I write reviews of plays for the local alt-weekly, and I do so more out of compulsion to go places and do things and write about them than anything else. Tonight I'll watch a play. Tomorrow morning I'll write a review of it. And that might just be the last time I do it, given the direction my life is heading and my thoughts on criticism in general.
There are basically two functions of criticism, and they've always been united within the form:
- The critic is responsible to the audience and should honestly and intelligently answer the question: "Should I devote time and money to seeing this?"
- The critic has a responsibility to the artist -- and to art itself -- to engage in this vaguely defined, ongoing public dialog about art, quality and standards.
Great critics -- and there have been critical essays and even reviews that I would consider to be "great" -- are artists themselves. But I'm not a great critic. I'm functionally an amateur critic who has been learning on the job. I started in the 1990s with book reviews, but for the past few years I've been required to write critical things (positive and negative -- remember that "criticism" as a literary form also includes praise) about live, local performances, and I'm here to tell you that writing about people you can see is fundamentally a different beast than covering artists who work elsewhere.
From this experience arise multiple perplexing questions. No. 1? How does living in an age where all observers have a platform to publish their opinions affect the context of professional criticism? As in: If I have a big, branded, for-profit distribution channel, and I hire you to review something, what standards of quality are implied? What is the critic's standing? What are her goals? What makes his review good or bad?
I've tried to engage critics in this discussion, but they are singularly disinterested. Too meta. Too pointless. Too... threatening. Where's the win in this for them, particularly if their bosses don't care?
So let me offer these simple standards, and they begin with one concept: Let's split the standard "review" into two entirely separate forms.
Standard No. 1: Consumer reviews
If you intend to write for the consumer, then understand that there isn't one consumer, but many. There isn't one valid standard of taste, there are virtually endless standards. With that in mind, it's possible to talk subjectively about the audience to which a work is intended and then describe the work in terms of its success within those narrow definitions. I enjoyed an opera three years ago. I enjoyed Superbad more recently. I probably wouldn't recommend either to the other's general audience.
How should one communicate such a review? Well, not as an essay -- which remains the default form for criticism of the arts. I'd rather see it done in a more structured way, allowing easier comparisons to other reviewers' thoughts. And quality? It depends on accuracy in terms of understanding what one saw, placing it in the context of its genre and audience, and making intelligent, formatted comparisons. Subjective? Absolutely. But it's better if one can see the terms of the subjective judgment. The spirit of hypertext gives us that freedom.
And what about negative reviews? Well, if you think something is patently offensive and a waste of time and money for ANY audience, then by-gawd say so. Just let us see where you're coming from in your online writing (perhaps a link to a critic's personal standards of judgment?)
Standard No. 2: The ideas essay
The greatest problem I have in writing reviews is that most of the art I witness is neither great nor awful. It's typically somewhere in the middle, and encountering it just makes you want to have a nice meal and watch a little late-night TV and go to bed.
I have nothing interesting to say about art like that, but I say it anyway and I try to make those statements as interesting as possible for the reader. And in that sense, I'm not accurately reflecting what I saw: I'm making it more interesting than I thought it was.
So what if, instead of writing narrative reviews of things that didn't elicit strong reactions, reviewers merely filed formatted consumer reviews and moved on? I saw some quite nice little performances last week that deserved this treatment and nothing more, because that's all that aspired to be.
What if reviewers filed essay-form, artistic reviews only on those occasions when the work inspired strong feelings or interesting ideas? In which case, one could judge the critic by the quality of his or her ideas, not merely the ability to reflect the original work.
People say they want feedback, and many do: privately. Rare is the artist who honestly seeks and appreciates public feedback that says less than stellar things. In many cases, these artists are struggling and learning and making do under horrible conditions: Do they really need to endure the essay-styled pontificating of "professional" reviewers who are no more qualified to cover a classical concert than they are a monster truck rally?
The existing system isn't really good for anybody -- not artists, not audiences and not even the critics. Sure would be nice if we could do better.