Why Criticism in the Arts Can Be Overrated

So you and I happen to meet on a street corner. You spot me first, and you give me a warm hello. And you ask me how I’m doing.

Then, before I can say anything, you say: Well, I can see that you’re looking older, aren’t you? You have more gray hair around the temples. Not too many wrinkles yet. But, hey, I think you’ve also gained a few pounds, if I’m not mistaken!

It may be better to try meet the artist where he or she is, just as you would a human being who was standing right in front of you

Well, I would probably not be so thrilled by this encounter, and I doubt I would stick around for long. I would conclude that you are pretty rude, of course. I would also think that an opportunity for engagement had been replaced by an exercise in judgment.

In some ways, this is how we are told to approach works of art. It used to be that only a few rarefied people called critics had the ability to announce their public approval, but now this same power is available to everybody. Now we are all encouraged to tell the world whether the work of art satisfies our needs, or is any “good” or not.

But lately I wonder if approaching art this way always serves us, or if it can also diminish the experience for both artist and audience.

I don’t think there is an artist alive who doesn’t have mixed feelings about critics, professional or otherwise, perhaps depending on little more their own personal encounters. The person who loves my work is a genius! And the guy who doesn’t, well... We have another word for people like him.

Beyond any entanglements we might have with them, of course, we must admit that reviewers can provide interesting and valuable insights. Indeed, the most insightful critics add to our understanding of works of art and, consequently, our appreciation.

Of course, not every critic has pure and noble intentions. Some use the full force of their intellectual acuity and flair with language to attack artists for what is nothing more than personal preferences. I don’t like your work, nor do I like this type of approach in general, and I don’t particularly like you, come to think of it. Or maybe I liked your earlier stuff, but this I have before me isn’t your very best. So I am going to come after you with all the venom I can muster.

Some people no doubt believe they are serving art by exacting ferocious judgment upon it. If I didn’t adjudicate what was good, or what wasn’t, everybody would be out there thinking they were great artists! With my discernment I am defending Shakespeare from the hacks of the world!

Maybe. But, then again, maybe there is a cost, and even quite a high cost, for always meeting art with the sharpest, most unforgiving critical eye.

So you and I meet on a street corner. You stop me and ask how I am.

Fine, I say.

No, don’t just say “fine”, you say. It’s a genuine question. I want to know how you are.

You do? I say.

Yes, you say. I really do.

And so, we stand there for a half hour, and I tell you. I also ask you how you are. People pass us by, and we don’t notice. We are too wrapped up in our conversation.

The difference between this encounter and the first one is that, this time, you greeted me as a human being. You are curious about me and open to learning more. You assume I have something to offer. Your first instinct is to engage with me, rather than to judge me. And, because of that, we both had the opportunity to see more of each other.

Of course, if your agenda is to search for faults, it would not take you long to find them. But, instead, you decided to look for other things, like areas of connection, or common ground. It took us a bit longer and required some work. But it was much more interesting and rewarding than our first, brief encounter.

Like many writers, I have read lots of books and have spent years trying to develop a sophisticated understanding of literature. So, when I read even very good writers, I notice a lot of things I may not like very much, or that other writers do better. Before I even try to make them, comparisons spring to mind.

On the other hand, I’ve become less convinced of the universal value of this type of judgment.

I think it’s fine, and, after a certain point, inevitable to notice a particular writer isn’t so skilled at one aspect of storytelling. But if the writing is sincerely meant, and originally expressed, I think it’s worthwhile to look past its inevitable faults in an attempt to discover something more. In other words, it may be better to try meet the artist where he or she is, just as you would a human being who was standing right in front of you.

After all, just because you don’t like one aspect of a book, it doesn’t mean it isn’t any “good”. It may not be a sublime masterpiece. But if that is your sole criterion, you will not have the opportunity to read many books.

I don’t know about you, but I have loved some pretty odd books. I’ve read books that committed just about every crime known to writing, but possessed one stunning trait that made it all worthwhile. I’ve read books that were widely ignored or dismissed, but that I cherished. I’ve read books that I approached with distaste or dread that I ended up loving in spite of myself.

Books, like people, if given the chance, can surprise us.

Art offers us a fresh opportunity to engage. The artist has already put herself out there, often with great frankness and vulnerability. I think it’s only fair, both to her and to ourselves, to try to meet her in the same spirit of openness, even if it involves delaying or deferring our judgments for a while.

I don’t believe we lose in this approach. But what we gain can be extraordinary.