Critical Art

Critical Art

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’re 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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