For some reason that I can’t quite explain – a sudden rush to the head methinks – I agreed to be part of a panel being organised by the ACT Writers Centre for this year’s Design Canberra Festival. The panel, called The Constructive Critic, was described as
a unique panel discussion about art criticism across multiple disciplines including visual arts, design, theatre and literature, and its importance and impact.
What is the point of arts criticism? What has changed now everyone has a voice via social media? What is the relationship between artist and critic, and what about the blurred lines of artists who critique others?
The panelists (check bios on the event website) were art curator and critic Peter Haynes (also the moderator), local authors Jack Heath and Karen Viggers, and me. This is not one of my verbatim reports because I was too busy taking part, but I want to document some of the things I remember that we discussed.
It was an enjoyable evening – for me, anyhow – largely because both the panel and the audience were friendly and engaged. We didn’t always completely agree on topics, but the ensuing discussion invigorated rather than diminished our thoughts and ideas.
My favourite description of arts criticism came from the most experienced critic amongst us, Peter, who said that:
For me writing criticism is about opening a dialogue and first the critique is for me to explore the work. Whatever medium. A review should start with a question. The critic opens the questions that the artist and curator have posed. (Tweeted by the ACT Writers’ Centre whom I thank for capturing this so nicely!)
I love this, the idea of opening the questions posed by the creator of the work (the book, the play, the exhibition, the film, etc), and will try to do it more. [PS: I forgot to say that we later talked about how social media at its best can encourage this dialogue/conversation.]
The topics we covered included defining what criticism is, what creators want from criticism, who criticism is for, the role of social media in contemporary criticism (is everyone really a critic?), the economic impact of criticism, whether creators can critique or review each other’s work, and what we think about negative criticism.
Most of us seemed to agree that there is a review-criticism continuum. The highest level of criticism we saw as comprehensive, academic, knowledgeable about the wider culture/genre/context within the work fits, while reviewing at its most basic can be short, narrowly focused and, perhaps, more oriented to promoting the work. This is not to say, however, that high level criticism can’t/doesn’t promote a work too, but the link is, I’d say, more tenuous.
Related to how we define criticism is the question of who/what criticism is for. For some critics*, it seems to be for the consumer (the reader, for example), for some it can be for the creators (the authors), and for others seems to be more for the producers (the publishers). At least, this last is how it looks when you get to the emerging “influencer” role, upon which we touched briefly. For the authors in our panel, the second was particularly relevant. They appreciate criticism which can help them develop their own work. There is a fourth option, which is the one I ascribe to. It’s that criticism is about contributing to the wider culture. While of course what critics write will encourage or discourage people from reading the book, going to the show, whatever, the main loyalty is to the culture. This means I’m keen to see the work I’m discussing within the context of both literary and social culture, to talk about how it adds to the body of work to which it belongs and how it addresses or contributes to the society in which we live. Looking at it this way, I’m less interested in ascribing value – this is a “good” or “bad” book – than in where it fits. I’m not sure I achieve this, but that’s my goal.
We talked briefly about social media: the destructive impact of thoughtless negative comments on authors; the positive and negative economic impact social media can have; the impact and application of ratings (like those on GoodReads); the current plethora of free review copies which can result in reduced early sales; and the value of hindsight versus the immediate response that is common in social media.
Opposing opinions were offered about whether artists can critique artists. The affirmative suggested that artists know what’s involved in creating the work and can therefore bring that understanding to their review, while the negative suggested that it is hard to properly critique people you know, and that creators, knowing the techniques involved, will often focus on technical aspects rather than the work as a whole.
Negative reviews came up several times throughout the discussion, and again at the end. Peter announced early on that he didn’t write negative reviews, which, regular readers here know, would appeal to me. What he meant by this – and how I also see it – is that if he doesn’t like something, he won’t review it. However, he will, in an overall positive review, refer to aspects that might not have worked so well. Yes! However, a question came from the floor about negatively reviewing a work that is against current social values – that is blatantly sexist, racist, ableist, for example. Karen spoke for all of us when she said that such ideas should be called out. Jack, earlier in the session, had entertained us by describing how he had learnt from a one-star review. The reviewer had missed the main point of his work he felt, but nonetheless the comment had made a valid observation, one that he used in the next book in his series!
Of course, like my old school exam days, I came away thinking about all that I could have, or wished I’d, said. One issue we didn’t discuss in any detail was the critic him/herself: the degree to which critics should aim to be “impartial” (whatever that is) versus put their preferences and background on the table, and, indeed, whether, in our current environment regarding who can write what, whether there’s also a question concerning who can critique what? But, I’ll leave those for another day!
Meanwhile, thanks to Paul and the ACT Writers Centre for asking me to be on the panel, and to Peter, Karen and Jack for being such fun and so interesting to talk with.
* I’m using the term “critic” broadly in this write-up to cover the whole continuum of arts writers, and my examples are mostly from the book world (but in most cases you can substitute your art form of choice!)
The Constructive Critic
Design Canberra Festival 2019
Gorman Arts Centre, Main Hall
12 November 2019