What Is the Value of Criticism?

Screenshot 2018-01-15 22.32.01
Image description: A screen shot of a Facebook comment that reads “‘The function of criticism is to open doors, not sit in judgement.’ -Elaine De Kooning”

In a previous post explaining my intentions with this blog and answering the question “Why do you criticize everything?” I wrote:

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.

This past week I wrote an op-ed for a local arts publication. I attended an event and delivered my opinion about the event. It was to some degree a review and in other ways it was just a straight up critique. In fact, I originally wrote twice as much as what I sent in for publication. I cut it back both because of a word count limit and because there were critiques of the event and the people involved that I didn’t feel I could professionally offer without putting myself and the publication at legal risk. By which I mean to say, the event was far worse than I portrayed in my op-ed, far more offensive, and far more pointless. There are things I still don’t feel I can say in writing even on my own blog here without exposing myself and others to potential legal ramifications.

The above image is a quote from the organizer of the event I wrote about. I don’t need to respond directly to it because it is so clearly immature sour grapes. I’ve had to say many a time that in a city where critique has been in short supply for years, too many artists (and organizations) have grown to believe they are above criticism. We sometimes say it’s a function of Midwest Nice – no one wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, there is a belief that we should “promote what you love” instead of talking about what you “hate” – which leaves no room for “I didn’t necessarily hate it, I just have thoughts/questions about it,” and overall there is a lack of understanding of what criticism exists to do. Which is why you get quotes like above as responses to criticism.

Let’s be clear: Criticism is a judgment. And anyone who tells you they are not judging you, whether they are actually giving you criticism or not, is a liar.

What is the function of criticism?

Criticism/critique has many different functions and forms dependent on several factors that include (but are not limited to):

  • the role of the person making the critique
  • the location of the critique (is it a Facebook post, a personal blog, written for professional media, a fellow student giving required critique in a class, etc.)
  • what and who is being critiqued
  • the purpose or intent of the critique

Critique looks different depending on where, when, and why we are making it. That said, even the most professional, most gentle and kind, most thoughtful critique is still a judgment of sorts.

As I said in a previous post, I have been writing (and also verbally offering) critiques and reviews for a long time. They don’t all look or sound the same. In a Facebook post, I may straight up say that a film was “fucking hot mess of white savior trope, misogyny, and just fuck-shit ideas.” My personal social media is not censored as strictly professional writing. I write what I’m really feeling about something, and I encourage my “friends” to comment with their honest feelings without being censored (as long as they aren’t engaging in any oppressive speech). If I write about that same film on my Medium, it will be more extensive, more polished, and more thoughtful – but it still may be particularly blunt. If I’m asked to write about the film for a professional site, it will be a professional review in which I take under consideration how others may view the film differently and may have already written very different opinions than mine. A professional review will use professional language and less personal connections will be made as much as possible (though I may still name my biases, as I did in the Cultured.GR op-ed when I acknowledged that I am an artist with mental illnesses). In a professional space I may also be constrained by specific needs of the site where I will be published – the editor’s needs and the organization’s mission come into play in how I am approaching the topic.

If I am invested in an organization, art space, community, my critique may well be an opening that offers me the opportunity to better understand intentions and goals. If I am invested, I want them to be the best they can be, and my critique is intended to be constructive. If I am not invested, and especially if what I am critiquing is causing harm, my critique is still constructive but it isn’t about me trying to understand, meeting half way, or caring about them being their best selves. It’s just about me encouraging people and organizations to stop harming others.

The function of criticism can absolutely be about “opening a door” and eliciting conversation. But it doesn’t have to be.

When Critique Isn’t About A Conversation

Sometimes critique is not trying to open a door or engage in a conversation with the person/people responsible for the work the critique is about. Sometimes critique is not interested in “calling in” or patiently walking someone towards growth. Sometimes critique is not about hand-holding someone through the solutions.

Sometimes critique is just about telling someone:

  • You were wrong
  • That was offensive
  • That didn’t do what you thought it would do
  • That could have been better
  • That was a hot mess
  • You screwed up, fix it
  • You’ve been told/given resources, stop doing the same thing like you don’t know

A friend recently posted about how a post-workshop survey’s demographic collection language was offensive, and I shared how I had attended an event a few years ago that had the same language on their survey even though they had board members of that identity that had already educated them on it. When I filled out the survey, I told them about the language issue, that I was well aware that my friends on the board had discussed it with them in advance, and that it was representative of so many of the ways I had felt “othered” and unwelcome at the event (after which I named the other issues also.)

What I did not tell my friend is that I got a response to that critique. I did. I was asked if I could explain why their choice was offensive to me. The problem was

  1. I had explained why in my survey comments already,
  2. Two of their board members had explained why the language was offensive before the survey was ever created,
  3. They could have Googled to understand the appropriate language around the issue and many opinions that exist online to explain why their language choice was not okay,
  4. They were demanding me to, in good faith, engage them in a conversation that I had no desire to engage in, that I was aware they did not really want to hear, and that they were not offering to pay for consulting with them about

My critique wasn’t about “let’s have a conversation” or suggesting that my concerns were up for debate. My critique was made simply to tell them, “You screwed up, you knew you were screwing up and I know you knew, DO BETTER.” But because they decided I was “mean” or had failed to provide them with the conversation they wanted to have, the exact same language was used again for the following two events they put on. They were told they were wrong, and they decided not to bother trying to do better.

Yes, my critique was a judgment. No, it was not me trying to open a door. Yes, they chose to ignore it. No, I didn’t owe them any additional labor.

And no, I’ve never supported them since.

Not All Criticisms Are Valid

There are times when I offer critique that includes solutions, options, or extensive explanation of what I was hoping for/expecting and feel was not offered. I am in no way suggesting that critique can’t be “productive” in that sense. There is a time and place for discussions, conversations, offering solutions, producing resources, and even accepting that our criticism is “just an opinion.” In the “just an opinion” category, there are times when critiques are not even valid and no one is required to learn from them.

We don’t live in a vacuum. Our opinions come from our own life experience, education on a topic, and people who put the labor into clueing us in when we were being wrong. Our opinions may be very well informed, or not informed at all. Sometimes our reaction to something is just a feeling we may not even be able to explain, other times we have put a great deal of thought into how we feel and why.

Sometimes we try to give an opinion without knowing the full context or without understanding what the artist, playwright, or speaker was trying to do. Take, for example, the Goodreads reviews of Dominican novelist Junot DÍaz’s first novel, The Brief & Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Scores of white readers argued that the language (Díaz mixes Spanish and English without providing translations or a glossary) was impossible for them to understand, that it was “crass,” that they couldn’t even understand the protagonist’s motivations, etc. They couldn’t step out of their bubble and enjoy being out of their own knowledge base or comfort zone. Nevermind that people for whom English is a second, third, fourth, etc. language are required to read Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare in school as if that should be their comfort zone. Some of Díaz’s readers were not versed in the context in which he was writing and they weren’t interested in trying to understand what he was trying to accomplish with the novel. They critiqued it, but their critique was ignorant and self-absorbed.

I could not write a review or op-ed about a panel talk intended for an audience of medical professionals and discussing the latest methods of neurosurgery to treat a condition that disproportionately affects a particular population. The only possible “critique” I could make of it would be that the conversation was not accessible and understandable for a general audience, but knowing the context was that it was not meant for a general audience would make that critique unreasonable. I might also be able to critique that the location did not meet accessibility standards (no elevator was available, there were deaf participants on the panel but no ASL interpreters had been provided, etc.), or there was no diversity on the panel as if only white surgeons are experts on neurosurgery and as if there shouldn’t be representation of some sort from the population most likely to need the particular surgical intervention. But I would have no business critiquing the quality of the information presented because I don’t know anything more about neurosurgery than what I have absorbed from binge watching Grey’s Anatomy, and what I do know is Shonda Rhimes probably gets some of that information wrong.

Ok, But What Is the Value of Criticism?

Critique and criticism provide an opportunity to learn, to re-evaluate, to do better. That’s it. When one reads or hears critique, they are not obligated to accept it, nor to accept it on face value. The person whose work is being critiqued should consider things like

  • The expertise of the person offering the critique
  • The intentions and potential biases of the person offering the critique (not to be confused with saying every critic is just a “hater,” but sometimes when you assess things that’s the real situation)
  • The form the criticism comes in – consider whether it is just stated critique or if it is intended to open a conversation

Frequently one needs time to process a critique. Your work is personal, it is meaningful, it is vulnerable to put it out there into the world. Receiving negative or challenging feedback can hurt. But one isn’t required to respond to criticism in all cases, nor to respond immediately in most cases where one does need to respond.

Critique offers opportunities for growth. That is the value. In naming what is wrong, we are able to begin to envision what doing it “right” would look like. I believe we can learn from the failures, whether they are small or large… We can do better.

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. (“Why Do You Criticize Everything?”)