Monday, March 24, 2008

Let's Consider the Critical Heresy

Namely: Does criticism ever truly matter?

No, really, think about it for a minute, before that knee-jerk response about critical thinking that says, why, of course it matters, in fact it's essential.

I think it's wise at times to consider the viewpoints of your adversaries before you dismiss them. There might be a kernel of truth in there, that can be mined for new thoughts and perspective. So, forthwith:

Does criticism really have any impact? Can you really learn anything from criticism that's worthwhile, beyond the simple narrative of review, that tells you what a book is about? Isn't most literary criticism really just someone claiming to be smarter than you saying he's right and you're wrong?

Let's consider the possibility that all criticism really is purely a matter of subjective taste. That nothing objective can ever be said about any work of art. That it's all personal likes and dislikes. That it is solipsistic. That communication really doesn't matter, that it really is all about personal pleasure, and nothing more.

Let's further consider that even those who cloak themselves in critical objectivity are actually only capable of attaining relative objectivity. That in all things, matters of taste eventually prevail.

No, really, think about it for a minute. There is a truth in there, after all: That no one is ever completely objective, all of the time. That everyone has moments where they let personal taste take over.

The trick is learning to separate one's taste from one's critical assessments. That can be easy, or hard, depending on context and expertise. In my experience, it's harder than many critics think, and easier than many artists think.

The main litmus test I know for if it works or not is when emotional investment colors the results. (This is as true for doctors as for critics.) The more emotionless you are in your assessment, the more logical/rational, the more likely you are to approach objectivity. I very carefully say approach objectivity rather than be objective. Think about it.

Striving for objectivity, even if it's doomed to be always be a receding goal, is worthwhile. But how you do it can also matter.

A quick assessment can be a rush to judgment clouded by a lack of information, which can settle into a fixed opinion. I see this fairly often in criticism that is dismissive without really having spent any time on the material it dismisses. Granted, it's not often worth your time to wallow in something that's obviously bad, or obviously great. The real issue here is time spent on art that's on that borderline between good and mediocre, so-so and great. That edge can move, and anyone who thinks it's fixed, and not contextual, is mistaken—and likely to rush to judgment. It might often be wiser to give something you're unsure about a little more time; maybe you'll change your mind, or not, but at least you'll have a more considered opinion. Not to mention firmer ground to stand on.

In my experience, critics often tend to be superficial about their assessments, and often don't give a piece much time or thought before rushing onto the next artwork. I suppose if you're a review-writer on a deadline, that's understandable; but if you're not, what's your excuse? Haste makes for snap judgments, which tend to be colored by one's own prejudices more often than not.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, academic critics—who tend to be as much philosophers as appreciators—have a tendency to over-think, over-indulge themselves in rhetorical excess, and take perhaps too time. All too often in academia, art criticism has become a sub-discipline of sociology rather than art history. There is sometimes an overt political axe to grind, but far more often the sociological attitudes are unspoken and lie in the unstated assumptions, or worldview, upon which the art criticism is built. There is often an unstated "should" in such criticism, that implies that anyone who disagrees with the critic should be smart enough to change their mind and agree. Academics can be smug in their certainties, it's true.

On another front, the issue of not having all the relevant data to hand is the critic's fault, not the author's. I find it amusing when an author points out where a critic is wrong, and can prove it. But of course, critics rarely apologize, even when they change their minds. (Only the most gracious and wise give any time at all to this.)

The truth most artists confront, as they mature and grow, is that most critics are still criticizing the work the artists made last time out, always seeing the new work through the lens of the old. There are almost always comparisons. But comparisons are easy, and often easy to oversimplify, when artists take new and unexpected directions. And the artist can rightly reply: comparisons aren't always true, real, or even helpful. If an artist continues to grow and change, as both artist and person—and artists do, being human—then it's not the artist's fault, necessarily, if the critics (and public) can't keep up. It seems unreasonable to ask artists to spend all their time educating their audience rather than continuing to make new art. Some education time is always necessary, especially when an artist does go in a new direction.

Novelty of course can also be used as a veil of deception, an excuse for being lazy or tired or just not up to snuff. There are artists who cloak themselves in deliberate obscurity as a means of trying to make themselves seem smarter than you. But this isn't about that, and that kind of veil of obscurity is usually pretty easy to see through, because artists who use obfuscation as a cloak tend to betray themselves with a smug arrogance they just can't help letting slip through: the urge to gloat is irresistible. Rather, this is about when novelty is genuine, and the critic just can't keep up.

Okay, ready to get back to orthodoxy? All right, then.

Really, the only real test of quality is the test of time. Any critical assessment made in the moment may be wrong, in the long run. And the only test of objectivity is its lack of an axe to grind, its lack of emotional overtones. That helps one understand how one can like a piece of art and still know it's not very good; and vice versa.

So, we can arrive at something true amongst the chaff, no matter what other factors are in play: That patience and a wait-and-see attitude serve criticism much better than is usually believed. Patience in all things—and the willingness to be wrong.



Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

It is true, as you say, that "[a]ny critical assessment made in the moment may be wrong, in the long run" and that has proven to be the case more than once. Works like The Rite of Spring jump straight to mind. Obviously the music was ahead of its time. Just think about the fuss critics made of the work of the Impressionists. The sad fact though is that, although Tchaikovsky's works have lasted, the man did not and the savaging of the critics contributed significantly to his eventual suicide.

I've only recently started to do the odd review on my site. It was a decision I took some time over. It is not easy "to separate one's taste from one's critical assessments" and so I don't. I aim towards objectivity but what I am putting forward at the end of the day is only my opinion. It is a matter I've raised before: what qualifies someone to be a reviewer? I don't recall an O-Level in writing reviews when I was at school. The main criterion seems to simply be that one has read a lot of books. Okay, I qualify. That said, I've read a lot of a certain kind of book. I would be very poorly qualified to comment on crime fiction or spy thrillers. In fact I've just declined to review a novel because I don't want to be committed to finishing something I'm pretty sure I'm going to hate.

You are quite correct when you say that "critics often tend to be superficial about their assessments" because they are under pressure to get the thing done by a certain time and move on to the next book or whatever. That is where I think on-line reviews come into their own. I don't think I've written a review yet in under three hours and all of them exceed 1000 words. They are thoughtful, considered, balanced … and personal reviews. People I know have been buying books on my recommendation and I take that responsibility seriously.

There are too many books out there. I rely on other people's judgements and I'll usually read a few reviews before I part with hard cash. Good reviews are no guarantee that I'll like something but a good review that tells me why it's good is helpful. In the end I usually buy based on a gut feeling.

As for being wrong. I never am. Opinions can't be wrong. You might not agree with mine and that's fine but you can't say I'm wrong.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I think personal reviews have a definite and important place, but they should not replace critical objectivity, or the attempt at the latter. I think those approaches need to be complementary, not exclusive.

I like to read a thoughtful fan's review because you gain some perspective, and fans often know a heck of a lot about their subject. The only problem can be when bad writing gets overlooked, for reasons having to do with fandom rather than critical assessment. I also think it's perfectly possible to enjoy bad art, bad writing, bad poetry, bad movies, without a shred of guilt to go along with the pleasure. I really enjoy a lot of SF "B"-level movies, for example: they're fun, they have no pretensions towards being profound, and they don't take themselves at all seriously. It's also nice to be occasionally surprised by going into what I think is going to be a B-movie experience, and turns out to be something much better.

I do agree with the reviewer's philosophy of not subjecting oneself to being forced to write a review of something one knows one is likely to hate. Of course, surprises do happen. Also, a professional reviewer, which I am not, might not have a choice of what they're assigned to review. But all the time I was doing CD and book reviews more professionally, I usually had a pick of what looked interesting. That still occasionally led to a bad review, of something that turned out to be mediocre. It's nice to be able to pick and choose, because it's nice to be able to be positive. Still, if something turns out to be less than wonderful, I feel that it's honest to say so.

I also am very aware of the problem of something being completely misunderstood by a reviewer or critic, who totally misses the point, and writes a bad review not out of maliciousness but dumb ignorance. I have certainly felt I've been on the receiving end of such reviews, often enough. This is that arena where some reviewers use "experimental" as a pejorative term, rather than a purely descriptive one.

As for your last sentence, I took it humourously, and reply with the same intention of humour: Of course all opinions are wrong, because they are only opinions. They are always right AND they are always wrong.

11:16 PM  

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