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Criticizing Critiques (Again)

Three cheers for not being cheerful!

This post addresses my reaction to an otherwise fabulous analysis of the differences between critique and criticism. You should read that post first.

One element jumped out and grabbed me by the grumblies: the proposition that only kind, positively-voiced critiques are objective and honest ones.

I disagree. My own thoughtful, evaluation of the words critique & criticism leads me to assign a slightly different division of labor. In my world, a good critique can list lacks and areas that could be changed or improved. In fact, I think it should. Sharing dislikes as well as likes does not a criticism make, in my ever so humble opinion.

Now, here’s a complication. Disagreement is the act of voicing a negative opinion. Does that automatically make this whole post a criticism and not a critique? Or is there more to the picture than a binary split? Is disagreement necessarily negative, with all the pejorative, harmful baggage that adjective carries? The brightsiders say so. (spoiler alert: I disagree) Or is the current trend of conflating all conflict with harmful hostility at work here? (hint: I think so, yes)

Let’s take a closer look at my statement: I make an honest, detailed evaluation based on definitions and common usage, focusing on the work, not the author…those sure look like critique elements as described in the article. But, wait. My tone could be considered sarcastic. Sarcasm = criticism. But wait, sarcasm is a form of humor, and critiques use humor to soften presentation…

Yeah. Complicated. Which is my point. Here are three more:

First, no objective, analytical, detailed evaluation of a structure will always result in a list composed solely of positives. Ask any building inspector.

Second, an analysis of structure that only focuses on what’s working will never lead to improvement in what isn’t working. I could say ask any building inspector again, but I like a pithier analogy: focusing only on the parts of a creative work already worthy of praise is like looking for a lost wallet under a streetlight because the light is better there. It helps no one find the reward still hidden somewhere in the darkness.

Third, no critique can ever be fully objective. To critique is to offer an opinion, and that will never be anything more than a single impression, based on personal experience and a more-or-less shared set of beliefs about what kind of techniques and topics have value and so on.  More or less leaves a lot of wiggle room for disagreement on premise. Expectations and experience are a huge tripping zones too. In analyzing matters of art, as opposed to matters of data, there is no One Right Idea, only popular and unpopular ones.

I can present an educated, thoughtful, analysis-based evaluation of something and still be offering a radical minority report. (like or dislike)  A corollary to that: disliking something is not inherently disrespecting it, and it certainly has no bearing on my respect for the person who made it. And therein lies the crux of good critique.

One can be honest about what one dislikes without being cruel.  One can respect a person but not like their art. And if it’s a critique, which is offering opinions of art-in-progress, then honesty will remain my policy. To offer anything less than the whole picture as I see it would be disrespectful to the artist.

I emphasize the “as I see it” because as I stated earlier, valid viewpoints can differ. A last important point: in the end, those who offer up critiques or criticisms are like the Goblin King in Labyrinth; we have no power over creators. My opinion is not a threat even if it comes to the party naked and ugly.  As long as I dress it up in decent clothes, it should be allowed to attend and sip its drink in peace. Asking it to stay home or wear a mask if it isn’t pretty…I won’t do that.

Here’s another analogy, because I love me some metaphor goodness: kindness and honesty aren’t oil and water, but they are like oil and egg. In the right proportions, with good seasonings, delicious dressings result. In the wrong mix, everyone ends up wishing they’d skipped the salad altogether.

Now. Was this post a critique or a criticism of the “only kind critiques are good critiques” argument? In the final analysis, I don’t really care. If it provides anyone with any insight on how to present artistic analysis to others, that’s reward enough.

You can disagree. It’s all good.

By K. M. Herkes

Author, gardener, and cat wrangler.

2 replies on “Criticizing Critiques (Again)”

Exactly. The whole movement to remove value judgment (criticism) from critiquing erodes the foundation of the feedback process. If diplomacy is the art of telling someone to go to hell and make them look forward to the trip, criticism is the art of telling someone about flaws in a way that makes them look forward to improving.

I do grasp the concept of framing opinions so the input doesn’t become a crushing weight. A beginner asking, “Is this any good?” deserves an encouraging answer regardless of content quality. Period. But when someone says, “I want to sell this, what do you think?” the implication is that I should judge it by my standards of “Would I pay money for it?” and I will adjust my feedback to reflect that.

If my answer is appropriately phrased and as objectively presented as possible, it’s a critique. Even if I disagree with the whole rest of the wide world on how “good” the work is.

There’s a saying that reads, “Everyone wants my honest opinion until I give it. Then I’m an asshole.” It, confuses content with delivery. I’m an asshole if I deliver any opinion –honest or not –in a mean-spirited way. (And if someone calls my delivery asshole-ish, isn’t that a valid critique of my delivery? Hmmm. Wow that gets messy fast.)

Honesty isn’t the enemy. I really do wish people would stop treating it as one.

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