because the personal is cultural
Once, I heard a dance critic try (at least partially) to legitimize their practice by saying, “I see every show…” Though I do respect this critic, it certainly is not because they supposedly see every show. The statement is (though probably not consciously) obviously a lie. At best, by this the critic might mean two things: one, they see the shows that most fall under the heading of contemporary dance; two, they see the shows that most fall under the heading of professional shows.
This critic can (at least partially) get away with this statement because it is foreseeable that someone could see almost every dance show performed in Montreal. However, when we transfer this argument to other art forms, it quickly falls to pieces. Imagine a film/music/book critic making the same statement. It would be laughable.
Yet film/music/book criticism should obviously not be discredited simply by virtue that it is impossible for a critic to consume all that is released within their field. All this to say what should be obvious: that mass consumption does not legitimize a critic’s practice.
So what does then? What is a critic? First it might be useful to ascertain what a critic isn’t.
1. As has already been established, a critic is not (necessarily) a mass consumer. Seeing a lot of movies does not make one a critic; it makes one a cinephile (at worst, and an experience-seeker at best).
2. A critic is not someone with good taste. The best thing I can say in regards to this point is go ahead and read the countless critics out there who visibly have good taste; then notice that your sole interest in their reviews is that you tend to agree with them. Your interest then is not in their criticism, but in your narcissism.
3. A critic is not an advertiser. To say that an album is “the best of the year” is to do nothing more than to encourage consumption in a way that requires no thought whatsoever. It is a readymade sentence that means nothing more than “you should listen to this by virtue that I think you should listen to this.”
4. A critic should not love their field unconditionally. When I go to a reading, I inevitably think, “Have writers never gone to any other kind of art performance in their life? This is unacceptable.” If there is no fence between different art forms, they can all be compared. If there is a fence between the arts, we need to be aware of how these fences affect what is produced within them. In other words, a dance critic should not be concerned with seeing every dance show performed in any given city, but with listening to all of the music being produced. It will make them a better dance critic.
So, in less negative terms, what is a critic then?
5. A critic is a thinker. Though their encounter with the work of art first occurs at the level of perception and may primarily result in affect, it is thought that will enable the critic to translate their experience into words.
6. A critic must meditate. Because some works of art work on that level. A critic must do cocaine. Because some works of art work on that level. Extrapolate to include all human and non-human experiences.
7. A critic contextualizes. No artwork is produced in isolation. No artwork, no matter how personal, is produced outside of culture. Every artwork is produced either in accordance with the dominant culture or in opposition to it. Every artwork is a form of oppression or of liberation.
8. That is to say that a critic politicizes, or rather brings to light the politics that are inherent in any work of art. Otherwise art is meaningless. Otherwise criticism is meaningless.
9. A critic is someone who makes links with other works within their discipline, but also with works outside of it. A comparison between two artworks is not more meaningful simply by virtue that they use the same medium. I reiterate: a dance critic needs to be a music critic.
10. A critic needs to be aware that an artistic experience is necessarily a personal (and cultural) experience. Therefore, a critic must strive to be as aware as possible of how their race, gender, social class, and sexual orientation affect their perception of the work of art. A critic must not deny these facts. In other words, a critic must be as subjective as possible. A personal experience is not a unique experience.
11. A critic is a writer. This point cannot be emphasized enough. Though criticism is about a work of art, it must be able to live independently of it. If anything, this is the mark of good criticism. In other words, readers should be able to identify whether criticism is good without having experienced the work of art that said criticism is about. Criticism is an experience in and of itself.
12. A critic must not ask whether a work of art is good. The answer to this question is a simple yes or no, which requires no thinking or writing. A critic must not ask what the artist is trying to achieve. The artist is better equipped to answer that question (should they wish to). A critic must ask, “What does the work of art do?”
has an MA in Film Studies and works in contemporary dance. His fiction has appeared in Headlight Anthology, Cactus Heart, and Birkensnake.