Art, Criticism, and Art Criticism

Posted: March 7, 2011 in Threat Quality

Finally! I am getting around to responding to Josh Wimmer (sometimes called “Moff,” as in the legendary founder [thief] of Moff’s Law) and his comments about criticism. I know that people responded in the comments to this, and Wimmer himself wrote more on the subject subsequently, but I am not looking at that stuff, yet. Instead, I am going to write some bits here, read more of what people have to say on the subject, and then reconsider my position (or not) accordingly.

Anyway, let’s go!

A lot of this is going to be tangential, and colored by the light of a few conversations I’ve had lately about reviewing, criticism, and, in particular criticism of ME (this will be its own post, some time).

So there are two things here: criticism and reviews. Usually we call reviews reviews, but sometimes we confusingly refer to reviewers as critics, and this is a shame because the two things are particularly distinct. Though there is overlap in any individual piece, a review is a purely functional piece of writing or commentary, while criticism is actual discourse an analysis of the subject.

The former is very necessary, but not wholly artistically interesting; we live in a world in which there’s a lot of shit happening, we have a limited amount of time and money to spend, we need some way of figuring out which things are worth that time and money. Good reviewers generally walk a fine line between informing the audience as to what sorts of things a person might expect, and what level of basic quality the piece has, without giving away much more than that, or going into any greater depth. That’s what makes it easy for a reader to say, “Well, Ebert doesn’t like this, but I already know that he just generally doesn’t like it when a movie has someone’s face getting eaten, and I DO like that, so…”

Whether or not reviews really damage the artistic process, in the sense that maybe it would be better to see works of art without having read them, is largely immaterial – we’re never going to be able to get around this basic issue of public feedback. There’s just too much god-damn STUFF. And artists have to make a living, and they typically make a living by people finding out about and buying/reading/attending their work, and so no one is ever going to do something that they don’t want some people to at least review.

(Except, obviously, for me; when I finally get my ideas together for my new version of Dracula, not only will all reviewers be banned from the premises, but all audience members will be sworn to secrecy before seeing the performance.)

Criticism is another animal, and it’s what makes me interested in this description of art. I like it, generally, though it is fairly broad – art is humanity’s way of describing itself as itself, as of right now. The problems with it are its broadness, obviously: it’s essentially impossible for anyone, as of right now, to express anything in any way without simultaneously expressing loads of information about Who We Are and What the Hell Is Going On? And we can’t argue that art must be a conscious attempt to express that, because we know that artists aren’t always explicitly aware of what’s going on – they’re just doing what makes sense to them.
And it’s not simply a question of metaphorical representation, either. I don’t think. This would preclude documentarian efforts, it would preclude things that are explicitly non-metaphorical (like Naturalism, which, as much as I HATE IT SO MUCH GOD DAMN IT, I have to admit is probably, technically, art). Criticism, likewise, by virtue of not being direct action or phenomenon, is itself a form of abstract representation.

It’s a fairly strong working definition though, and I like it because of what it suggests.

There are two things that are important to understand about criticism, and this working definition offers some interesting insights.

1) No artist gets to determine the psychology of their audience.

You can go to certain lengths, of course, to control the experience. Deciding when and where to hold your performances, how to arrange your seating, how the audience gets into the theater. You can decide what the performance is comprised of, obviously: who is in it, what it’s about. But, barring forcing the audience to take a comprehensive psychological exam prior to the performance, you can’t decide what kinds of people show up – and, likewise, you can’t decide from what social context those people are going to come from.

Criticism is as much a part of the social context as every other thing that we experience so, unless your plan is for some completely ephemeral art (which has been a big part of certain artistic movements in the past though, notably, hasn’t stuck around [ha!]) you’re stuck with the fact that audiences are going to have used many different methods to form opinions about the material with which you are working, and some of those methods are going to include criticism – and all of those methods together add up to any individual social context.

In other words, I guess, while we might wish that audiences could see plays without having read criticism first, we’ve got to accept that not only is this fundamentally impossible, but the criticism of the play that they’re about to see includes that criticism as part of the audience’s psychological profile.

If we accept –and I think we should – that very small changes in inputs can yield very large changes in outputs (the catastrophe curve), then we’ve got to admit that the effects of criticism – from damaging to even improving the audience’s experience of the play – are so far outside our predictive range that we might as well equally question the butterfly population of Mongolia’s influence on the performance.

Chaos theory, blah blah blah.

The other salient point is:

2) Criticism is art.

By which I mean: the artistic process never stops, not really. Or, rather, not for anyone who counts. Artists consider their work (sometimes) a kind of finished product; or, at the very least, an endpoint. I want to say something about, I don’t know, hippies, for instance; and so I write Hair (well, “write”) and when it goes up, even though it’s not exactly “finished”, per se, it’s roughly the punctuation of my first sentence on the subject of hippies.

But, obviously, as the artist I don’t really matter. The purpose of the art is to affect the audience – the artist’s personal journey is ancillary, and largely irrelevant. And as far as the audience goes, art is never finished. It’s not divided or discrete, it’s just a continuum of ideas and experiences that begin when you first learn to use your eyes and ears, and end when your brain shuts off.

U2 releases a new album, and Chuck Klosterman writes some things about it. U2’s new album is art, and what Chuck Klosterman has to say is also art. Art is art, obviously, but so is the discussion of art. So is the discussion of the discussion of art. Art itself is a discussion of reality – or, sometimes, a discussion of a discussion of reality. And since consciousness is really a set of symbolic representations of reality that we manipulate, even reality as we understand it is the discussion of reality.

It is, to put it bluntly, turtles all the way down.

So, while it may not be the best for U2 if people read a review of their album before they buy it, who cares? The tower of turtles remains intact.

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