Why Do You Criticize Everything?

Screenshot 2017-12-26 19.04.33
Close up of painting “Untitled” (2013) by author. Image is a gold background with texture, a rough turquoise circle that does not fully close, and small silver dots around the inner edge of the circle.

You may consider this a manifesto of sorts. The title question is something I am frequently asked, and I understand that those who read this blog will eventually ask it too. This past week I watched the new Will Smith film Bright on Netflix and posted about it on my personal Facebook.* While most of my responding friends agreed with my take or had not yet watched it and appreciated the heads up at least one completely disagreed with me, and seemed to think he needed to convince me of his viewpoint. I didn’t wish to argue or even persuade him, so I didn’t engage the questions much, but it did make me realize how necessary it is to create a post early on in the life of this blog to explain why I do what I do.

What I Do

I’m a working artist, a freelance writer and editor, and a poet. I’m also a student of art history (entering my senior year in undergrad, applying for Visual and Critical Studies programs for grad school), and consider myself a culture critic. Other people use terms like “media criticism” and “art critic,” but those terms are both specific/particular skill sets I am not trained in, and limited to not fully encompass what I see myself as doing. I’ve been writing book and film reviews for several years, and also have been writing art exhibition reviews for a few years now. Beyond “media” I have been writing about how television, films, books, music, and art create and inform culture and vice versa.

I have always believed that art (in the broadest sense of that term) is a reflection of society, but also can help to show society what it could be. I believe art has a responsibility to be both socially aware and socially conscious, and I believe all art is inherently political even when it is trying its hardest not to be. This does not mean that all artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians are required to be intentionally political through their work at all times – it means that work is still created within a political context and viewers are going to engage it through a political lens regardless. Work does not exist in a vacuum. It exists within the context of the culture, socio-political, reality in which it is produced and then viewed. This is why when we look at historical art we interpret it both in relation to what it might have meant in its original time and how we see it through our contemporary lens as well.

I also believe that art is often a conversation with previous art – not always of the same genre – and that contemporary culture is built on reaction to, critique of, and nostalgia for previous times. Art is powerful and helps to set the stage for how the future will understand us – and what kind of future we have created. As an art historian and culture critic, I try to bring to bear the information that helps us to place work within its historical context, its relevance in our contemporary time, and what it means for our future.

How I Do It

There are many sites where reviewers and fans prefer to write about things they love. In fact, there are some art-based sites where that is exclusively what they do – provide positive reviews and encourage people to check something out. There are other sites that are constant critique, where things are torn apart to look at everything that goes into creating its whole, and often a lot of academic theory is used to discuss it. Both of those are valid methods, but neither is my method.

Some of the things I will share on this blog will be writings done for classes. This means I may not always have had a choice about what art exhibition or film I am writing about or which article, philosopher, or author I am referencing (See my review of Frida, for example. I reference an article by Oriana Baddeley because we had two readings that week and were required for the assignment to choose only one and connect it to our review.) Other assignments are much more open ended, and I am able to determine the artist, art works, and which research I reference, as well as the questions that guide my research. Sometimes I am offered an opportunity to write a review of an art exhibition for a particular media source, and I have to consider their methods, audience, and needs in producing that review. I may have additional thoughts I prefer to write up here where it is safe for me to say what I really think. On other occasions I will post things I’m thinking about outside of school – such as discussing “current events” in the art or literature/poetry worlds, or musings about a television show or movie I’ve just watched. Whether I “like” what I am talking about or not isn’t necessarily the point to discussing its themes, potential meanings, and failures or successes. Consider that Frida review again, where I tell you that is one of my absolute favorite movies ever, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking critically about it as well.

My goal is to discuss things in a way that are relatively easy for people to understand. I’m not interested in intense philosophical debate, so when I have to reference philosophers and other academic thinkers, it is my intention to break those ideas down into meaningful and understandable forms. I may well critique the philosophers and their arguments while I’m applying their argument to the media or art work I’m discussing. The point is, I’m trying to create and provide space to a broader group of people to feel a part of and able to engage with the critiques and discussions.

Ruining All the Fun

And here we get to the crux of the title question. Personally, I find breaking things down and discussing their intricacies and possibilities fun. I know not everyone does. Sometimes you just want some mindless entertainment, and that is okay! Please believe me that I also love many “problematic” things. Here are a few examples, so you can believe me that I’m not trying to tell people what you are allowed to like or why (or, so you can laugh at me and my terrible taste):

And yes, I am both aware of the critiques others have made and have many critiques of my own of all of those things. I still enjoy them regardless, without pretending they aren’t wrong, offensive, and even damaging in certain ways. We all love things that are severely flawed, and thankfully other people have written/talked about how we can continue to enjoy things while still being aware of what is wrong with them. (1) (2) (3)

I’m certainly not demanding intellectual purity and that people give up everything they enjoy. I am almost certainly going to rain on your parade, however, by continuing to talk about what is terrible about things. I do this not to spoil your fun, but because I believe we can learn from the failures and produce better art. The art we produce creates our culture, and our culture creates our future world. Let’s build something better.

*  My short review of Bright: It’s terrible. The storytelling is practically nonexistent and nonsensical, the jokes are offensive, the racial tropes are simplistic and demeaning, and there’s little woman-empowering anything anywhere in it. More substantial reviews by others: (1) (2) (3)