Critical Art

Critical Art

There’s guy who turned condoms full of his own shit into dildos to fuck himself with before eating them. There’s a community of people who inject saline into their scrota to make them as large as possible, getting dudebro competitive about it even as they lose the use of their penis. You know those colourful push pins? The ones you stick things to cork boards with? I read a blog by a woman who stuffed her vaginal cavity with those and then sewed her outer labia shut. These people weren’t being tortured by some weird marionette with a point to make, they did it because they liked it.

Like is the whole, the ineffable thing which is greater than the sum of otherwise identifiable parts. Mr Shit Dildo could sit and talk to you for hours to explain why his hobby is great but it would still add up to an incommunicable like. But, so armed with an understanding of what makes a good shit-dildo, you’d be able to point out a quality one when you saw it.

Art and creative works in general are a little less niche than shit-dildos but the principle remains the same. Exploration of the components of art allows for greater understanding of its production. Some things, like a high-quality shit dildo, just aren’t your thing though. These situations are why we have critique and review.

The explosion of text response writing that followed the Internet has caused a kind of speciation, where the once synonymous critique and review have now become discrete entities. Like a toilet and a sink, each is quite similar and, while neither is inherently superior, using one for the other’s purpose will lead to a mess. There is value to both, though, and since my degree on exactly this meaningless bullshit arrived recently, I figured I’d clear this up a little in the manner befitting a man of my credentials: blogging to the birds.

A basic taxonomy.

At its foundation, anything you write about a creative work is considered part of the text response genre, which is further subdivided into three other categories. Expository responses are argumentative (Note: within English as a subject, “argument” does not carry any hostile connotation. It’s its own sub-genre and simply means an evidence supported point is the focus of the piece) and will cite information from both the text and other sources to persuade a reader of some kind of point. An interpretation will be largely or entirely personal and discuss a writer’s feelings about or resulting from an interaction with a text. And finally, review, in which a single text is interpreted and analysed, typically in 3 stages: context, text interpretation, judgement/assessment.

Getting the strays out of the way first, interpretive writings are personal and can be whatever the writer wants. These will usually manifest as an “x reading of y” or “looking at y through an x lens” with the goal being an interpretation of a text based on a preconceived idea, theme, or theoretical structure. These can often be very creative and fun, and also breathe new life into old works by presenting alternative perspectives. The second is the thinkpiece, a kind of neologism for writings that are not enough of any one of the main categories to qualify it but will often be similar to a narrative or exposition. A lot of popular essayists write in a manner like this, building from say, a personal experience of a videogame or something and turning that into an exploration of a theme, time, memory, or pretty much anything else. Lastly is the opinion piece which is a kind of derivation from the thinkpiece, (These litter the place as a contentious opinion generates more clicks than anything else)  these will offer personal feelings in the form of a kind of analysis with the validating factor usually being who the writer is rather than what they are writing. This is not always as hollow as it can sound. A person whose opinion is built on years of experience and knowledge of a field has a better chance of being relevant than someone without (This is not to say such authorities are unchallengeable, just that a challenge must have a meaningful point and some evidence). These will comprise the broader writing around texts, if it’s not reviewing something or critiquing something it will fall into some permutation of interpretive reading, thinkpiece, or opinion.

What is a review?

At its base definition, review is simply a detailed analysis and assessment of something. The defining qualities that separate review from critique are that review will look at a work as a whole and offer a recommendation. Whether that recommendation is for or against, or comes in the form of a statement, rating, or personal endorsement, doesn’t really matter. A review can be anything from a single word, grunt, or gesture to about a 2000-word article and this brevity, along with the common numerical/graphical rating, are to keep them an accessible form of consumer protection for the layperson. A review will either precede the release of a work or be released alongside it, to better serve its consumer protection function, they will also not presume knowledge of the work and will frequently avoid plot points/spoilers. A reviewer expresses whether or not they think you should engage in a work based on their experience with it.

Ultimately, whether something functions as a review rests in the receiver as one can interpret a great many things as a recommendation for or against something. But the purpose, practise, and format of review as a text response (in whatever mode) is a definite enough thing that review exists as a discrete entity.

Review exists to both facilitate choice in a world of abundance and as a consumer protection filter against the fraudulent or faulty. The latter is tricky in the realms of the creative, as malfunctioning art is a harder thing to prove than an exploding phone, but it does the former by connecting people to experiences more relevant to their tastes. The world’s greatest steak is meaningless to a vegetarian and a great art film will be a terrible time if I’m in the mood for a special effects laden blockbuster. So while review can’t point out the fundamentally broken in art (though games are a unique exception to this rule) as it can with products or services, it can tell me if a thing does what I want it to do by connecting like to like.

In this mission, the idea of “objectivity” is both absurd and undesirable. You don’t want that in a review, that’s a critique you’re thinking of, you want the person reviewing a thing to be as much like you as possible. Imagine a clone of you, wandering about and checking everything out then reporting to you what things you’d love or hate. You’d never waste time or money again. That is review. That is what it is for. It can be absolutely fucking batshit, you can give Breath of the Wild a zero because Spongebob isn’t in it, (If you similarly require Spongebob in every game for it to be good, this will be your reviewer to follow) and that still doesn’t matter because objectivity is what critique is for. Stop mixing this up. If a company bases bonuses on review scores that company is stupid and the people responsible should be bashed about the head with a club. The only thing a review cannot be is an ad in disguise. Anyone pulling that shit should criminally punished and professionally ostracised.

What is a critique?

At its base definition, critique or criticism is simply a detailed analysis and assessment of something. The defining qualities that separate a critique from a review are that a critique is written to explore or compare works or techniques with the goal of creating a deeper understanding of the process of creating art. They’ll almost always be much longer than a review, will be written and read by academics/enthusiasts as opposed to the general public (This isn’t a hard rule but there’s a reason long essays aren’t called “clickbait”), and will typically be quite specific in focus. A typical academic piece will run 10 to 21 pages and entire books on single techniques, creators, or works are quite common. They are seldom timed to the release of a work and are frequently about older materials as the level of detail common to critiques generally takes a lot of time pouring over the material to develop. You’ll rarely get a spoiler warning in critiques (with the exception of some short-form or entertainment oriented modern examples) and a basic, if not already quite deep, understanding of the work being discussed is presumed. A critique will seldom really tell you whether you should go and experience something directly and they will never (outside of its writer’s desire to be a contrarian/novelty) have some kind of star or thumb rating.

As an aside, critique has nothing inherently to do with being negative. Anything, written or otherwise, that just hates on something (sometimes with a pile of swears) is entertainment, review if you want it to be, but not critique. I can’t stress this enough, just pointing out things that are bad is not critique. Criticism has a colloquial definition, which is expressing disapproval based on faults, but the definition as it pertains to text response is still neutral analysis and judgement. This is for a reason. Imagine your boss wandering over, looking at what you are doing and saying, “You’re doing it wrong” and wandering off. Critique differs from just an expressed negative opinion by being actionable, it has to structure change the critiqued can make to improve. Creativity is a room with a thousand doors where some lead to certain death. Telling me one that I should use is more useful than telling me 998 that I shouldn’t.

This is why many actual critiques will feature exploratory or comparative elements and are thus a lot longer. Even the rantier ones, which can spend time talking about the faults of one thing or another with some hostility (the Plinkett reviews of the Star Wars prequels would be well-known examples), provide a positive counterpoint (like comparisons to the original trilogy). The critique, however vitriolic or entertainment based, creates actionable points people can use to produce better works. There are entertaining creators who do well written reviews, and lighter “think piece” style critiques which serve as both, but there are enough “angry person shouts opinion as entertainment” things to warrant this differentiation.

Creativity is rather nicely described in A Basic History of Art as being the imaginative leaps that connect ideas in novel ways, critique is the process a means of expression uses to reflect on and understand those leaps. This process develops a medium specific vocabulary which helps make the leaps themselves into platforms for new leaps and the creative world grows to produce more things that can mean so much to us. The subjective elements of taste, the incommunicable whole of like, are the domain of review because they are inarguable. You can’t explain a vagina full of push pins to someone until they personally enjoy it. But even though you don’t actually like it, you can deconstruct the elements of something and understand it objectively. This objectivity is the domain of critique.

There is no objectively correct way to throw a ball. But if you agree on a specific kind of ball and a specific purpose, you create objectively correct and incorrect techniques which you can assess. Similarly, while there are correct and incorrect ways to throw a large inflatable ball into a hoop, this objectivity has nothing to do with whether that is in any way more interesting/better than throwing a small, hard ball at a batsman because that’s taste. Find similar goals accomplished with similar materials and you find objectively measurable things.

The disagreements people tend to have about things like this come from an inability to separate taste from assessment. The latter is about the text whereas the former relates to what that means to you. A human is an unquantifiable variable with the capacity to affect the final meaning of anything to an unpredictable degree so said meat bipeds need to be aware of that when assessing texts. As an example of this in action, take John Carpenter’s They Live. It’s a story, explicitly stated by the creator, to be about “yuppies and unrestrained capitalism” 1) but of course it’s about secret a Jewish cabal that control the globe. Or reptilians. Or bankers. Or whatever Alex Jones is going on about. The film’s techniques are all the same to these people, and are having the same effect, but the ultimate meaning is theirs to create. I favour the creator, as death of the author is a novel exercise which has gotten out of hand, but that’s an essay of its own.

I can understand why push pins are better in the vagina than thumb tacks even if I find the idea of both personally abhorrent. Unfuck yourself and put taste and assessment in different columns. This isn’t as hard as the Internet makes it look and I recommend it as it will invariably open up new avenues of experience. Don’t use the things you like to define you because they will, but only as a very boring person. Even if there is disagreement, say 99% of the population thinks blue tones are calming and 1% think they’re agitating, then pick the technique to appeal to the audience you wish to reach and assess a film with things like that in mind. Critique creates the Lego bricks; build what you want with them.


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