Published On: Sat, Sep 29th, 2012

A Critique of the Critic: Part 2

The Biennial is upon us and so the stream of self important spiel from embittered ex-artists is set to ensue. Having examined the vested interest of reviewers and publications and the uniform results they can in turn produce last time, I want to turn my gaze on to a more fundamental problem.

Can you, or should you, quantify art? A point of discussion in many arts degrees, it’s somewhat more applicable to, and yet openly bypassed by, reviewers.

Art in all its forms may be good or bad; for all the seemingly unanimous praise for The Beatles’ White Album, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Shakespeare’s Hamlet there remains those that are filled with contempt at the mere thought of those.

This contempt is often further amplified when questioned by a majority who find it incomprehensible that someone could dislike such things that we all agree on.

What is the problem here? Is the minority just simply wrong? This is a view which the majority would often agree on.
Conversely, is the majority wrong? A view not many would find likely but it remains a possibility if the minority can be wrong.
Is it not more likely that art is subjective; that it can be good or bad, but solely to the individual.

Most people are inclined to agree with this – while there are arguments to the contrary, I find myself agreeing with it too, even if just on anecdotal evidence. If art is subjective, and it is the most obvious choice for most, why do people need someone else’s opinion to affirm their own? There are undoubtedly anthropological and sociological reasons for this; the comfort of being part of a bigger picture or peer pressure, who knows, like art itself the answer you chose will be subjective and, unlike art, not really of any importance.

To some extent it is true that following the recommendations of a reviewer, especially one that you find yourself agreeing with generally speaking, means you are less likely to come across things that aren’t to your tastes, but contrary to this you could be missing out on things which blow your mind.

On a less academic note, if not a borderline naïve one, I find that there is something to be said for the fact that an artists creates while a critic only praises or slates. This leads me to think that there should be an element of “putting your money where your mouth is”.

Be it for better or for worse an artist puts a bit of themselves into their work and in turn creates something unique. This may not be very good in the opinion of the critic, or anyone else for that matter, but surely that creative process deserves some sort of respect, to not be completely belittled? Could the critic really do any better?

Especially when it can be the case that they’ve failed in their attempts at painting, composition or writing before eventually turning to critique. That’s not to say that no one can dislike something unless they can better it, just those that can detrimentally affect the livelihood of someone else. Conversely in praising something you’re not adding value to a work – there will still be those that find it not to their taste, and those that enjoy it without having read more opinions on it. So a critique feels very much like an advert, which it often is. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing but nor should it really pretend to be something more important.

Despite the possibility of finding a critic whose critiques are constantly in keeping with your own beliefs, allowing there to be a sound basis for a reviewer, the best you’re likely to find is someone whose judgements overlap from time to time, and even then you cannot know whether they do because of the interests of the publication, money, or even the writer’s mood that day.

Despite the obvious irony in me suggesting that this is the good and proper approach to these matters, I’d like to think I bypass it, in suggesting you think for yourself and don’t use others as a means to judge something completely. Applying my own theory to this, by all means disagree with it but think about why you disagree with it.

Allow yourself an hour to listen to an album out of your comfort zone, stare at the painting currently confusing critics, or watch the show with mixed reviews. Whether someone else has told you it’s good or not, your opinion is still subject to change and disagreement, in which time you could end up pleasantly surprised, or at least have your own reasons for disliking the piece in question.

About the Author

- Spencer is Features & Comment Co-Editor here at LSMedia. A 3rd year philosophy student who has lived most of his life in Liverpool.

  • James Margeson

    I tend to subscribe to the argument Orwell makes while blasting Tolstoy for his attack on Shakespeare.

    In reality there is no
    kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or
    any other writer, is “good”. Nor is there any way of definitely proving
    that–for instance–Warwick Beeping is “bad”. Ultimately there is no
    test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to
    majority opinion.

    In short your right, ideally we shouldn’t treat critics as arbiters of what we should or should not consume.

    So its not really about whether something is “good” or “bad” but why people think it is either. The role of a good critic, apart from being a promoter of art and culture, is to enhance the collective experience of both. We generally get more enjoyment and understanding out of such things by discussing it with others, and writing reviews is sort of an extension of that. That tells you as much about the critic as it does about the art in question.

    Like the artist, critics do put a bit of themselves into what they are writing, and that is why they can be interesting to read. The reason I came across that Orwell quote in the first place is that his critical essays give as much enjoyment and insight into his politics as his books do.