Cafe Witness

Saturday, October 13, 2007

What Good Is Criticism?

I have a larger point to make, but first, a specific window into the situation:

This is the closing weekend for In Service, a powerful multimedia production that presents the stories of actual Pittsburgh soldiers who've returned from service in Iraq. The show is purposely absent of any slanted political context because it's meant to provide a rare glimpse of the soldiers themselves, not the ideologies behind the war they've fought (and continue to fight).

Ted Hoover, the stage critic for Pittsburgh's City Paper, issued a lukewarm review of the piece. Instead of basing his judgment on what the piece was, he bemoaned what it wasn't -- specifically taking the creators to task for NOT speaking out against the war itself.

To raise that complaint misses the point of the piece entirely, but it also betrays a complicated paradox in the world of art criticism (and critical thinking in general):

What IS the Role of the Critic?

Before you think this question doesn't apply to you, consider this: when was the last time you recommended an album/ movie / TV show / book to someone else?

Did you recommend it because you thought it was legitimately good and worth their time, or because the creation in question was closely aligned with what YOU, personally, enjoy?

Now consider the last time you told someone a book / movie / TV show / song was horrible.

WHY was it horrible?

Was it because the execution was terrible? Because the artist was a fraud? Because the communication was unclear, or the artistic choices were false?

Or, did you simply not like it? (Or, worse, did you not understand it, and therefore you presumed no one else would either?)

The Thin Line Between Criticism and Control

Critics are cynical enough to realize they can't support something their readers won't like. Stray too far from your audience's tastes and they'll forsake you. Thus, to remain relevant, a critic must review all art AS THOUGH HE ALREADY KNOWS WHAT HIS AUDIENCE WILL ACCEPT.

For example, in the case of Pittsburgh theatre, the target audience tends to be adults over the age of 50. Therefore, any play that doesn't speak directly to that demographic is likely to be panned, or commended with caution.

As you can imagine, this creates a stifling atmosphere for artists attempting to create new work, because they have two uphill battles to fight: the one to get an audience to take them seriously, and the one to convince the powers-that-be (who shape the choices of the populace) to convince the masses to take them seriously.

Personal Anecdote Time

Before I ventured into social media, I spent 2+ years as a music critic for the nearly-major music website Splendid (now defunct), out of Chicago. In that time, I reviewed hundreds of CDs, averaging a minimum of 3 per week.

Considering this was an unpaid, "free time" gig, it was in my best interests to plow through the CDs as quickly as possible. Most reviews were written after one or two listens, with only the ones that caught my attention garnering additional quality time.

I know from artist feedback that my reviews validated the burgeoning musical careers of several underground indie artists, who drew strength from my support of their work. I also know (from scathingly-worded emails) that my negative reviews cut the musicians deeply. If I helped keep some artists active, I don't think it's unreasonable to presume I may have also driven others out of their musical dreams altogether.

Looking back, it's ironic that a review written in haste might have caused a potentially talented musician -- who happened to not yet be "up to par" with others of his / her ilk -- to throw in the towel prematurely.

And yet, that's the power (fair or not) that every critic has with each word he commits to paper and page.

So, the Real Question Is...

... should a critic support the work of an artist who has the potential to become great, even if that work isn't yet fully commendable, because the risk of smiting that dream too early might mean the absence of new work that could someday change the world?

Or, should a critic be exceedingly harsh and unrelenting, fostering an environment where only the strongest survive?

Is a critic's primary function to be a guide for the audience or the artist?

How each critic answers those questions determines the role he seeks to fill: cheerleader or executioner?

Then again, EVERYONE'S a critic -- so what do YOU think?

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  • I answered via twitter in a "personal criticism" light, but I think the basic ideas hold true. Being critical just for the sake of tearing things down doesn't do any good, but critics in general do serve a function.

    The truth is, I appreciate the recommendations of others. I've only got so much time, and I would rather fill it with things I'm more likely to enjoy than not.

    I learn to trust friends and critics who share my basic opinions about what's good and what stinks. If we can agree that X-MEN was a masterpiece and Fantastic Four was a stinker, I'm likely to see something they call out.

    The problem is, in order to identify what's good, you have to make negative judgments about other stuff. Hell, being snarky and judgmental can even be kinda fun when something or someone is deserving of a little ego-deflation, but many critics get carried away with that role.

    If nothing else, critics give you a written 'user experience' test - you know what one person (however shortsighted) thought of your work and can decide how to react from there, if at all.

    Believe me, I know it can suck to get panned, and I've had critics suck the life out of my own creative projects, but I think they're a necessary evil.

    By Blogger Eric Skiff, at 1:50 AM  

  • For every affect there's an effect. What good is criticism? The material effect is that people's lives are changed. Is this good? Are we are to settle for mediocrity or is everyone due audience? Truth is difficult if the perspective is such. The worlds greatest advanced have not yielded to such affect, but have gained. The effective change; a better world. Make sense? See if I got the words right. Please be critical.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:15 AM  

  • "the world's greatest advances... I meant advances, not advanced.. See I wasn't critical enough.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:18 AM  

  • Getting criticism is part of the learning process for improvement. Perhaps, artists should take the negative feedback and reflect on their work instead of giving up.I never grew more as a writer as when I when in school and we were asked to read our stuff to the classroom and then we would get feedback.

    Criticism is not only good for art. I recently href=""> heard this on NPR. Basically what it says is that Americans aren't good at self assessment because we don't take negative feedback well. It is good to be realistic about what we are producing.

    By Blogger Teresa, at 7:09 AM  

  • Sorry,

    I don't know what happened in the link in my previous post. But here is the link:

    By Blogger Teresa, at 7:11 AM  

  • I think this all boils down to paying attention. If a critic isn't paying attention to the piece (music, book, performance, etc.), they tend to apply the same standard of critique to every work they encounter rather than assessing the work on its own-- which is what seems to have happened with Mr. Hoover's review.

    But readers have to hold reviewers accountable too. They must ask themselves about the credibility of the reviewer and compare previous reviews from that critic with their own taste. Are his/her reviews typical of your own assessment? Can you trust the reviewer to understand the point of a piece? Just because someone is given space in a paper, or on a site, does not mean that their word is gold. It means that somewhere some group of people agree with him/her and their style of criticism.

    It's hard to give a balanced review, but it's possible. I struggled for months while trying to review a book that was quite bad, but whose author had potential to be something much greater than what I was reading. When a work fails to meet common standards (arbitrary as they may be), it's easy to fall into the hack/slash mentality. Reviewers need to keep in mind that their job is to evaluate works put in their hands, and to leave their own personal predilections at the door. I may love fantasy, but what value is a review if every contemporary work is boiled down to "just not Tolkien?"

    It can be done. It's just more difficult, and artists and authors will value your criticism more if those few more minutes or hours are taken to be sure you're reviewing their work and not being a cheerleader for what you wish you were reading/seeing/hearing.

    By Blogger Dawn, at 9:35 AM  

  • Hey Justin, Some really great discussion here. There's an interesting take on the question "What is a critic" over at (

    It says that the people who write about the latest release in papers are "reviewers". They may call themselves critics, but the write to deadlines and their primary goal is to entertain, which drives their writing style. They are concerned with recommending the things they review (or not) to a readership assumed to be primarily interested in being entertained. Like you said, they know their audience and don't tend to stray too far from what the audience will agree with.

    The the point of your question, I believe "critics" should be guides for the artist. Unfortunately, they are few and far between. What we have in our high-consumption, instantly-disposable culture are "reviewers" who, by necessity, are guides for an audience that doesn't have the time or patience for serious discussion.

    You point out that we all have the opportunity to be "critics". I would add that we can also be (and often are) "reviewers". The next time you write about something "critically", are you going to be a "critic" or a "reviewer"?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:12 AM  

  • Well, I believe that whenever some criticizes a work, they are always offering some sort of advice. Even when the critique is all negative or all positive, or some of both. If it's all negative, then there's a few things to consider, did they not have anything good to say because they don't like the style/genre, or because of many valid reasons based on personal preferences. Same with the positive on that, why do you think so many people like bad animes, some just love the style they don't care about the rest.

    Anyways, I love getting critiqued because it lets me grow, it allows me to look at whatever I did through a new set of eyes.

    As an artist, you never make stuff for yourself, you make it for the world. They need to have a message to give to the world, so critics are necessary because a lot of people just do the, "That's awesome" or "That sucks" comments, which don't help anyone. At least critics usually or should give details.

    Yay, other stuff but I'm busy trying to figure out linux, see ya!

    By Blogger Philip Crow, at 1:29 PM  

  • Thanks for all the feedback, folks -- lots to chew on here.

    It seems we need a clearer definition between critics who act as guides for the artists themselves and critics who act as guides for the audience. The criteria for each type of criticism is different -- artists want to know how to improve, whereas audiences simply want to know if a work is something they'll like.

    I'm in now way defending mediocrity, but I do believe artists need a supportive arena in which to grow. Not every artist "deserves" to earn a living from his / her work, per se, but I don't think anyone has the right to dissuade a dreamer from their dreams.

    Teresa: Americans can't handle self-criticism? Is that a product of our relatively nascent nationalism, or our current sense of jingoistic politics?

    And, as I asked on Doug Meacham's blog: How much hands-on experience should someone have in order to qualify as a critic in the first place?

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 6:01 PM  

  • I agree with you on this, but not about the war criticism. It seems to me that there must be a line between art criticism and dissent, and this is one of those rare occasions when the two meet up. If our critic were just complaining that his Van Damn movie was not the Godfather, fine, that's his terrible bias. But the Iraq occupation is murdering hundreds of people every day including the soldiers that this piece was about. In this case, I salute the critic for rising above his station and speaking out on an issue that is costing precious human lives by the minute.

    Again, I agree with you about critics, but let's not confuse War with the latest Hollywood schlock. Dissent and criticism are NOT the same thing.

    By Blogger UJ, at 6:43 PM  

  • Justin,

    I didn't say 'self-criticism.' I said the article I mentioned that Americans are not as good at 'self-assessment' and one reason that might be is because we are taught to shrug off negative feedback. Just to clear that up.

    I have no idea why that it is. I guess I'm not qualified in that area:)

    By Blogger Teresa, at 8:28 PM  

  • As for myself, i tend to think of the critic as no different than someone writing an op-ed piece. If an artist takes someone else's opinion so seriously as to give up their profession, then really, they were looking for an out WAY before someone wrote them up a bad review.

    A critic has always been something to measure your opinion against, not necessarily with. And be sure to measure twice at that!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:03 PM  

  • Worrying about a critic crushing someone's artistic dreams is along the lines of not keeping score in little league games for fear of crushing little egos. (The latter, so I've heard is actually the practice in some locales!)


    In any endeavor, you'll win some and lose some. Without occasional failure or shortcoming being presented to artists whose fishbowl may include only those unwilling to offer negative criticism, their realization of a need to improve or try again would be long in coming. Unlike art, sport offers the athlete instant feedback on performance. They win or lose. Loss identifies a need to improve.

    Criticism is one significant measure of win or loss in the creation of art. My personal desire on this point is to see American culture move beyond it's touchy defense of our collective fragile psyches in favor of a continuous search for quality and greatness through thoughtful examination and critique.

    Removing the yardstick does not help anyone. Honest and explanatory criticism is a healthy thing.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:38 PM  

  • I always like to "know" the critic -

    There's a movie critic, and 9 of 10 times, when he doesn't like a movie, then I know that I'll love it.

    You can never please them all.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:50 PM  

  • "Not every artist "deserves" to earn a living from his / her work, per se, but I don't think anyone has the right to dissuade a dreamer from their dreams." -- Justin

    I think that an artist needs to take all reviews/criticisms in stride (positive or negative) and simply move on. It's part of the process. After all, even a positive review may be sugar-coated BS, if it's not written insightfully. Anyone who has dreams needs to have balls and grow strong, even from negative reviews.

    As for being a member of the audience, word of mouth from friends is still #1 for me.

    In my recent blogging job I'm asked to review books, online media apps, etc; from time to time. I always strive to be constructive in my review and to keep my ego out of it. I also fully expect that not everyone will agree with what I write.

    By Blogger Maria de los Angeles, at 10:53 AM  

  • By Anonymous Tristan, at 2:37 PM  

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