Good art demands good critics

I have a love-hate relationship with criticism.

No, I’m not referring to personal criticism.

I have art criticism in mind. You know, critics reviewing of movies, books, video games, that sort of thing.

I often find reviews frustrating but when it’s well done it can be a beautiful thing. And I have been thinking about this dichotomy: what distinguishes the reviews I love and what the I find frustrating about the others.

Basically I’m here to critique criticism.

First off let’s get something out of the way that should already be clear. I don’t buy into the idea that you shouldn’t listen to critics, or (even more misguided) that who are they to tell you what to like?

That’s wrongheaded, even though it’s unwittingly right. And to understand why I say that I need to explain what I think is beautiful about criticism.

How criticism rocks

In one word: perspective.

Critical reviews aren’t for telling you what to think. They’re for telling you what the critic thinks.

But—and hear me out—it’s not a bad thing if telling you what they think informs what you think. It’s simply being human. Hearing another view and reconsidering yours in light of it. You know, maybe even learning something.

Okay I’m making fun a little bit, but you get the idea: good criticism offers the gift of a (hopefully) informed perspective that enriches yours. That’s what makes it beautiful. It’s not about the critique telling you art you already like is good, or a work you hate is rubbish. That’s not even useful, and it doesn’t enrich you. Good criticism enriches, because it shows you new angles, offers new points of view, suggests new perspectives.

At its best it’s a form of teaching. But like the best teaching the goal isn’t simply to instruct—or even inform—but to impart insight. Good criticism has helped me appreciate art better, helped me learn to pay attention and catch things I otherwise missed.

And like the best teachers, a good critic should love their subject—the art they critique—as well as their students—the audience they engage.

When those two things are absent…well that brings me to…

When criticism sucks

Again, I can boil down all frustrating criticism to one main issue: dishonesty. It misrepresents the art it’s meant to be critiquing. Where a good critic opens a window to a fresh perspective or clearer viewpoint, the poor one dulls or dirties that window.

And they do this by looking, not at the art, but at themselves. The fundamental dishonesty at the core of poor criticism is self-centredness.

It’s not necessarily deliberate, of course. I’m a firm believer in Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” So while there’s often no deliberate attempt to deceive, dishonesty feels like a betrayal of trust and that’s something we react badly to.

And so we end up with critics reviewing a fighting game or fantasy story poorly when they don’t even like fighting games or fantasy. Or complaining about what a story doesn’t explore—while ignoring what it does.

There’s a place for that, don’t get me wrong—after doing the work to truly grasp the art in questions. Which brings us to the last bit…

Making criticism work

I’ve hinted at these already but let’s put them all together. These apply to both being a better critic, and recognising good one:

  • Understand the genre. The first thing I look for in a good critic is that they show an understanding of the genre, whatever it is. I want to see that the critic knows about the art than I do. And more important, that they genuinely like the art. I don’t get the point of reviewing a genre you don’t even like. If you really have to, though…
  • Be charitable. It’s easy when reading to question what the artist is doing, especially when it doesn’t seem to make any sense to you. The danger here is the assumption that the author is the problem, and not you. It takes nothing from you to assume, to quote from one of my favourite podcasts, that “the author is a genius” and is deliberate in their choices.

Assume the author is a genius and every choice is intentional. This is a stance, a mode of engaging with the text, that is very rewarding.

— Matt Freeman, Principles of Charitable Reading
  • Preferences ≠ principles. It’s okay not to like a work of art. But resist the temptation to interpret that to mean the work is bad. There’s nothing wrong with not liking good things. And there’s nothing wrong with not getting why something is good. What’s wrong is elevating your preferences to moral standards.
  • Who’s it for? My favourite critics are the ones who go beyond saying what they like or don’t about a work and take the time to think through who might like it. I love reading a critic who has issues with a work of art but still is able to help me see it might be my jam.
  • Suggestion box. Like I said, there’s a place for thinking about how a work could be better—but only after demonstrating an understanding of what it is actually is. There’s no way to meaningfully critique a work you don’t even understand.

If you’re thinking all of this sounds like it’d be useful for just critiquing work, period, or even offering feedback to friends—you’re right. The same ideas work.

Go celebrate art.


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