The Importance of being Critical of Art

Art in all of its forms is paramount in the cultural evolution of society. In its most basic sense, art is a means to influence the emotional state of those who are observing it. Knowing this, it is important to recognize that, during the emotional impetus that art often puts us in, reflection and critical thought is of the utmost importance to maintain a clear vision of understanding those emotions; whether we, in a calm state, still remain affected by messages received or have slipped the mind noose that so often strangles the rational brain in the throngs of passion.

While these concepts could be said for any art form, I will be focusing on them primarily through the aspect of storytelling whether they appear in song, drama, and literature. While these do not completely encompass the huge umbrella classification we call ‘Art,’ it certainly does cover a gamut of topics that are popular culturally today. More important still is the fact that each of these art forms has an industry attached to it that have, one by one, begun to deteriorate through the decentralizing agency of individuals on the internet. With that, the market is being flooded with more and more than our culture has in its history. It is unprecedented and completely overwhelming. This makes the general public’s criticism all the more important: to help filter to audiences that which they are most interested in consuming – what the industry gate keepers used to do twenty years ago.

There is another reason to be critical of art: one more important than the market driven, word of mouth marketing mentioned above. This is not the role of the art critic who reviews the newest album of a band you might be interested in or the critic who likes the same kinds of movies as you; this is the job of every individual consumer – to judge art not only on its emotional effectiveness and whether or not the message contained therein is of meaningful value to our experience.

 

So how do we accomplish this?

 

  1. Stop being a passive receptor.

 

This is the most important and the only place to start. Television and the constant bombardment of noise from all around us has desensitized us to art. This is more problematic than first realized because of the nature of human consumption of art which relies heavily on the idea of novelty – things that are odd or outside of the norm. This is where we push the envelope and become ‘edgy.’ It’s very important that art does this as to not stagnate and keep generating interest from audiences, both new and returning. This breaks things down when we become passive. A passive listener lets art wash over them like a wave and allows their emotions to crest and trough without actually considering what messages they are associating with the emotions that are waring within so primally.

This is something Huxsley wrote in A Brave New World – as our consumption of information becomes overwhelming to the point of desensitivity we are forced to become passive audiences and allow our subconscious to filter the information. We only become aware of these subconscious filters from the automated reactions of our emotions. While many people may feel this way about news and information gathered from social media the same is true for art.

 

  1. Being critical creates community.

 

Community by its very nature is exclusive. Human beings want to associate with people who have the same values and ideas about the world that they themselves have. Real connection comes from stepping outside of the niceties and small talk and stepping into the real depth that storytelling provides. My favorite date with my wife is going to community theater, spending an hour or two in silence watching the events unfold then spending the next three to four hours (sometimes days) afterwards deconstructing the work as a whole – what worked, what didn’t, the performance over all, the writing coherency, and many other things that may seem tedious and unnecessary. This is in fact something my wife and I did on our very first date without knowing each other what-so-ever. It gave us a medium to talk about our perspective, our ideas, how the world works, our dreams, our view of family… I could go on.

 

  1. Being critical encourages better art.

 

This is true of everything. The more you practice a particular activity, the better you become; the caveat is that without legitimate feedback, artists are susceptible to the echo chamber effect – the notion that only encountering the same ideology sterilizes discourse and output becomes homogenous. Being challenged by criticism is a good thing for storytellers who must then question their own reasoning. It can become a healthy cycle: storytellers challenge their audience through situational empathy and audiences then challenge the storyteller’s motives, method and philosophy in the telling.

 

Now how do we do it?

 

One of the things I find most important is to recognize your filter. I filter the world through my values, my biases, my family, and my experiences – your filter will look different from mine. The importance of this is in the necessary function of criticism which is that it involves more than one person. By identifying your own filter, you are more able to empathize and relate to the person with whom you are sharing the criticism with which in turn creates a dialogue – the road over which we travel to achieve my three rules of being critical.

We often think of criticism as harsh words, domesticizing poor artists who were only trying to put forth their art into the world but were viciously smashed down by their critics, where they burrowed into a hole and never left again. This notion itself is a fear reaction – we wouldn’t want people to criticize our art because we would feel bad so we don’t want to criticize someone else’s. By the power of the internet and print media everywhere, this is a fear made real by our experience – our filter. This kind of criticism isn’t super high value to the artist themselves – it has more value to potential audience members.

Understand that comparisons are relative: good, bad, best, greatest are all subjective. Not only that but when someone claims that something is good or bad I like to follow up with, “Compared to what?”

I’ll use Metallica as an example. When Death Magnetic debuted at number 1 in 2008 critics rallied around the banner of Metallica as they had made a return to form. The issue is that these critics were comparing the album to their previous, St. Anger, which is widely considered the most hated metal album of all time. Suddenly Death Magnetic doesn’t look as great as it had. This is in many cases a subconscious comparison but if compared to their work from the 80’s it would be a hard sell to convince fans that the album was great compared to … And Justice for All.

The most important thing to do when consuming and criticizing art is to vote with your dollars. If you like something, pay for it. The only way for artists to legitimately see their effectiveness is through their wallets and whether you want to hurt them or help them, the only way to do that is with your money. It is so easy today to just download books, movies, and music for free without the social stigma of being called a thief.

 

But that is what you are.

 

Art is the great cultural engine that signals to the people who they are and where they are headed. It is our job to be critical of art especially because of our diversity. Being critical is how we remember that we are all different. The biggest mistake to avoid in art criticism is extracting the individual to the group: assuming that an individual artist’s ideas and views are representative of the entire group at large.

Remember that criticism between people is often constructive; it builds bridges. Not out of a mutual dislike for something but through common communication. A passive brain cannot digest artistic ideas enough to synthesize coherent thoughts. So stop binge watching Netflix and go talk to someone about what you’re consuming, if only so that you don’t get lost in the message. Art is meant to be discussed, to be criticized, to be enjoyed and as social creatures we need to enjoy it together.

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