A word about criticism.
Criticism is a necessary fact of life. It is required to regulate a democracy and ensure that the actions of empowered individuals and bodies are scrutinised against a consensus. Politicians, as elected representatives of millions of people, invite criticism for their conduct. So too may anyone who holds influence significant enough to palpably affect the lives of others – religious leaders and their espoused doctrines, captains of industry, health service officials – these people and others like them are rightly open to the strongest criticism, particularly from those whose lives they may affect.
Such a statement is obviously true, and it is a premise which provides a certain lubrication to the mechanics of society.
But where I feel the outlines defining the function of criticism start to become distinctly blurred, and also where the opinions of each self-appointed critic hit new heights of vitriol is, rather bizarrely, in the criticism of art. And it is something that we are all not only capable of, but have been guilty of at some point in our lives. I’m sure even you, dear reader, can distinctly remember a specific occasion in which a piece of music, television, film, theatre or art has stirred such a hurricane of negative feeling within you such as to condemn those responsible for its creation to an eternity of suffering and damnation for the incomprehensible sin of unleashing such an abomination upon the world and therefore even creating the possibility that you might one day have to sit through it. “Miss Y created artwork X. I hate artwork X. I therefore hate Miss Y and wish nothing but pain and misfortune upon her”.
This, I would like to suggest, is demonstrative of a cavernous moral blind spot. Not only this, but such opinions are far more telling of the person making them than of anything to do with artwork X, or Miss Y.
There are people in the world participating in acts of unimaginable evil, specifically designed to cause suffering and pain to innocent people. There are corrupt governments, liars, cheaters, rapists and murderers, all doing so to further their own agendas at cost to others. Then, by contrast, there are people who feel compelled to create works of pure self-expression through utterly peaceful means, harming no-one in the process of merely attempting to put their little stamp on the world. “Miss Y waz ‘ere”. It only takes a quick glimpse through some of the comments on your favourite YouTube videos however to see that the strength of negative feeling directed towards these two groups is very often analogous. Why exactly should this be? What does it say about us that we should think in such terms about those who dare to present their work to the world? And please, don’t pretend you have not been guilty of it in the past. You know you have. I know I have. It’s an ugly facet of the human condition that is hidden deep beneath our subconscious, but when examined most likely reveals very ugly truths about the individual making such remarks, or even thinking such things in the first place, whether expressed or not.
The distinction however, should be between those who realise it and therefore make attempts to intellectualise it and use it to increase self-awareness and therefore become a better person and a clearer thinker, and those whose thought process grinds to a halt at “I hate artwork X and I hate Miss Y”, and who then take the opportunity to express such tedious and inconsequential opinions to the rest of the world, these days through the instantly yet superficially gratifying and undeniably faceless medium of the internet. The internet has indeed been an astonishing revolution in bringing the power of communication en mass to the global civilisation, but yet where it gives with one hand, it takes with the other, for it instils ill-conceived empowerment in each and every one of us to act as critic to every piece of honest personal expression we stumble across in our daily cyber lives. We have the power to actively humiliate each other within the context of a wider audience, and it is an activity many people seem to revel in at every available opportunity, with deeply unsubstantiated claims about how “shit” a particular piece of work is. Such a sentiment is no more than baffling, since it totally neglects the innate narrow-mindedness of the human individual that generates such biases, not to mention the distinct failing of humanity in favour of caressing one’s own ego. It’s easy to forget that there is a real person with a real emotional investment on the other end of your ill-considered words. We wouldn’t for example stand out on the street outside Miss Y’s art exhibition shouting “Miss Y is shit” through a megaphone at passing members of the public. It’s curious that people are so readily able to perform the equivalent act online. Why do you suppose this is?
The problem ultimately begins within the critic themselves, that is to say, each and every one of us. We all have the misfortune of observing the world through the blinkers of our own minds. Well-trodden neural pathways instil an innate bias in us that gives no one of us an authority over someone else’s work than we have to describe another person’s experience of seeing the colour red. It is a purely subjective phenomenon. This is because we are inherently unable to empathise with the thought process and emotional journey that led to that piece of work being created in the first place. Let’s say a guitarist sat up late one night, feeling considerable emotional pain regarding some personal issue, and chose to use her guitar as an outlet for this. She closes her eyes and allows the feeling to pour from her fingers into the strings and subsequently into the surrounding air particles. It is a beautiful process of energy transference from the very core of her tortured being into the air that surrounds her. Music falls from her subconscious and the beginning of a song is born. The next day she takes this embryonic material to her rehearsal session where she re-performs what she had previously extracted from her soul. The band connect over this and begin jamming to it, each member understanding each other on a profound level, connecting over the shared experience of creating something new, and enjoying the immense satisfaction that is gleamed from doing so. The song is worked into a structure, lyrics are written by the singer who poetically conveys her dark inner feelings and a new song is created. A pure expression of a genuine feeling, and a description of a beautiful, healthy process that speaks of individuals united. Somewhere down the line the song is recorded and sent to a reviewer for an opinion that will hopefully increase the artist’s chances of being able to undergo the cathartic process again in the future, with the support of a growing audience. With baited breath the artist opens her inbox one day.
“This is shit”.
And with that, all the honesty and emotion that the artist had poured into her work is at once undermined. A process abundant with such beauty and integrity, regardless of the musical underpinnings from which it emerged in her subconscious, is trampled upon. Who can we say is the person lacking understanding in this scenario? Who is lacking insight? And is it right for an artist who is guilty only of expressing something so personal to be insulted in this way? What kind of person must you be to feel that you have a right to offend someone in this manner?
All a critic can really do – if we are to accept that criticism can have a legitimate function free from the considerable bounds of a knee jerk reaction based upon a neural underpinning of which there is very little conscious awareness – all we can do as every one of us a critic, is adopt a scientific approach in our analysis of other peoples’ hard work. It is the only fair way to describe to an audience the relative success of a piece of material with reference to the intentions of the artist. It is a simple process – Miss Y seeks to achieve objective Z, she therefore creates artwork X. Now, where should the focus of criticism be? Well, how successful was Miss Y in achieving objective Z with artwork X? In our previous example, our guitarist’s objective was to express her personal feelings through her music, and then offer it to another in the hope that they may be empathetic to the emotional journey she had taken, such that it could connect with another soul and ultimately help her pursue a career in which she can continue the process. The subject’s musicality, or its place within the context of the current cultural landscape may still be scrutinised, but not without maintaining respect of the fact that this artwork really means something to the person who created it. Anything else is an analysis based upon a scientific method; an analysis of results with reference to hypothesis.
Yes, we are all free to have and express personal reflections on what someone has created as a catalyst to the emotional response that arises within us, but it is nevertheless critical that we each acknowledge that it is an emotional response unique to the individual, and ultimately talks only of our own subjective experience rather than the work that we are responding to. Uttering such banalities as “artwork X is shit”, speaks exclusively of the perceiver’s own summation of “shitness” based upon years of subjective experience filtered through a very particular set of neural programs, themselves subject to an overwhelming myriad of environmental factors, the extent or weight of which can never be truly realised by the perceiver, but whose influence, combined with certain preconceptions about him/herself and the validation of their place in the world, congressed to initiate the process of vomiting the words “artwork X is shit” from their mouth or fingertips. In fact, the most that the phrase “artwork X is shit” can possibly mean to the artist is “I am clearly not the right person to be reviewing this”.
Criticism as I see it should be as just and unbiased a reflection on a work as is possible for the human mind to conjure. It should not be an attempt at personal slander via the indulgence of an initial emotional response to something without any attempt to understand the intent, method, or relative outcome. To do so is crass, lazy, hurtful, unnecessary and steeped in personal insecurity. Hatred is rife in the world. Surely humankind would do well to refrain from transparent attempts to achieve peer validation by undermining others and their work?
If this particular piece of hearsay is correct, then I am to believe that John Peel once made a profound statement regarding this very topic. He said (as paraphrased by Steve Albini), “when I get a record from somebody and I don’t like it, I assume that it’s my problem and that the band would not have made that record if there wasn’t something valuable about it”. This is a rare admission that an artist’s work not being to your taste highlights your own misunderstanding of what that artist is trying to achieve, and the satisfaction they garner through the process of creating it. And that is a line of thinking so profoundly absent from the droves of pseudo web journalists out there, each offering a critique of people’s work by way of labelling it “shit” as if such a lapse in critical thinking and journalistic expression could actually convey anything worth reading to any audience. Such a person shows a failure of empathy, intelligence, literacy and critical faculties of such contemptuous proportions that they succeed only in demonstrating their own shortcomings and insecurities. Yes, by all means point out that a piece of music may fail to meet the artist’s objectives as you see it, and by all means justify your reasoning based on your particular experience. But go online and declare to the world that something is “shit” at your peril, because to do so is to present yourself as an intellectual and social ignoramus.
Because the phrase “this is shit” is actually a code. And it does not take a degree in psychology to decode it. If you are the kind of person that likes to throw contempt at those trying to peacefully create work and exhibit it to others via fatuous reviews, forum comments, YouTube comments, or any other such medium, please know that this is what you are actually saying:
“This is shit” =
“I wish to assert my dominance over you. I take the submission of your artwork as an invitation to do so. I therefore look down upon you because it accredits me with a sense of validation for my existence and my opinions, whilst demonstrating to my pack that I am a dominant player deserving of respect, and to the opposite gender that I am a person of strong will and conviction and therefore a good choice for a mate. The fact that I feel compelled to attain these things, particularly through such means, does however ultimately demonstrate deep seated insecurities about me about which I am not directly aware. I consequently have problems with empathy and am unable to realise my own shortcomings and therefore prove myself to be a person of extremely limited intellectual and emotional insight. I am however glad I have the internet to use as an outlet for my insecurities because it allows me to create a persona for myself that differs considerably from my treatment of people in real life. All I really want is love and respect, and I’m afraid to die.”