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 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 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)https://twitter.com/thehorrormaster/status/816486706186596352?lang=en 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.

The Problems

Writers who don’t know what they’re doing.

Much like how the inside of a building and the outside of a building are different places by virtue of the existence of walls, professions exist as discrete conceptual entities through the existence of defining barriers. Most of these barriers are in the form of esoteric skills, knowledges, and vocabularies if not ones directly created by professional guilds. I can’t say I’m a surgeon and be a surgeon because I can’t tell you what bits inside you are what and I sure as shit can’t fix any of ‘em. You can’t just say you’re a teacher then wander into a class and be one because there is a process one must go through to attain membership to a professional guild. Journalism was always a tad soft in this regard, and that softness wasn’t ready for the Internet (Some places (Google, for instance) still define it as relating to writing for some kind of publication, presumably as a means of maintaining some form of professional distinction. The American Press Institute, which has a rather good area dedicated to this, defines it as a process of, “gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information”. One distinguishes by place another by act, this is a whole thing of its own so I’ll leave it here but it’s an interesting topic). Imagine going for surgery and the room being filled with a bunch of differently dressed people screaming at each other about what bit has to be cut out. Welcome to citizen journalism!

There were legitimate problems with the old establishment methods, gatekeepers could decide what was and wasn’t news which invites the maintenance of subconscious biases if not the direct assertion of conscious ones, but humanity has a way of solving a problem of too much A by drowning itself in B. There’s a period when you are moving walls where you basically don’t have them and dimwits are running all over the place, that’s today, and the result is people saying they’re building you a sink when they’re actually installing a new toilet. Reviewers calling themselves critics is one of the bigger issues in people mistaking one for the other. People who do reviews are critics like a person who does the updates on an MLP shit fetish site are journalists: technically yes, but your presence in that group erodes the meaning you want it to have. It’s one of those little aspirational creep titles people give themselves because reviewer doesn’t sound as smart. Imagine aliens shot Earth with a laser that turned us all into genius mathematicians and then there were still people going around bragging about being a genius mathematician, it’s fucking sad. You’re the same dipshit you were when the walls were up as when they fell down.

So now reviews are being done by “critics” which blurs the subjective recommendation and objective exploration components. This stands out a bit in the blurring of the text interpretation and judgement parts of the review process, which is something I tend to see crop up amongst the vague yet definably extant “major” sites, and culminates in the largely pointless numerical rating. Critique should never have a numerical rating. 10/10 is fantastic for a review but goddamn meaningless for critique because it homogenises ideas that can’t be compared into a wildly oversimplified and obviously comparable digit. Are an adventure game’s 10 and a puzzle game’s 10 the same 10? No. Of course not. And doing this is exactly what triggers valueless whining. Critique gets lost in the “it’s just opinion” idea, and nobody learns how to really explore anything or deconstruct their own ideas.

This is why so much of the discussion around creativity is asinine, YouTube comment-grade shit. Reviewers calling themselves critics mistakenly use complicated tools designed for detailed explorations of elements of creative works to make broader statements about the overall quality and meaning of the work. I’m sure most of this is because the writer will have some actually interesting critical insight into a thing they’ve spent countless hours pondering on, but this is the toilet and the sink, do it somewhere else.

This is not to say that reviewers can’t also be critics, a surgeon can also be a plumber, but it actually does require you to do both things and preferably separately. It also doesn’t mean that critical points or ideas derived from critiques can’t be in review.

Critique in review.

The value of a review to the reader is dependent on how well they are able to understand the reviewer’s point of view and then test it against their own. Knowing what a reviewer thinks only matters when you understand how alike they are to your thinking. For instance: if a reviewer you hate hates a thing, what would normally be a warning becomes a recommendation. Outside of having a stated focus or area of expertise, a reviewer maximizes this value to their audience in two ways: building a body of work, and engaging critical theories and terminology to give depth to their points.

The former is easy. Consider any reviewer you know or like, one whose work you’ve seen plenty of, and you will probably be able to predict what they’ll like/not like or point out some tropes/style choices/whatever they tend to favour/hate. This gives you more points of relevance when measuring their opinion. For instance, if you share eight out of ten hypothetical judgement values with a reviewer and their review of something is negative because of the two things you disagree with them on, then you will probably still like the work in question.

It’s the latter where things start to get confused.

If you don’t know me from a bar of soap, my saying I liked the cinematography in Fury Road is fucking meaningless to you. If I’m some freelance potato pumping out content for the ever-hungry Internet, my audience can’t be expected to be aware of my prior writings and podcasts on cinematography so I fill the knowledge gap and word count with some of my sparkling critical insight.

Like the time my brother shit himself and I caught him washing his undies in the bathroom, this is not exactly shitting in the sink, but it does have a way of looking like it.

Critical ideas are important to review because they help create points of relevance for a reader. I like unnerving body horror, so if a reviewer makes special mention of a film’s use of male penetration fears in their monster design, that’s a far better recommendation for me than just saying that the monster is gross or scary. But, while a reviewer can and frequently should engage critical ideas in their reviews, they must not present what they are doing as critique as that’s mixing up the subjective with the objective.

A critique on male penetration fears in body horror that uses fMRI data and cross-cultural reports on disgust responses to explain what an effective tool they are, then expanding on this with examples, is using measurable goals and methods to build objectivity. It’s also going to be really goddamn long, and involve loads of talking about things which aren’t the film in question, which is why such ideas should be judiciously pruned down to the barest of mentions if they’re part of your review. It also sounds really interesting, write it instead of slapping bits of it awkwardly into your 2000-word top 10 horror article.

Readers who don’t know what they are doing.

Videogame journalism is entertainment journalism’s retarded cousin and entertainment journalism is already the retarded cousin of real journalism. Real journalism functions as a power check in a democratic society and affects you whether you are aware of it or not. Entertainment journalism only affects you if you’re invested in it in some way so its neutral position is meaninglessness. Nothing it does is important outside of you deciding it is.

If something means something to you, that’s enough. If someone doesn’t think that thing is good, it doesn’t take anything away from you. Any conversation between these two parties on a PLANET OF BILLIONS is fucking meaningless. You don’t need to skin your thing, wear it, and scream at people about how it’s great because that’s the behaviour of an insecure primate. This reaction tends to result from two things: the subjective/objective blur and the perception of authority a writer for a publication has. If someone’s doing the first, they’re making a mistake so you can ignore them. There’s millions of other reviewers so pick another and don’t waste your time whining. As for the second, someone’s authority over what you like needs to be real for it to matter. If your show has hired an insane person to be showrunner, that’s a real authority. Someone writing for a website has none, regardless of how many people click on them. There is no god. The walls have crumbled. If you’re squabbling with a gatekeeper, you’re an idiot. There is nobody with the power to take your hobby so seriously that it makes you better for liking it and if you whine about this, you’re an imbecile festooning themselves in hobbies and buzzwords in the hope that people mistake the neutral space for a personality. You have the capacity to make people famous so it can either be the people who make the things you like, or people you hate. Don’t waste your energy on a meaningless battle over imaginary territory.

There’s really zero reason to ever reply to a review but if you absolutely have to it can only be to point out a hard error. By this I mean something measurable, if I review a film and say it sucked because it took place on a Wednesday but it took place on a Tuesday, that’s a hard error. “So-and-so’s acting is wooden” is not, so shut up. Secondly, just don’t goddamn reply. Arguing with self-appointed gatekeepers merely validates them and their made up role. It’s the equivalent of arguing with an off-duty bouncer who hasn’t said anything to you while your friends are all inside the bar having fun. You’re the idiot. You win by walking passed them and ignoring them altogether because they don’t fucking matter.

Critique is different, you can absolutely reply, but it is also harder and it doesn’t happen in a comment section or tweet. Personally, I wouldn’t reply directly to the person in question as it’s not necessary. You can engage an idea without dragging the human into it which is a good way to avoid any sense of personal attack. When replying to critique, you have to be really specific about what your disagreement is because it has to be a point, not a feeling. This should prompt reflection on the hard why of why you like a thing. “I like it” is the inarguable whole, people like shit-dildos and vaginas full of pins for fuck’s sake. The Uni essay question is never, “Did you like Ulysses?” because the answer to that is monosyllabic and doesn’t teach us anything but how you feel. It’s “How does Joyce’s use of language interact with his narrative?” (or something along those lines) because now you are having to think a thing and actually back that up with reasons. We can explore these reasons, the things you’re measuring, and compare them with your evidence, the the measuring tools, and then learn meaningful things.

Personally, I’d seldom waste my time replying to others on actual matters of critique. Who the fuck are they? Write your thing, write it well, and your convincing points will be enough. Throwing bricks at someone else’s house doesn’t build yours.

Conclusion.

The last 20 years of text response growth, fuelled by the explosion of accessible publishing the Internet provides, has ended the synonymy of critique and review. Have a poke about Google Scholar (I can’t share any of my collection because holy shit the University frowns on that) then read a movie review on IGN or wherever and you’ll immediately see the difference. A reviewer can absolutely write critiques and they can absolutely add elements of their own or other critic’s ideas to their reviews, but a review is not a critique and if that’s all you write then that’s all you are (Or, you know, you can just be a person or a writer if you need a damn title that much).

Neither functions as a comment on you, the reader, and if I could hammer one thing into the Internet’s dense collective skull, that would be it. Like what you like, the only people with guilty pleasures are serial killers, paedophiles, and rapists. A review that doesn’t like the thing you like doesn’t matter. A critical point can be the same even if the personal tastes of the critic differ from yours. The disgust response triggered by the over the top violence in Ash vs the Evil Dead is the same for my mother and I but I enjoy it and she hates it. The end meaning is as personally unique and unquantifiable as the desire to head to Officeworks and buy more vagina pins.

If I want to watch something but I don’t know what, I find a top 100 horror movies or top 10 of 2016. If I want to understand more about the way horror movies accomplish their effects, I’ll read an academic article on it. If you want to help others find materials they may like, review it. If you want to talk about why a material is your favourite, deconstruct why and write a nice long piece about it. In short, don’t shit in the sink.

By Gabe.

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References   [ + ]

1. https://twitter.com/thehorrormaster/status/816486706186596352?lang=en

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