Art is no sacrosanct entity. Neither does it happen outside the discourse, it is part of it, that's the whole point of it. Art partakes in our lives, as much as we partake in art. Art is not just the thing produced, it is also the thing perceived. Without perception, art is nothing; it cannot yield its influence, cannot exert its spell on us. What we see, what we consume, is supposed to be seen, supposed to be consumed; otherwise, it would be dead, worthless, empty.
How do you consume art? How do you deal with it? Quietly, passively; or crying out loud, actively? Anything goes, and everyone's a critic. Some critics get paid, and get maximum exposure, for whatever reason. Others are hidden behind what they say, or even their entire rants may go unnoticed. Yet from what we can see, the voice of the formerly unseen is getting louder. Nowadays, it's much more probable that you'll have read a film review not from Mr. Ebert but rather from some nobody on the IMDb or on Amazon or related sites, or on their personal web sites. Unpaid, but available, the availability of utterances making it increasingly unimportant what Mr. Ebert says, how many thumbs he may be holding up or down. The decision to watch a movie or not may more and more be dictated or guided by the ominous number of stars attributed by hundreds of voters and averaged to give the IMDb visitor a balanced account; truly democratic: One voice, one vote, regardless what background or salary may be lurking in the anonymity of the voter.
Reviews visible on the net can of course be situated within the widest range of opinions and so-called quality as possible, and on whatever subject, also widening the scope of what you may consider art or not. Defining things isn't anymore restricted to some sacred authority, it can by done by each and every single netizen. Depending on how elitist you are, you may either find that exhilarating or disastrous. Be that as it may, it still is a fact (though that may be a very tricky word), and the situation's going to stay that way, or even more so, going faster in the already determined direction.
What then is the job of such a reviewer? How do you reflect on such a subject if anyone is able to do it? As with anything situated in a post-modern frame of mind, the answer is: with greater subjectivity. With the relativizing of the individual and the disappearance of the genius author, all attempts at faked objectivity can only be countered by a new insistence on subjectivity.
The discourse is too vast and too predatory to allow for the luxury of anonymity. In former days, and somehow still today, the discourse was forcibly categorized and censored by dictators of style and canonization. It was genius-critics like F.O. Matthiessen who defined who would belong to the American Renaissance (namely the male and comparatively rather obscurely read genius writers Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau and Whitman) and who didn't (female successful writers derided as sentimental, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, a rather tricky case due to the influence of her opus magnum). Farther back in time, it was Medieval monks who decided what of pagan classic literature was worth copying and thus preserving. Still today, there are states or lobbies who claim for themselves the right to know best what the public ought to read and hear and see.
Latter societies, like Iran and China, or sub-cultures, like the religious right and certain well-known sects, are the best indicator for what has changed with the advent of the internet: They either demand or exert censorship of internet or other content. Tyranneis today perform a new form of book burning, they restrict the access to certain internet servers and sites; freedom of information, and much more, of opinion, being the most dangerous liberty to them. While knowledge may be power, knowledge is also rooted in perception, in opinion. The evaluation of things, and the making public of such evaluations, has become something of a new power today due to its being widely available.
What is this criticizing about? What are you supposed to write? What is the reviewer supposed to comment on? Is he supposed to be objective? Benevolent? Malevolent? Entirely subjective? There are no rules. Rules only apply to those who publish their rants for a living, who are dependent upon the benevolence of their employer. Most internet reviewers don't share these restrictions. They may not be making any money by describing their experiences as consumers of a certain product, but still, they can be read, and many of them are read indeed.
Criticizing is a very tricky thing, perhaps a very stupid one even. Mostly, it tells less about the work under discussion than about yourself, your own categories of thinking and seeing things. That's true even for academic criticism. Though the degree of attempted objectivity may be higher, it's still personal preferences and personal history that determine the outlook on a certain subject matter. That's something we should all be very clear about: Both the reader and the writer of criticism must be aware of the degree of subjectivity and construction in a review. No review can be entirely true to the product it tries to analyze. We don't interpret the world, we interpret ourselves, and the impact the world is having on us.
Once we've accepted that, a review can again be a piece of constructive work: As long as we are aware of the subjectivity at play, we may be able to at least put the authority of the text into perspective. Objectivity can then be re-constructed - on some provisional basis - from some weighed analysis of a greater number of reviews: All of them can be treated like normal scientific data, the higher the number of reviews at hand, the more probably we may arrive at some objective account. We still need to ask about certain premises. Is the number of reviews representative for the entire audience, and for the entire population? Here we get to a certain dilemma: Who consumes what, doesn't this make any averaging impossible? For example, lots of Star Wars fans will be voting for Star Wars movies, constituting the bulk of the reviews and votes, and thus very probably influencing the tendency of the vote. On the other hand, who watches a so-called art film? Are both target groups the same, do they look at and for the same things? Probably not. It may help to check what a specific person wrote on another film, and to establish some grounds for putting that person's writing into its subjective context. All of that will also be valid for other art forms, I'm just taking audiovisual media as an example - that's my very own subjective context.
What do we make of this? Everybody's a critic, potentially, but not every review is supposed to fulfill the same purpose. Though lots of people may have watched the same movie, they won't probably share the same responses. They consume the same, it seems, but reflect on it differently; even more so, through their different reflection, they may not even consume the same: They watch the same thing, yet see differently. But they are now enabled to easily publicize their reflections, creating a new genre of review even: The layman's rant, so to say. Laity, and I don't mean that in a condescending way, is on the rise, it's competing with paid-for content. (That's also a severe problem for so-called internet portal sites trying to establish paid-for content services).
So what are we supposed to write about? Reduced to the absolutely banal minimalist approach, we reflect upon what we have consumed. We may either want to praise something, possibly even defend it against what we construe as unjustified criticism, or we may want to consequently bash and destroy it. That's the non-academic perspective. Academic criticism has a different agenda: It tries to analyze a piece of culture regardless to how the critic may feel about the overall quality, message, feeling etc. of it, thus attempting to make transparent what has formerly been obscured, to unfold and decode what has been enfolded and coded. Such an approach is believed to capture specific trends and problems relevant to our culture. Whether a film is good or bad remains irrelevant under such a scope.
The existence of a critic is a strange thing. In a certain way, a critic can be understood as a scavenger, a vampire, feeding on material not their own, exploiting other people's work and perhaps even making a profit of it. Or you could also quote the famous saying, those who do, do, those who can't do, teach (or criticize). That's all true.
However, without the work of the critic, culture remains a mask, a codified entity that may - unbeknownst to the innocent observer - transport something that is declared as a depiction of reality while being artificial in stead. The critic is supposed to focus attention on specific details, and - so to say - explain what it's all about. Criticism may feed off culture, yet it can also bring culture to a higher level by exposing its weaknesses and problems and demanding for constant improvement.
Still, there remains a certain discrepancy between the position of the artist and that of the critic. Both positions are mostly situated at the opposing ends, they are each other's antitheses, and what one can do, the other can't. That constitutes a highly severe dilemma: Where there should be cooperation, there is enmity or at least misunderstanding. The critic always stands in the shadow of the artist, while assuming to nevertheless inhabit an intellectually superior position. Vice versa, the artist may believe to know their stuff best, but seems disturbed and misunderstood by the critic.
Personally, I strongly detest this disharmony. There's a certain dysfunctionality in such a dichotomy; as much as a great deal of potential is lost to pissing contests. Some things you just can't say in an essay or paper, you need other forms of expression. Other things are better made clear and transparent instead of being coded into a piece of art. Also, I feel the need to justify my performing academic and non-academic criticism by creating art myself, while my background in cultural criticism provides me with additional perspectives and some tools to make my art hopefully more effective and transparent. Attempting to walk in both worlds may seem rather difficult if not utterly impossible, but still, I believe in unity, it's always productive to understand both sides.
Who do you think you are - that may perhaps be the central conflict. But it's irrelevant, and it's a nonsense question posed to either artist or critic, however experienced or recognized. How shall we deal with art? In whatever manner we want. It's not sacrosanct, it's a form of human expression, and can be subjected to even the most radical reflection and variation. That's the most honest approach, and the most (de)constructive one.
August 3rd, 2002
(This article has also been posted at THE ARTS CIRCLE).