Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Professional Critics

It is encouraging to read a well-respected critic such as Terry Teachout writing that, when he teaches students about criticism, he always tells them these three things:

Always treat artists with respect. Most of them know how to do something you can't do.

Don't be afraid to be wrong.

Don't be afraid to be enthusiastic!


I think this is wise advice. While I think all three points merit discussion, I want to focus on the first point for a minute: Always treat artists with respect. Most of them know how to do something you can't do. This bears constant repetition, because in the personal and professional politics of critiquing and literary criticism it is often overlooked. I appreciate Mr. Teachout's humble presentation of the role of the critic, in his reminder to always treat artists with respect. The simple truth is that most artists (not all) do how to do something others don't: namely, create art. Artist make art: critics write about what the artists make. When those roles get confused, it can be a problem. When the critics start thinking they have the right to tell the artists what to do, it can be very serious problem. Critics have the right to tell the artists what they think of their work, but not to dictate to the artists what to do, or how to do it. Artists, for their part, have every right to listen to or ignore the critics. It's wise for all involved to remember these roles clearly.

Yet there is another aspect in which this advice is flatly wrong, or at least, far more nuanced: namely, when the professional critic is also an artist. (Ah yes, the many things we do to support our art.) This can be a difficult balance to negotiate, if one is reviewing work in one's own field. Sometimes one thinks the principle motive behind a pan, in the case of certain critics, is artistic jealousy, or some subconscious belief that they could have done a better job, if they'd been given the chance.

I do write reviews, and occasional critical essays.

This Dragoncave is for my more finished essay-form pieces, and the occasional poem. Over at my main website, the Road Journal is more like zuihitsu, or "following the brush," in random composition format, and is about whatever I'm thinking about. I write about things over there that I rarely mention here. The two journals have different roles, different purposes, and I prefer to keep them separate. I talk about dreams over there; I talk about poems about dreams over here. Perhaps that's an artificial distinction, but I started the Dragoncave as a way to compile my more finished essays: compile, revise, focus, tune, re-compile again. It gives me a place to look for patterns, themes, recurring obsessions. This means I might spiral around a topic for awhile, before locking it down. That in turn means the reader might encounter a little repetition, but hopefully will view this as I do: looking at a theme from multiple directions, like different facets on the same jewel.

Many of my concert and CD reviews have been published in various print and online media over the years, although I've rarely been paid for them. So, I can pretend to be a professional critic, in that I'm published, and even had a minor following for awhile; but in truth I remain an interested amateur, not a paid critic.

Nonetheless, some level or form of objectivity is achievable. After all, an artist is trained (hopefully) in aesthetic appreciation, and may be well able (if articulate) to report to non-artists why a work is worth paying attention to, or conversely why it should be avoided. It is possible to do all that, and leave one's personal prejudices out of the mix. It is possible, but it might be difficult for many, and almost impossible for a minority of artist-critics who are unable to set aside their competitiveness with their artistic peers.

I think the negotiation comes around how honest one is with oneself, when writing a review, about one's own agenda. One thing the best reviewers seem to share (I think of Conrad Aiken, Edwin Denby, and one or two others) is an ability to be honest in their assessments while at the same time setting aside their personal agendas; or, if unable to set them aside, then openly disclosing them, so the reader knows where she stands.

But humility in criticism is a valuable thing, and is highly underrated. So to hear a distinguished critic, such as Mr. teachout, promoting it, is a welcome zephyr of fresh air.

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3 Comments:

Blogger LAEvanesce said...

Teachout's advice is great; the second and third tips really go hand in hand. What I hate is when critics waffle. Critics should decide exactly how they feel, then tell everyone exactly how they feel, without regard to what other people think. Unfortunately, most critics are rather opposite of what I would consider to be an ideal critic; most are cowards. Oh well.

10:22 PM  
Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

Ditto here.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I think it's a good thing for a critic to say risky things, potentially unpopular opinions. etc. I think that takes as much courage, in its own way, as the artist needs when making art that is risky, or potentially unpopular. I respect a critic with strong opinions, who isn't afraid to be true to his instincts. I respect a critic even more who can say, at a later day, that they were wrong, say why they were wrong, and move along.

Honesty is as rare as it is because it's risky.

2:28 AM  

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