I have the most personal knowledge and experience.  I do, and will likely always, hold theatre critics to a higher standard.  I acknowledge this personal bias, as it were.

So what makes a great critic?  If I am going to place my trust in the analysis and observation of a critic, it requires several things.  First, they must be a skilled writer.  Regardless of their chosen field, if they are not a great writer, they should not be a critic.  A critic is a journalist with an area of specialty; if they are not a great journalist, they cannot be a great critic.  Well, I guess they could have a podcast or something. There is one critic I read regularly that fails massively in this area, to the frustration of many of the artists they cover.  It makes their resulting criticism dismissed categorically out of hand, whether it is positive or negative.

Second, a critic should be knowledgeable about the art they cover.  Everyone has an opinion, and a status update review is not the same thing as a true critique – despite how common this seems to be.  “Everyone’s a critic.”  No, they aren’t, nor should they be.  It is an actual skill.  The true critic knows both the history and the present of the art they cover.  I have lots of opinions about food, but I have the taste buds of a five year old.  My food reviews would be rather meaningless to anyone with a discerning palate.  I do find it interesting that there is not always a set of requirements to be met to become a critic.  There isn’t a guild representing them, and this must be quite frustrating for great critics to have their work compared with others who have no legitimate qualifications.  “I’ve been doing this for a long time” does not inherently grant an expert skill set either.  I’ve been walking for a long time, but sometimes I stumble over my own feet, so I probably do not qualify as an expert.

It is the combination of experience and knowledge that allows the critic to put new art in the context of the progression of that entire field.  They have actual education and credentials regarding the study of the art that allow them to be an expert.  This allows them to answer the questions that put a piece of art in context.  Is it an advancement?  Is it a new contribution?  What is it saying?  How does it fit with the art as a whole?  Does it?  Is it a worthy contribution?  Is it done well?  The audience is not required to have a great context for viewing the art.  They will have their own reaction based on their personal experiences and preferences.  It is the job of the critic to be informed far beyond that to help the uninitiated public understood the greater worth, or lack thereof, of what they are viewing.

I have found that the critics I enjoy most are able to do several things.  First, they know what they are talking about and they write well.  Second, they are able to provide an explanation for why they feel the art is a worthy or unworthy contribution while analyzing all aspects from the most subtle to the most obvious about the piece.  Finally, and most importantly for me, they are able to express what kind of audience would enjoy the art.  This is where I find many critics fail.  They are able to make an assessment and judgment and express it clearly.  For work that is “genius” or “garbage” it is simple to say that everyone or no one should see the art.  It’s the area in the middle  – where most art truly lies – that they do not bother to finish their work.  If it isn’t brilliant, and it isn’t crap, whether the critic personally enjoyed it or not, who would?  The ability to articulate this is a subtle skill often lacking.  It is often most helpful to answer the questions, “Will the intended audience enjoy this art?”  or “what kind of audience would enjoy this art”  instead of judging it purely on the scale of “how likely is everyone to love this art?”

I have strayed rather significantly from my original thought here, but I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had about continuing the conversation between worthy artists and intelligent critics that might benefit all of us.  I recently read a conversation between Quentin Tarantino and a critic who panned Django Unchained for unbelievable plot points that I found to be particularly enlightened.  You can read the entire interview here, and it is very interesting.  It did not end with minds changed, but it provided a fascinating insight into the ability of continued debate to add to the conversation an artist is having with the audience.  It also worked because both parties were respectful, a challenging thing to achieve when disagreeing in the world of art.

There is an unwritten rule that you do not respond to a critic.  This makes sense in most cases because typically the response most likely to be given is using a whole bunch of words to just tell the critic “you’re wrong.”  The responder is likely to say things they would be embarrassed by in a calmer moment.  I’m not worried for the critics, by the nature of their work they are thick-skinned individuals.  It just does not accomplish anything to say “I didn’t like what you said.”  Many would not consider responding to a critic out of fear of future reprisal, but that is ridiculous.  Any decent critic would not allow a response to affect their judgment. There are plenty of people I acknowledge are talented whom I do not have a great deal of affection for personally.  However, I think the blanket assertion that you cannot address a critics points should not be completely valid either.  Sure, there are likely critics who would not be interested in a discourse, but I also believe that an intelligently crafted discussion of the objections a critic raised to a work might provide a fruitful conversation in some cases.

I do think dismissing the critic completely from the equation is detrimental to the artistic process.  It’s easy to say “it’s one person’s opinion” – it is harder to acknowledge that said opinion, when articulated thoughtfully and intelligently, might be making valid points even if they are unpleasant to hear.  Great criticism from great critics can make art better.

Or maybe I’m wrong.  Artists do what they do, and critics say what they say, and then artists grumble when they don’t like what is said and everyone goes on doing what they are doing.  I just think it might occasionally be possible to allow it to be more than that.

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