Critical Thought (Part 1)

Any criticism we get is always stuff we´ve already criticised ourselves. If you read one bad review and a hundred good ones, the bad one always seems to make more sense to you.” ~ Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead – Meeting People Is Easy

Recently, a couple of my older poems have seen a lot of traffic, especially the piece, “Fuck Ups“, thanks especially to StumbleUpon.  The fact that I’ve gotten literally thousands of views, including hundreds of ‘thumbs up’, is a nice feeling.

Unfortunately, I went surfing back through the referring pages and found some reviews from people who did not like the pieces.  I blame myself for bothering to read them.  These were not just negative, they were virulently unpleasant.  One went so far as to say, “i literally felt a little bit of vomit in my my mouth as i was going through this.”  That’s a powerful reaction.

Reading those criticisms kind of bummed me out, for a day.  I realize how stupid it was.  There were less than 5 people who (apparently) hated my poem, and hundreds of people who, at least, liked them.  Yet, I got focused on the negativity.  Anyone who has ever created art has probably been in that same boat.  We tend to focus in on the negatives because they just ring more true than all the nicest words in the world.

But those comments weren’t criticisms.  They were just angry rants.  There wasn’t a single insightful, helpful or reasoned thought in any of them.  It was just vitriol, aimed at me, but probably aimed at a dozen other sites that day, too.  I want criticism of my work, but I want it to be useful.  Whether it be negative or positive, criticism of my work should be more than, “Painfully bad.”  If my poem was truly so bad that it caused such a visceral reaction in a person, I could take quite a bit of pride in that.

Which brings me to Art Criticism.

Art Criticism is an unwieldy beast.  I’m a firm believer in the form, but for every example of a well-thought out, reasoned, articulate critique (either positive or negative), there are a thousand knee-jerk, angry, ignorant, cruel, thoughtless, baseless, inarticulate rants filling up our world, making the idea of ‘Criticism’ pretty hard to defend.

As the professionals are lamenting the possible (inevitable?) demise of the form, I want to throw in with those who contend that art criticism is necessary, and in its own way can be an artistic feat in and of itself.  One look no further than the most recognized face of film criticism (and probably all art criticism), Roger Ebert, to read truly expressive, heartfelt criticism with intelligence and wit.

It is not important that you agree with a person’s criticism of a certain work (a fact too many people don’t get), it’s only important that you can understand the reasoning of the critique.  Ebert has been the embodiment of that type of critic for many years (and A. O. Scott, in my book, is another).

One of the potential nails in the coffin of true art criticism is the complete misunderstanding of criticism as a form of communication.

If you saw Transformers 2 in theaters and had a crotch embiggening experience at it, you very well might bristle to read Ebert’s review of the movie.  One should not forget the fact that Ebert’s criticism of the movie is based on his personal experience of it, which includes everything that he himself brings to the film.  Notably, Ebert brings years of experience as a film critic.  Does a 70 year-old critic necessarily have a more legitimate right to review a film than a 20 year-old?  Well, no, but the older critic has a larger wealth of film history to draw from.  The 20 year-old may share your tastes in movies, and thus be the person you turn to for reviews of the new Friday night releases, but if you want something with a little more depth, you (and the 20 year-old) would do well to recognize the insights of the older generation.  It’s not about wisdom, it’s about experience.

Part of the reason art criticism appears to be in such decline (specifically in films, though it’s true in literature, as well) is that what the public spends their money on is rarely what the critics uphold as worthy art.  This separation of critics and consumers runs parallel to another modern movement, the distrust of the Elite (usually, Liberal and/or East-Coast).  Essentially, if you’ve taken the time to get an education, worked hard to learn your craft and better understand the underlying principles, you suddenly hit a point where you are no longer a “Real American.”  Because, apparently, Real Americans™ are the uneducated, inexperienced know-nothings.

There should be no shame in gaining knowledge.  There should be no shame in delving into a topic to better understand it.  No one should proudly declare, “I have little to no real education; listen to me!”  The job of a critic isn’t just to spout an opinion.  Anyone can do that.  The reason we listen to critics (or, at least, used to) is because they are espousing educated opinions.  Sure, no random opinion is inherently superior than any other opinion, but an educated opinion will always be worth more than an uneducated one.

So, you’ve seen a movie and loved it, but the critic hated it.  What do you do?  Well, there are two ways to respond to a critic who has a completely different reaction to something you either enjoyed or disliked.  You can say, “I disagree with your assessment and here are my reasons/points of disagreement with your critique.”

Or, “You’re a fucking idiot!  Fuck you you fat fuck!  What do you know about movies [music/books/manga/whatever]?”

Because art can be such a personal experience (especially the art we enjoyed in our youth), we often internalize it, make it part of our individual narrative.  And for that reason, when we enjoy something, hearing (or reading) someone else criticize it feels like a criticism of ourselves.

Well, get over it.

I include myself in the category of people who can too often allow criticism of my favorite artists to turn me into a rabid ubërfan.  But, I’ve gotten better about this over the years, so I can hear a negative critique of Radiohead without going off the handles.  See, growth!

That said, those kind of people who say shit like, “I hate Nirvana, I’m glad Cobain killed himself,” are still repugnant; not because suicide is a sacred topic, but because those people are intentionally being hyperbolic to lash out against others.  They are attempting to draw out an emotional response from someone for their own amusement.

Which brings me to the second nail in the coffin of art criticism: Trolls

Trolls existed before the internet.  Trolls have almost certainly existed from the dawn of man.  After the first cave painting was completed, some Cro Magnon man showed it off proudly, and then a Neanderthal Troll was all like, “That’s fucking gay.  Fag!”

The internet has just allowed Trolls to come out from under their bridges and out into the relative open, without ever having to leave their parent’s basement.

Essentially, what Trolling has led to is the absolute devaluing of criticism.  Much as the internet and self-publishing have inundated the world with shitty art that does not deserve to be seen (I’m aware that some say that of my own poetry), Trolling has so overwhelmed our lives with petty, meaningless bullshit that we struggle to tell the difference between honest critique and useless insults.

The hallmarks of Trolling include:  Hyperbole, usually with reference to violence or bodily functions; Liberal use of pejoratives like ‘Fag’ and ‘Asshole’; Intentional baiting of a particular fanbase.

The reason that Trolling is hurting art criticism is that any person who is reading a critique must now distinguish between sincere, intelligent criticism and mindless, reactive attacks.  It should be easy to do, but our pride sometimes leads us to dismiss true criticism that disagrees with our taste, while embracing Trolls who agree with our tastes.  Those of us who are used to reading and dismissing negative comments (whether they be on blogs, youtube pages, news articles or even art criticism) are now in the mindset where we can just as easily dismiss negative criticism.  And it’s easier to dismiss a contrary opinion than to engage with it.

The Trolls have created a world where it’s easier to simply ignore all criticism rather than make an attempt to distinguish thoughtful critique from irrational blather.  When you combine that with the ignorance of what true criticism entails, you’ve got yourself a recipe for the vapid critical free-for-all that is arising.

“You can’t discount my opinion and if you disagree with it, you’re a fag!”

If you consider yourself an artist (in any form), you should cherish true art criticism.  You may some day end up on the receiving end of a negative review, but a person truly reflecting upon and critiquing your work will always be more valuable than a hundred people’s, “I really liked that”, no matter how much of an ego boast they may be.  There are those who have received a negative review (or many) at some point in their ‘career’ and have turned their backs on art criticism.  They say, “Critics don’t get me” (as if they’re some sort of misunderstood genius… please).  But, even if you have no critics in your corner, you should still fear the death of true art criticism.

Without genuine, educated, involved art critics, all we’ll have are Trolls.  And in that world, a thousand I love its will be as meaningless as one I hate it.

3 thoughts on “Critical Thought (Part 1)

  1. It really surprises me that you’d care. 😉 Aww…

    Conversely tho, I went to Amazon awhile back -after I read Oscar Wao- to look at the reviews on it. Most great, but some negative as shit, which made me wonder, and so I checked out some of the stronger Bradbury titles, Amy Hempel, Great Gatsby, and most of the other books I was solidly in love with at the time.
    ALL of them had negative reviews, most worded as if the persons hadn’t even read the books. Or in the case of Great Gatsby, like the persons couldn’t complete a sentence to save their lives. Junior highers, in general, hate Great Gatsby. ;P
    Good thing they’re sperm and have time to mature.

    I find that my most long lasting love from the WC is for the ppl who would rip me a new one, if I needed it, genuinely. It might account for a large percentage of why I still like you so much. Truth is a gift, especially from those who take the time to really read something, and then know a persons work in the first place.

  2. I myself have had a love/hate relationship with criticism. Art criticism, in some respects is like telling someone that they don’t know how to raise their children. You just don’t do it…

    On the other hand, as you previously mentioned a well thought out critique though it may be hard to swallow can be endlessly useful. As a matter of fact Broadie and I started talking because of one of my critiques.

    I had a review on WC that was so harsh, it put me off from writing stories for 3 years. But I’ve grown thanks to that. I’ve learned to make my stories more sincere.

    Overall, it’s a well thought out essay (don’t know what else to call it) and yes…it did answer my question.

    Good shit.

    Write more.

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