What Is the Value of Criticism?

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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?”)

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Best Writing Advice

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A selection of books from one of my shelves, including Xenogenesis, Octavia’s Brood, Independent Women, Women of the Way, Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, GRANTA’s Love Stories, Assata, Our Voices Our Lives, Borderlands/La Frontera, Last Standing Woman, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Tar Baby, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Creation Fire: A Cafra Anthology of Caribbean Women’s Poetry, The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, Speaking for the Generations, and I Ask the Impossible

Last week The Guardian published a piece of “top 10 writer’s tips,” drawn from a new book written by Travis Elborough and Helen Gordon (Being a Writer: Advice, Musings, Essays, and Experiences From the World’s Greatest Authors). Not surprisingly, the list is very… white. And the advice, while not bad advice by any means, is also pretty plain. I certainly didn’t feel like I learned anything I hadn’t heard before or that inspired writing fervor in me. Perhaps the problem is that it comes from “the world’s greatest authors” and how “great” is being defined in such a limited scope. The 10 pieces of advice are offered by fiction writers, for example. Not even one poet is included, though some of them are also essayists (generally secondary to their fiction writing). The advice offered is unoriginal, though perhaps that is no fault of the authors themselves and only leads to  questions about why this is the “best” that could be collected. In some cases the advice is outright hypocritical given what we know of some of the authors included (“Don’t write and drink,” is advice gleaned from F. Scott Fitzgerald), though generally “good” advice. I imagine the book must be far more interesting than the article, as one has the opportunity to delve deeper into the thoughts of various writers on their craft – both successes and failures. The most useful part of the article isn’t the actual advice, but this sentence in the preamble:

“Researching the book, it quickly became obvious that there isn’t a correct way to set about writing creatively, which is a liberating thought.” (Travis Elborough)

There is no “correct way.” There are many ways, and writers should find the way that works best for their individual needs. One thing we are rarely, if ever, advised is that your method may need to change as your life changes. Maybe you’re an up-all-night person in your 20s, but after becoming a parent you discover your most functional time to yourself is getting up before dawn for one hour of writing. You may discover you have a pattern of “productivity” where certain months/seasons of the year you are able to be hyper-disciplined, and during other months or seasons you get nothing done at all. There is no “correct way.”

If you could give a few key pieces of writing advice to others, what would they be?

Mine are:

  • Read, and read variety. I never understand people who call themselves writers but say they can’t find time or don’t enjoy reading. Reading, in a broad sense, helps writers to learn sentence structure, new vocabulary, and what “works” or doesn’t for the reader. You should definitely be reading within your own genre/form, so you know what has already been (over)done, what about your story is unique, and how others are addressing the questions your work is trying to answer. But you should also read outside of your comfort zone to broaden your perspective.
  • Write when you can. Beyond finding the “time of day” that your brain can best function in, you should write when you have ideas, even if you only have a few minutes to jot down some notes. A lot of advice is about “making time” and not waiting for inspiration to strike – sit down and get working. This is valuable advice if you are the type who procrastinates a lot, but it’s not practical for everyone. Keeping a notebook (or note making app) to scratch down a bit of dialogue when it occurs to you, a thought that crosses your mind in the middle of your workday, or a few poetic lines about something you see is a legitimate part of the writing process. You’ll also likely find that you have weeks or months when you can’t write anything, and most writers feel horrible about those times because capitalism has told us we must “sit your ass in the chair and write every day” and that productivity and word counts matter. The fallow times are when your back brain is collecting ideas, images, etc. to prepare to write later. It’s also true that real life can get in the way, and being honest about that is better than beating yourself up.
  • Even the “greatest” writers write a lot of crap. So many writers I know have a lot of anxiety about how their work should be “great” all the time, and generally in the first draft. If only we could see the original book a writer sent in to their editor we would have a better idea of how much revision matters. And the draft sent to the editor is after any number of drafts at home where the writer discarded whole chapters, re-wrote a lot of scenes, worked through a singular poem for three months. In the article above, Miranda July is quoted as saying, “I didn’t realise I was writing a first draft. And the first draft was the hardest part. From there, it was comparatively easy. It was like I had some Play-Doh to work with and could just keep working with it – doing a million drafts and things changing radically…” In the digital age, we often don’t even see a lot of our own changes in the process anymore because once we overwrite something it’s just gone. We are losing perspective of how much writing is about the revisions, not the first draft. And even the greatest writers threw out a dozen or more attempts before they got to what we like so much in the final product. Even the greatest writers set manuscripts, stories, and poems aside, dissatisfied. Even the greatest writers haven’t even begun to write something that has been sitting in their head for years because they don’t feel like it’s “good enough” yet.

Why Do You Criticize Everything?

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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)