Why Criticism Matters More Than Ever in 2018
To approach even the thought of criticism in 2018 feels like a minefield waiting for too heavy a step.
It won't trigger one explosion, aimed only at you and your ideas, but a succession of explosions that come for all those who dare offer criticism that may veer off the intended path, or pose questions that ask for both self and group reflection.
It's a scary time to be a critic - but I come back to this blog to remind you, Reader (and myself) that it is a much scarier time to be a person without agency. And I ask you all in 2018 not to avoid the criticism minefield - but walk straight through it.
We can do it together.
Criticism as a practice has never been more necessary
Not in my lifetime. And if it has been in yours, then you already know the importance of what a good critic can do. Observe, consider, reflect, and speak. Good criticism is not simply opinion without fact, a thumbs up or down, but evidence-based thought triggered by the events in front of us. It is truth with individual perspective, a response as profound as the phenomenon that triggered it.
Too often, I think, we've been plagued by the idea that criticism is cruel. It is a slap by non-creators toward those who have actually made the work, something to sit through and take, an unpleasant bit of medicine that great persons ignore and move past. A critic and a teacher are merely those who may have tried, but ultimately those who can't do... well, you know the rest.
I have never jived with this concept. And any artist or creator worth your time usually doesn't either. So, for 2018, with its extra special and extraordinary circumstances, I want to pose a particular approach for this blog and how it views criticism in the arts and culture.
Criticism, from here on out, is both constructive and creative. Criticism, and the act of observing, considering, reflecting, and responding, is an art form unto itself. If you are a critic, you are also an artist, and vice-versa.
Creative criticism may sound different, but it's a longstanding tradition
Consider the filmmakers who made up the French New Wave: writers and directors who both created art and critiqued the art of each other within the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma. Their mission to make good art better by extending its life and form through dialogue.
Look at Sergei Eisenstein: not just as director, but prolific critic and politically minded propagandist. His writing on montage is as important as its embodiment in Battleship Potemkinor October. His willingness to share his analysis and theory was a commitment to bettering filmmaking, and how we use media, as a whole.
Think of my favorite strange marriage of filmmaking: Stanley Kubrick and Stephen Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and how one seemingly opposite artist's ideas and images can be filtered through the gaze and style of another charged with bringing his final work to life. Is this simply art-making? Or is it now a critical response?
Why not both?
Good criticism requires an exchange of creative energy
Creativity is not a gift for a genius few, but for all. I've been looking back at Lewis Hyde's incredible book The Gift, and am always struck by its most basic concept: that to receive a gift is to imply that something must be given in return. It could be an object (Spielberg's film from the concept drawings and notes of Kubrick), a thank-you note you send in the mail (a little piece of art in itself), but more often in our modern world, the gift is a simple response.
Even if a work of art contains the spirit of the artist's gift, it does not follow that the work itself is a gift. It is what we make of it." -Lewis Hyde, The Gift
A good work of criticism is an acknowledgment of the gift received: that we've seen it, honored it, thought hard on it, and generated our own ideas in its wake. The critical response - in any medium - is what we made of it, and the criticism is, in fact, what makes the art, art.
Not an artist? Creative criticism says that you don't have to make the object to be a participant in the creativity. Receive a gift, then give it back. If we are all critics, then we are all artists: responding and engaging with the gift as a living, breathing thing.
The most important gift we can give now is media literacy
If you slept through 2017 (good/terrifying for you) then you may have missed the rise in debates about social media, "fake" news, propaganda, and freedom of speech. But if you're awake now, then you're surely wondering what you can do (if you're not, consider this your wake up call).
Questions I'm asking myself on a daily basis:
How do we respond to the casual Facebook news article?
What is authenticity and how much does it matter?
How do we grade one media outlet against another?
What's the difference between editorialized content and primary sourcing?
Are we actively criticizing or are we complaining?
After we see a piece of art/media/content, how should we engage with it?
There are endless answers swimming in my head, and I hope a few more gathering in yours. But the overwhelming observation to make here is that how we consume media matters. Creating best practices for how we respond to a culture of constant content is a critical responsibility devoid of partisanship.
The need for good criticism isn't progressive or conservative, it's neither and its both. A natural merging of political spectrums, the willingness to give and receive criticism is demonstrating an interest, investment, and a radical act of self-care. It's a time of great change no matter your viewpoint - engaging in criticism gives every person a way to participate.
If there is one thing I can use this blog to bring to you in 2018, I hope it's this: