A good critic has a passion for the subject matter and has a healthy curiosity to which enables them to continue learning about their chosen field. Passion brings enthusiasm and knowledge brings deeper understanding. Good critique interprets the work which is being critiqued. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “The critic occupies the same relation to the work of art that he criticizes as the artist does to the visible world of colour, or the unseen world of passion and of thought” (“The Critic as Artist”).
Every artist must be his or her own critic; supervising their work to ensure that they don’t bite off the style of other artists. Artists are not artists unless they are original. It’s one thing to rework a piece in your own way; it’s something else for your work to become indistinguishable from that of another. Plagiarism takes many forms besides the written variety. So too must the critic develop his or her own flavour without copying that of their peers.
It is central for a skillful critic to be aware of who the audience is for the work they review. The quality and style of a given band or book is determined, to some extent, by what kind of individuals attend the concert or buy the book. Most teenagers wouldn’t care for classical music and most drunken frat-boys won’t understand Shakespeare. John Berger discusses this topic at length in his book, Ways of Seeing (Penguin Books, 1990). He speaks of the “spectator-owner,” a wealthy male who commissioned an artist to create a painting which exhibits the prosperity and possessions of that individual. Prosperity and possessions take the form of vast tracts of land, an elegant manor, the luxurious décor within the home, or a portrait of his wife; since women have been seen as possessions since antiquity. Berger says that if a painting has a nude woman and her lover, “the spectator-owner will in fantasy oust the other man, or else identify with him.”
Paintings were used as a form of bragging by the affluent. There is no denying that it was obnoxious and pretentious to hang paintings of your assets on your wall, and that it was dehumanizing for a woman to be the “property” of your husband. The only redeeming factor is that the art was of high quality and masterfully rendered. Now-a-days any idiot with some extra cash could brag by hogging up the road with his extra-wide, super-dumb Hummer. To paraphrase the Beatles, “Money Can’t Buy You Style.”
A respectable critic would tell the truth about their opinion. That is easier said than done in a society with multi-million dollar corporations owning huge segments of the film, book, and music industries. The Hollywood junket industry tries to buy positive reviews from critics by paying for their hotel rooms and tossing gift bags at them. All that for some lame formulaic film? It takes a critic with some strong self-respect and unshakable convictions to stand up and speak out against these companies which stripe talented actors and filmmakers of their uniqueness and torment the intelligent portions of the film-going public with over-blown budgets and tired mediocre plots.
Another attribute a good critic should have is an open mind. If he or she goes to a concert or gallery anticipating it to be a bad experience that might just come to pass. It is important to be receptive to the innovative and different. “After all, every writer wants to have s many unusual experiences as possible,” Lester Bangs proclaimed in Let it Blurt by Jim DeRogatis (Broadway Books, New York, 2000). Lester may have been referring to a disturbing party thrown by the Hell’s Angels, but heck, not everyone has the misfortune of being invited to such events. Disturbing events aside, it’s always exhilarating to experience the scope of human creativity through various art-forms. Colourful and charismatic people, experimental sights and sounds, wonderful stage sets; all enable the writer to come into contact with the diversity of the creative community. Unique experiences are the spice of life.
An open mind should also be applied to the subject matter at hand. Religious fanatics give the Harry Potter books a bad review based on the fact that the evangelical community in America views the books as promoting witchcraft. That is pure bias. They dislike the subject before they read the book, if they even bother to read the book at all. The best advice is to leave your bias at the door.
Janet Fitch’s 10 rules for writers recommends that writers “pick a better verb. Most people use twenty verbs to describe from a run in their stocking to the explosion of an atomic bomb. Sew yourself a custom suit.” Finding new verbs helps the writer expand their vocabulary and also helps the reader feel what they are reading. A critic with a broad and vivid vocabulary can express himself or herself more efficiently.
A critic’s work is not easy, and if your goal in life is to have everybody like you, than perhaps you ought to consider running a flower shop instead. But it offers exposure to art in its many forms and the eccentric characters that create it. The wide array of creative work is out there waiting to be revealed. So go forth and write!