Critics vs Haters, Or, Why The World Needs More Real Criticism
Commonplace Newsletter #57
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If I was forced by threat of violence to offer an unpopular opinion, in the annoying way that is popular on social media, I would say this: critics are important, they are underrated and we need more of them.
Allow me to explain…
Critics and Algorithms
The waters have become muddied. What we call critics have become synonymous with what we call haters. A hater is someone who sneers, someone who ‘dunks’ on things in the hope of drawing some attention from the mob. A hater assesses things in bad faith and often with a preconceived agenda or at least a completely uncharitable spirit. The hater has made up their mind in advance, they have a core of things they like (often out of all proportion to their merits) and everything else is fair game to be mocked, vilified, shat on.
What a terrible way to go through life.
But a critic- not one who merely criticises, but a true critic- is a different beast. Yes they may dislike certain art and certain artists with a passion, but they are not hateful. They want to be moved, they want to have profound aesthetic experiences, they want to champion new and different things they discover, if said works are sufficiently powerful, skilful and moving.
They may have become cynical and jaded as a product of years of imbibing lazy and reductive Monoculture pap, but they want to believe. They want to feel. They believe still, in spite of it all, in the redemptive power of art.
Because ultimately it’s not about them, it’s about the art itself. Yes, they may have an idiosyncratic vision of what makes art great, they may have their own foibles and predilections, they may have a forceful and caustic critical voice, but this is often merely a means to coax their audience into branching out and giving more esoteric and challenging art a go. Their anger, wit, eloquence, knowledge and the force of their personality is all marshalled towards the greater good of shining a light and serving the culture.
And in an age of algorithms and metrics they are on the decline. And more’s the pity.
Because we need critics.
Recommendation algorithms are simultaneously ultra-precise yet also shockingly blunt instruments. They round of the edges of the personality. Looking at my record collection, my DVD folder you find many things that don’t go with each other. You wouldn’t expect someone who likes genre X to also have works from genre Y. They don’t compute algorithmically. This is because I am human subject to taste and whim, and also to being swayed by the opinions of human critics and human friends. I may give something outside of my wheelhouse a chance based on the recommenders enthusiasm, or because I trust them. And thus my horizons broaden.
With the algorithms, the opposite happens. You’re artistic world narrows and codifies. You become wedded to ever subtler graduations of sub genres while the whole world of cool stuff that could be for you passes you buy.
Critical voices reverse this reversion to what you are fully comfortable with.
Misplaced Critical Energy
And it gets worse, I’m sad to say.
See, those who have the critical instincts, the critical gifts for expositing, contextualising, and championing have migrated to venues such as YouTube. And on YouTube they (in my opinion) waste their faculties by (over)analysing top-down Old World fare such as the CGI-laden product out out by companies such as Marvel and Disney.
(I use that word ‘product’ very deliberately. Because these films are production line revenue generating vehicles. They are assembled as opposed to being the endgame- sorry- of an artists vision. This is why they blur into one. They are devoid of risk and risk, to my mind, is one of the key distinguishes of art. Art is risk. This is why, incidentally, it is possible to talk of the art of business. But I digress.)
Now, Disney and Marvel films are fun. They have their place. I don’t categorically oppose them. But. They do not merit the sheer weight, the sheer volume of analysis that they garner from the Youtubers- with their seemingly endless symposia discussing the story arcs and Easter eggs and counterfactual possibilities of the endless aspects of that cinematic universe.
They cannot be the be all and end all, and highlighting that does not make me a ‘hater’, which I hope is clear. It makes me a critic.
Ginsberg once wrote of how he had seen the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness. Well I have seen the best critical minds of my generation reduce themselves to professional corporate entertainment fandom on the off-chance of accruing subs and superchat money.
It’s a shame, is all I’m saying. A waste of potential.
And the reason why I care is that for every critic and analyst cutting together yet another 60 minute discourse on Captain America or whoever, there are dozens, hundreds, of independent writers, filmmakers, painters, poets and musicians just dying to have the light of attention shined upon them.
It’s all very winner-takes-all and I’m not sure that it has to be that way.
Criticism In The New World
This new Patchwork Age, this new decentralised, post-Monoculture world needs a new critical class to thrive. It needs champions. It needs discerning analysts and observers and influencers.
The Nouvelle Vague was born from a group of film critics at Cahier du Cinema, the Modernist school of writers were discovered and disseminated via small literary journals and printing presses. And on and on.
This secondary infrastructure is essential. Art cannot exist in a vacuum, it needs discussion and discourse and argument and sharing. It often needs to simply be explained to a lay audience, and artists are often both reticent and often notoriously terrible at doing so.
But this is risky. Reviewing a new independent work of art means that you are out on your own, out on a limb. You don’t have 50,000 other bits of critical opinion and hot takes and contrarian stances to position yourself within. You can’t copy your tests answers from the kid at the next desk over. You have to make up your own mind and offer your own heartfelt opinion without the backup of at least some faction of the mainstream mob.
It’s risky being out on your own like this, being original, being sincere and searching. But it’s an opportunity as all forms of pioneerdom are. The virgin land is there to be cultivated.
So what I’m saying is- on behalf of all of us independent creators out here trying to make good art- if you have a talent or desire to review and be a critic broaden your horizons. Explore the new. Get to know and champion the new thing. In doing so you’ll have a chance to shape it. In doing so you’ll have a chance to help make it thrive.
If you want to be a writer and don’t know what to write about, seek out the new art at the edges of the internet and come back and tell us about it. In a world of dull ‘people who like that, also like this’ recommendations, we want to be turned on to weird and wonderful stuff being made outside the mainstream.
And if the new critics and champions build an audience for themselves, and a reputation and revenue then all the better.
We win when we all win together.
Until next time,
Thanks as always for reading. It’s hugely appreciated. In these screen-mediated times it is easy to forget that there is a real life person at the other end of this newsletter, giving up a few minutes of their free time to read my words. I am grateful for you doing this.
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