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The Debate About Criticism Flares Again

I so entirely disagreed with Lee Siegel’s piece on criticism last September, posted on The New Yorker website, that I ignored it, unwilling to give it more atttention. But the subject — he argued that negative criticism was bad (“I intend never to write a negative book review again”) in this day and age — keeps popping up. Siegel wrote:

Critics-PR…We now live in a critical age, liberating and discombobulating, where everything is allowed but nothing is permitted to take root in a deep or lasting way. Yet even our rapidly proliferating criticism has started to be outpaced by creation—or at least by innovation, in the way that technology is shaping the way we write, think, and disseminate our writing and our thoughts to other people. That inspiring, devouring, confounding breathless flux is the source of our modest and generous criticism.

Applying old standards to a time when everyone is throwing everything they can at the proverbial wall to see what sticks is like printing out a tweet, putting it in an envelope, and sending it to someone through the mail. The very fact that reading and writing are in jeopardy, or simply evolving, means that to try to put the brakes of old criteria on a changing situation is going to be either obstructive or boring. …

Etc. Better, he said, to ignore bad books and, presumably, bad art, bad opera, etc.

I had already taken the opposite view, writing here in February, 2012 — in response to the same opinion piece in The New York Times that prompted Siegel to write — that the art world needed more, not less, “learned, thoughtful, well-argued” negative reviews. There’s too much herd mentality among art critics today.

In the last few weeks, I received reinforcement. The Feb. 16 issue of the Times’s Book Review section, published two opinions that disagreed with Siegel, too. Granted, they are speak books, but the sense is the same for art.

Here’s Francine Prose:

…It depresses me to see talented writers figuring out they can phone it in, and that no one will know the difference. I’m annoyed by gossip masquerading as biography, by egomaniacal boasting and name-dropping passing as memoir. It irks me to see characters who are compendiums of clichés. …writing a negative review feels like being the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Few of us remember how the tale ends: The child cries out that the emperor is naked, which the emperor knows, but the procession continues anyway, “stiffer than ever.” This might cast some doubt on the efficacy — the point — of the negative review, but it also casts some light on the child in the story, who isn’t necessarily trying to expose the dishonest weavers or the hypocritical courtiers or oblige the emperor to get dressed. He just can’t help telling what he believes is the truth.

And here is Zoe Heller:

…most writers do not write merely, or even principally, to escape from or console themselves. They write for other people. They write to have an effect, to elicit a reaction. That is why they scrap and struggle, often for years, to have their work published. Being sentient creatures, they are often distressed by what critics have to say about their work. Yet they accept with varying degrees of resignation that they are not kindergartners bringing home their first potato prints for the admiration of their parents, but grown-ups who have chosen to present their work in the public arena. …

…It is a mistake, then, to characterize the debate about bad reviews as a contest between humane impulses and coldhearted snark. Banning “negativity” is not just bad for the culture; it is unfair to authors.

It’s sometimes hard to write negatively and sensitively, but that is the job of the critic. They — that’s the key, because there’s rarely one critic — need to get on with it.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Paris Review


  1. abigail says:

    In a word: Brava.

  2. jim vankirk says:

    They will always be a plce for thoughtful well intentioned criticism, although in this contemporary world no-one will be reading it.
    The question really is whether Post-Post is the equivalent of Ab-Ex or of Syncromy movements.

  3. I don’t pay much attention to the critics. Over the past 45 years I have heard all sorts of criticism about my photography…

    “I don’t like color.”
    “I don’t like BW.”
    “I don’t like HDR.”
    “I don’t selective color.”
    “I don’t like diffusion.”
    “I don’t like Hyper-Real, it is too cartoonish.”
    “Your photos are too contrasty.”
    “Your photos are too grainy.”
    “Why don’t you take pictures of something pretty like flowers or a sunset instead of those ugly things.”
    “Your trying to make something out of nothing.”
    “Your photos are too sensational.”
    “Don’t photograph the homeless.”
    “Don’t photograph kids without their parents permission.”
    “I find photos of people boring.”
    “Your not a good photographer.”
    ‘Your exploiting the homeless.”
    ‘Your photograph does not work.”
    “I don’t like flower photographs they are boring.”
    “I don’t understand what were you trying to say?”
    “Digital photography is not real photography.”
    “You work is not museum worthy.”
    “Your work is over processed.”
    “Don’t take pictures of people in public without their permission.”
    “Don’t photograph anorexics.”
    “Cover up her breasts.”
    “Your photos are staged.”
    “I don’t like your photo because it leaves nothing for the imagination.”
    “Your photography is vernacular.”
    “You should trash that photo.”
    “I don’t like fisheye photos.”
    “I don’t like wide-angle distortion.”
    “Don’t send unsolicited photos to museums.”
    “She (the person in the photo) is a drunk…she is fat…she is an attention whore…she needs to go to the gym…she is trailer trash.”
    “Your self-centered”
    ‘Your self-absorbed”
    ‘Your inconsiderate”
    “Your a phony…your all talk…you don’t know how to take photographs.” (When I don’t send in any photos to the forums.)
    “Your a troll…your looking for attention…your trying to boost your website traffic…your an egomaniac.” (When I do send in photos to the forums.)
    “Your goofy”

    As an artist, you first must master the basics. Once you are comfortable with your skill set, you have to learn to trust your own instincts. If you can’t trust your own instincts, then you must follow the critics and do your art for the critics and not for yourself.

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