You might also like

A couple of posts ago, I noted the common online practice of ‘liking’ or ‘following’ random blogs just to attract traffic. Within hours, that post scored several such ‘likes’, and one came from a blogger whose top posts include ‘How To Get 100 Likes In A Day’. How, indeed? ‘What I mean is, the more active you are on other blogs the more people will be active on yours.’ Hardly original genius. Yet it does suggest some awareness of others.

As for original genius, it comes and it goes, independent of ego agendas. Which means that someone able to channel genius on occasion can also fail to notice when it’s AWOL. Take, say, an artist who asks for a review, yet levels a judgement at the reviewer if it pushes their buttons.

Professional reviewers don’t earn much for their words. And I’ve known a few. So why do it? Exposure. Reputation. The brief biographical note mentioning recent or forthcoming works… But what about unpaid reviewers? Some do it (as the French amateur implies) for love of their subject, be it a given artist or a medium, or a burning concern with big themes.

Either way, the kind of arts and cultural criticism that finds the widest audience today comes via reviews of books, films, exhibitions etc., the purpose of which is to help consumers choose from a mind-boggling array. But that’s not the only role critics play. Those with an academic slant serve as a secular priesthood, initiating readers or viewers into the mysteries of avant-garde literature, film, art and more because, unlike Fifty Shades of Grey, Titanic or The Starry Night, it isn’t self-explanatory. If such critics forge a bridge between the sublime and the predictable, the more difficult lit fic may be today’s version of scriptures, with art-house cinemas and galleries like temples reserved for the worship of what some might call false gods (or mere mortals prone to delusions of grandeur).

Yet with my Critic hat on, I think of myself as a self-taught mechanic, taking art or fiction apart to see what makes it tick (or not). And whatever I learn through this search invigorates my own work. As a writer/artist, I aim to be constructively self-critical, and practice on others hones my critical faculties. So sue me! The creative act itself can bring connection to something greater, transcendent – total engagement effects its own initiation – while criticism may be the opposite of religion (i.e., a hierarchy, a pious elite and a flock needing guidance). Yet criticism can be an art form too. In fact, some of my favourite literature is critical, and can give more pleasure than the fiction it assesses. The best critics know their subject well yet keep an open mind and a sense of humour, aka perspective. Granted, some can get lost up their own arses – that’s academia for you – but so can the artists whose work they dissect.

It’s an occupational hazard – because autobiographical content, modified or not, can make objective self-assessment tricky. Outside input can catalyse critical distance, but only to the extent that an artist solicits it. Addiction too can cloud objectivity, and artists get attached – to fantasies about what they do, responses that flatter their vanity, an attitude or identity that brings status or attention etc. Or they may just lack an instinct for what’s corny, didactic, awkward, dated, far-fetched, half-baked or overstated.

Speaking of which, let’s say that, as a reviewer, I happen to see parallels between a story or its characters and the artist’s personal past. Invoking the latter to explain the work of an ‘underground’ artist who makes their private life public seems redundant to me. Why shouldn’t art stand on its own merits? The cult of celebrity attending artists today hasn’t raised the calibre of what they create.

Which reminds me: book or film reviews are written for a readership; not to feed the ego of their subject. Serious professionals seek constructive critiques before it’s too late. Reviews serve to indicate whether a book or film might appeal, and since no book or film will interest all readers, regardless of what reviewers say, a review must, above all, inform and entertain. There’s no obligation to even be objective. Style depends on readership; those more self-aware and/or educated tend to have longer attention spans. So, before tackling the subject at hand, long-form reviews often dedicate several paragraphs to context: social, political, historical, traditions of the form or medium, comparable works, the artist’s entire oeuvre etc.

The ways and means via which a review engages are limited only by the reviewer’s imagination. Gushing or brutal one-note reviews may bore readers who enjoy nuance. In Oz, most critics hold back due to the risk of tit for tat; in Britain, a much bigger pond, scathing reviews are an institution. But with the rise of identity politics and vast social media networks, virtuous reviewers across the West may prize political correctness above a work’s expressive and technical merits – as if the meaning and purpose of art has changed. Which it has, in the mainstream.

Consumers of culture have never had more choices. And yet the range of what gets past the gatekeepers has narrowed. Blame corporations, capitalism, the algorithm: it all applies. And so to succeed independently takes titanic self-promotional drive. Where once it helped if an artist was sensitive (hence the type’s tendency towards suicide and fragile mental health), what now bodes well for success is the development of a thick hide.

And yet when I learned that a recent review of mine, somewhat predictably, didn’t impress the artist who solicited it, I wondered whether I should have declined. The thing is, some artists feel secure enough in what they do that they prefer a bad or mixed review to no publicity, or relish negative feedback because it beats indifference. I credit my few readers with the intelligence to read between the lines of my assessment and determine for themselves whether a book or film beckons. And maybe smart readers trust reviewers who don’t pull their punches (or not too much)?

Ruthlessness can be destructive in a critique of unfinished work if it provokes defensiveness when an artist might need to open their mind. But most artists seek reviews only as a promotional tool. For those derailed by criticism, one option is not to read reviews – though, more often these days, they may need to for the sake of self-marketing, the increasingly time-consuming task of all but a tiny cluster of stars.

Luckily, the unimpressed artist whose work I’d reviewed was able to put my carefully measured words to good self-promotional use, creatively cutting and pasting in a way eschewed by professionals, who take excerpts out of context but flag omissions with ellipses. Indifferent to such staid conventions, this artist cut up my text, rearranged certain sequences, inserted the odd superlative, and mangled the grammar in one case to make a Frankenstein-esque sentence, then misspelled my name and misstated my location.

Though I’m used to being misquoted, this was the first time I’ve laughed my arse off over it. The presumption, clumsiness and impatience echoed the work I’d reviewed with my usual introspective restraint. Is there more to all the hype on their website than meets the eye?

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7 Responses to You might also like

  1. I have always found your reviews deepen my experience of the work you are reviewing and bring in nuances, layers and critique that I have missed from my particular lens. I’m always grateful for your insight and perception.
    When I read a review I am rarely looking for a good/bad judgement, more of the experience or journey that the reviewer has travelled from engaging with the work. You always offer this with generosity and sharp intellect 🙂

    • Thanks, as always, for your feedback – & for reading my reviews. I read a lot of reviews myself, especially those written by receptive & thoughtful readers/viewers; they often seem to hold more hope for the human project than the over-hyped products they focus on. 🙂

  2. Well, well. Yes, also laughing at the artist’s ingenuity, although it doesn’t quite tick the ethical box for me. Why not just ignore? Sort of reminds me of ‘reality TV’ where what you see is not actually in the place where you think it is, in the order that is presented, or the reactions are not actually in relation to the event (or maybe even person) to which/whom it is attached. Perhaps it’s just the way things work today…manipulation is the norm and is what we accept as real.

    • Yes, Annette! ‘Reality’ TV is a perfect example. Love your observation re events & reactions being intentionally mismatched. Such practices epitomise our atomised society, in which so much information is offered minus its original context & thereby stripped of meaning, not unlike processed foods: complicated combinations of incongruous ingredients broken down, recombined & depleted of nutrients. And pure hype is like excess fat/sugar/salt – unnatural. 😉

  3. You know, I never used to think much about reviews until we got serious about money and the totally-not-a-recession. As to cheap traffick I’ve been followed by My Fitness Adsiction 4 times. (I remove spam traffick because autism.) Always been more interested in idea exchange than likes. Those are nice, if they indicated appreciation rather than grift but whatever. Cool beans.

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