Some constructive criticism of criticism

Every time I have an opinion about a creative work, I feel a twinge of guilt. Who am I, humble moviegoer, to pass judgement on the product of someone else’s hard work and sweat? Could I make something better? No? Then shut up!

From one perspective, you should never criticize anyone ever because you aren’t saying anything useful and you probably couldn’t make something better.

But is that the best way to behave? Can I really believe that criticism is all bad because what is being said isn’t useful? Or that if you aren’t better at the thing being critiqued, that you are allowed no opinion? I disagree with the first assertion on a couple of grounds and think the second is mostly irrelevant.

This article is concerning consumer criticism, not the academic criticism many students will be equally familiar with, though I think a few of the points apply to both.

The first problem I have is with what I’ll call the practicality issue, that criticism is useless.

Simply put, critiques of works of art, be they movies, visual art, literature, etc., are useful to consumers just as long as they provide information about the works themselves, without the consumer having to experience them directly.

Simply put, reading a couple of articles about Jurassic World and seeing a 3.5 star rating might convince you to go see it, as it’s probably not terrible if the writer made compelling arguments in favor of the movie that you agree with. Criticism can be a reviewing tool, and most people like to know what they’re getting into before dropping $25 (after ticket and snacks) on a movie. The magazine Consumer Reports is a great example of the pure utility of reviewing as a way of informing the public about what they consume.

The second point, the “If you can’t do it better, don’t comment” argument, doesn’t convince me because it implies that critique can add nothing to the cultural conversation. I believe that good critiquing is adding something new to the conversation, a different perspective.

It’s a bit tricky to word, so I’ll let someone way smarter (and deader, incidentally) than I am explain it. Oscar Wilde speaks of critics in his preface to Picture of Dorian Gray. He concisely explains that “the critic is he [or she] who can translate into another manner or a new material his [or her] impression of beautiful things.” If a critic can dazzle you with the value and beauty she experienced in watching Killer Klowns from Outer Space, then that critic has done a service to you, because the critic translated the beauty she saw in a way that you can now see. Your eyes have been opened to a new color of understanding that you couldn’t see before. This is critique done well.

This is not to say all critics are contributing good content. The worst of them find faults in every place they can, regardless of the work, examining only the lowest points of any film or book and ignoring the high points.

As Wilde goes further to say, “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.” These are the critics who don’t try to say anything new or insightful about a work and contribute nothing but scar tissue to the cultural body.

When I review a TV show, I hope that I’m giving readers a new perspective on something without removing their ability to have their own opinions on it. Reviews should contribute positively to the conversation orbiting a creative product, not detract from it or distract from it.

Whether the review convinces a consumer to experience a particular work or that consumer has already seen it and strongly disagrees with the critique, the hope is that the review forces them to think of the creative product a little differently and hopefully, with a more open mind.

I don’t think there is a strong argument against criticism as a whole. No one likes being criticized unfairly, and those who take cheap shots should certainly be called out for it. But the ability to expose love and beauty expressed in a work of art in a way that others can understand it is something that society will always need.