Reviews and Criticism

One way or another I’ve found myself discussing the value of “Criticism” recently, the general argument being made to me that it has little to no value. In fact some version of “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach” is the main refrain there – what makes someone who’s never made a film, or written a book, worthy of “criticising” it? Without creative bona fides, how can an opinion have any value? Aren’t they (we) just armchair quarterbacks whose expectations and opinions have nothing to do with the thing itself?

I think this argument is appealing to people because it emphasises productivity as such, and so is inherently a positive statement about the value of art: don’t criticise Art ™ – it’s important. The limit state for the validity of this argument is in the encoded political messages inside the fiction, disguised as mere “Art”. We’re seeing another round of that discussion this year with the all-white acting nominations at the Academy Awards. The “criticism” being made is basically that Hollywood is too white, encoding a message of white superiority. Irrespective of the noble and virtuous intentions of everyone involved, we’ve ended up with something that’s politically untenable – our statement about global values of diversity etc trumps our statement about the unimpeachability of Artistic Integrity ™. I think what’s been highlighted for me by most of the rebuttals I’ve read from Oscar luminaries really don’t convince me that diversity is unachievable in their works; really, what I think we’re seeing is as simple as people being unable to interrogate their own creative processes. This is at least partially because of the fundamental nature of subjectivity – I look out at the world, so it’s only ever possible to see myself in reflections. (And as someone smarter than me noted, it’s not really possible to interrogate one’s own culture, because that is the very tool you use for interacting with the world.)

So the value of Criticism is almost as simple as this: Artists don’t understand what they’re doing. They may do it very well, but they are inherently unable to see their own work with the clarity that others can. And that applies equally to non-Artists, which is why in every field of human endeavour all work is subject to review – to a “peer” review usually. In the sciences I understand that you genuinely see “peer” reviews, but if you’re in, say, accounting, your work is just as likely to be audited (i.e. criticised) by a specialist auditor, who may well never have practised as an accountant themselves, though they will have received the same training at school.

The way I’ve been writing here, and the way discussions on Art generally go, is that the work of art is itself the primary thing of importance – but is that so? For example, I enjoyed the Red Letter Media take-downs of the Star Wars Prequels an awful lot more than the films themselves, and I think the coherent arguments they made about the nature of cinema were genuinely useful exercises. If we think about art and criticism not as a creation and a byproduct, but as a dialectic between creation and refinement, I think we can recognise that quality improves through the process of review. If there had been a mute silence after Revenge of the Sith, wouldn’t the new sequels have followed exactly the same creative trajectory?

The clearest example of this dialectic in operation in Art that I’m familiar with is the swarm of critical discussions that surrounded Detective Fiction (and I admit, I’ve blogged on this before a few times). Agatha Christie, the greatest whodunit writer ever, never really wrote criticism – she just carried on creating. But around her, there were a swarm of people semi engaged in writing and semi engaged in critical appraisal of the genre. SS van Dyne et al tried to understand what made detective fiction so enjoyable from within the field, while WH Auden et al poked at it from outside. But all of them informed the progress and evolution of the genre from the somewhat haphazard ingredients identified by Franco Moretti in The Slaughterhouse of Literature, into the perfectly slick procedural machine we suffer through today. More pertinently, both Hammett and Chandler almost began their writing careers in a critical frame – some of Hammett’s earliest published writing is outlining what was different between fiction and reality, and Chandler’s definitive “The Simple Art of Murder” was written quite early in his career.

The thing I always say about criticism though, at least of art, is that it begins with an emotional response. The main problem I have with most reviews I read online and in newspapers is that the emotional response is all too often where the critic ends too. That kind of writing is little more than personal opinion given context by wide exposure to the general subject matter, and it’s got its place, but it’s not really that interesting as part of a creative dialectic. It’s a bit harder to get behind the value of someone uninvolved in the process sitting on the sideline and simply saying “nah, didn’t like it” than someone cheering from the sideline arguing “and it could have worked if this and this and this structure etc had been right”.

But you know, most of the best teachers I’ve had have actually also been really really good at what they were teaching. In film terms for me that’s Alfred Hitchcock or Martin Scorsese – creatives who’ve got a really deep engagement in the mechanics of what they do, both technically and aesthetically. I don’t know whether they really understand what they themselves are doing, but I don’t think you could place even the tiniest doubt that they well and truly understood what was going on with everyone else around them.

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