Critical Thought (Part 2)


In a previous post I touched on why I believe art criticism is important, and why real criticism is being swallowed by petty mudslinging, largely thanks to the free-for-all that the internet’s open doors have created.

Well, it was Part 1, so you knew there would be a Part 2.

My interest in this post is to point out what doesn’t count as genuine criticism.

Whether your critique is negative or positive, criticism should be thoughtful, engaged and informative.  The most scathing review should still address the work as is.  Critics debate whether or not the personal biography of the artist should be considered when reviewing works of art, but wherever you fall in that debate (personally, I feel criticism should focus on the work exclusively, but I acknowledge that truly appreciating a work often requires having background on the art and the artist; it’s a tricky question), good criticism will always be apparent.  It’s pretty clear when you’ve read a true work of criticism.  It should engage your mind as much as the art does.

Poor criticism, on the other hand, strikes you emotionally.  And not in the way that a piece of art resonates with you viscerally.  All art should affect you both mentally and emotionally.  (Art criticism can rise to the level of art in and of itself, so it can conceivably have an emotional effect on you; still, the main focus of art criticism is to dissect art intellectually.)

Whether the review is the product of an internet troll or a ‘real’ critic who has clearly not taken the time to engage with the work he or she is reviewing, poor criticism reveals itself in many ways:  It attacks the artist; it focuses on a myriad of topics but mostly (or entirely) ignores discussing the actual art on hand; it compares the work to another piece of art but doesn’t establish a meaningful connection.

In our times, finding poorly written criticism is much easier than finding a smart critique.  I think the internet is an amazing creation, truly one of the most rewarding ideas to ever enter the human mind.  I also know that vapid art criticism existed well before bloggers and Amazon.com reviewers started pissing on the classics.  But, let’s face it.  The world wide web has given a voice to a large, angry contingent of the planet that really didn’t need to have one.

So, let’s say you’re reading someone’s review and you’re wondering if you should take it seriously.  How will you know?

Here is a brief list of some keywords that will indicate to you that the ‘review’ you’re reading was never intended to be thoughtful, engaged or informative:

1. Pretentious: This is probably my biggest pet peeve, which is why it’s first.  Let’s get pedantic for a second and see what pretentious means – “Characterized by assumption of dignity or importance; making an exaggerated outward show; ostentatious.

An artist can certainly be pretentious.  I don’t believe a work of art can be.  The art may be the product of an artist’s pretension, but the art itself isn’t assuming dignity or importance, or attempting to be ostentatious.  It just is.

Some will say this is splitting hairs, but my central point (and the one I’ll stress), is that whatever you think of the artist and his or her intelligence, the art still deserves to be addressed on its own merits and failings.  If you believe the artist was attempting to achieve an intellectual feat with their art, but failed, then explain why and how it failed.  Dismissing art as pretentious is lazy and mostly meaningless.  When I see a reviewer write it, my first instinct is to think, “Oh, the reviewer isn’t very smart.”  The reviewer may be right in diagnosing the artist’s false sense of superiority, but unless the reviewer can detail the art’s flaws, calling something “Pretentious” is tantamount to saying, “I don’t get it.”

2. Stupid: Again, the artist in question may be stupid, but a piece of art doesn’t have it’s own intellectual capacity.  It can be intellectually engaging or not, but it is not capable of taking an I.Q. test.  Literary works (whether they be novels, short stories, poetry, or any written form) and films are probably the most likely artistic expressions to receive this psuedo-criticism.  I’ll admit, I’ve dismissed many a Eddie Murphy movie as ‘stupid.’  But I wasn’t attempting to critique them, merely explaining why I had no interest in seeing his continuing downward spiral.

If a work of art has little to no intellectual merit, and you are a relatively intelligent person (and if you’re reviewing a work of art, you must think so), you should be able to discuss at some length why the work fails to engage the mind in any serious manner.  Don’t just call it ‘stupid’, prove it (isn’t it far more satisfying to witness someone make an idiot of themselves than merely insulting them).

3. Boring: “Boring” is one of those words that feels like it’s offering legitimate critique, but really it’s like a less pretentious (wink) version of calling something “pretentious.”  The entertainment value of a work of art is certainly a legitimate point of criticism, and if a work of art fails to hold your attention, that is worth pointing out.  However, calling something “boring” is useless.

Remember, criticism should be informative.  Instead of saying, “I was bored,” say, “This part right here lost my attention,” or “Your character wasn’t someone I could relate to/care about.”  If you were so bored you didn’t finish reading/watching it, then don’t say anything at all.  Saying you were bored won’t help the artist unless you can detail why you were bored.

4. This is crap (or variations on this theme): I really shouldn’t have to explain why this doesn’t count as real critique.  Dismissing something with a phrase like this says way more about you than it does the art or the artist.

5. Awesome: Not all bad criticism is negative.  People love to say, “I really liked your poem” and leave a smiley face emoticon.  For the artist, it’s certainly an ego boast, but it really doesn’t help the artist understand what they did right.

To be fair, sometimes you don’t have the time (or will) to critique a work in earnest but you just want to let the artist know you appreciated what they have done.  That’s fine.  A quick word of praise is always nice and it’s more meaningful than one of those drive-by hate rants.  So, feel free to say, “That was awesome.”

But, if you are commenting on someone’s blog or critiquing on someone’s writing page in hopes of getting critique or comments in return (and let’s face it, that is the economy of the internet), just remember that you get as much as you put in.  If you’re sincerely just wanting to offer a nice word, great.  But if you’re baiting for someone to come around to your own site and praise you, make it worth our time.

*

Someone might say, “Sometimes a work of art is stupid and I’m not going to waste my time giving it a fully thought out critique.”

To that I say, “Then don’t review it at all.”  If you don’t have the time/desire/intelligence to offer a legitimate critique, just bugger off.  There are enough people in this world spouting meaningless crap (many of them working on Fox); don’t add to the static.

[In Part 3 I discuss how an artist should be grateful for real criticism even when it’s negative.  The gist of it is:  Grow up, you aren’t Shakespeare! – hm, I guess I don’t actually have to write Part 3 now.]

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4 thoughts on “Critical Thought (Part 2)

    • I don’t disagree with the points you’re making, and indeed, in other places I have made the very same ones. A writer should certainly encourage criticism of their work, and as hard a pill as it can be to swallow, a writer should be open to negative feedback.

      My point in this post (and in a response I wrote to your critique of my earlier poem) is not that I (or any poet) won’t accept negative criticism. My point is that if you consider yourself a poetry critic (and you appear to take yourself quite seriously as ‘a poet’ if your post is to be trusted), then you should demand as much of your criticism as you demand of your own poetry.

      Reread my post. Nowhere do I discourage anyone to give negative criticism. I just demand that criticism be intelligent, thoughtful and useful. As a poet, I am allowed to disagree with a negative critique and debate/discuss it with the reviewer. That is one of the great joys of art, the dissection of it. But if the reviewer isn’t willing to intelligently analyze the work (or worse, only stops by to say, “That sucked”), then that isn’t critique.

      A critic loves to say, “Oh you big baby, you can’t take criticism.” But is that critic willing to take critique himself, is he willing to have someone offer a counter-review to articulate the poem’s strengths? After all, if you say the poem doesn’t work, and a thousand other people said it did, who is right? Just because you call yourself a poet, doesn’t mean you’re an authority. I’d sure like to see your “Poet Credentials.” I truly wonder if yours are anymore certified than mine. (And I don’t claim to have any.)

      Art criticism is a conversation. I’m happy to have that conversation. Trolls don’t want to start a dialogue, they just want to yell and go back under their bridges (and hope the page hits pour in).

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