Art Criticism: Why You Should Read (and Write) It
By John-Mark Mills
ARE YOU an art critic? Think about your answer carefully. Have you ever live-tweeted your disdain for the conclusion of the latest Netflix drama? Or left a scathing comment on a YouTube music video? Maybe you can remember a time when you debated the fidelity of the film adaptation of your favorite book with a friend or family member.
Even if you haven’t done anything exactly like the above, chances are you can recall a time when you participated in something similar.
The fact of the matter is, in our digital age, we’re all miniature art critics in our own way.
Or at least we like to think that we are.
Modern Day Art Criticism
For much of its existence, the long-standing tradition of art criticism has been reserved for the privileged few capable of getting their pieces published in academic journals or high-profile magazines.
But times have changed.
Social media outlets like Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit have played a significant role in democratizing art criticism. Nowadays anyone with an internet connection can use social media to broadcast their opinions on any number of art forms.
Whether it’s hot takes about Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit or thoughts on the latest Stephen King novel, the internet is inundated by amateur critics with opinions to share and the platform through which to do so.
Indeed, the line between the critic and the general public has never been more blurred. In fact, in many ways that line has broken down and disappeared completely.
The Decline of Traditional Art Criticism
Though the expansion of the role of critic to the general public has been a good thing insofar as it has brought greater diversity and accessibility to the practice of art criticism, the ramifications of this expansion should not be left unconsidered.
Large newspapers and media outlets around the country have started to cut their sections that focus on book reviews. Music critics, too, are a dying breed, and the websites they used to write for continue to grow more and more obsolete.
Evidence suggests that the reasons for these declines are multifaceted. One likely reason is the difficulty that print media has had making the transition to online publishing.
But the specific decline of dedicated art criticism demands a specific answer. The individual’s assumption of the role of both critic and consumer seems a likely culprit. Thanks to the prevalence and ease of the internet, individual’s no longer need an intermediary between themselves and the media. Instead, consumers can listen to, view, and engage with art on their own terms, and can consequently form their own opinions.
As a result, all but gone are the days when a blistering Pitchfork review could capsize a career. We are all critics with a voice now, no matter how small that voice may seem.
Why Does This Matter?
At this point you may be wondering why any of this matters. More precisely, you may be wondering why any of this matters to you. Why should you care if the influence of the elitist academics of old is passing away?
It matters because firing off a 140 character tweet is not the same as dedicated art criticism. It matters because art criticism matters—for both you and for those around you. You—now more than ever—have a voice, and with that voice comes responsibility.
With this in mind, here are just two reasons why you should be more intentional about criticizing and evaluating the art you enjoy.
It Will Increase Your Media Literacy
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of media literacy—a term that refers to “attaining an understanding of mass media and how they construct meaning”—for our present day. According to media studies professor Richard Campbell, key practices to gain a deeper understanding of the media that surrounds us include research, analysis, evaluation, and interpretation.
These practices are the backbone of criticism, and should be the tools we use to responsibly embrace our role as 21st century art critics. As news sections committed to criticism continue to fade from large publications, it becomes all the more crucial that we take up the standard they leave behind, and that we do so armed with well-informed and thoroughly thought-out opinions.
The next time you watch a movie or listen to an album, take the time afterward to do some research. Read a review by an established critic or write and record your own thoughts on the art you’ve just consumed. Don’t stop at the entertainment it offers—go further in the hopes of growing in your own media literacy.
Go through the steps of analyzing and evaluating the art you enjoy. Assess what messages it sends and what they mean. In other words, engage in thoughtful and intentional criticism.
Criticism Supports Creators
One of the biggest takeaways from a recent article published in the New Yorker on disappearing book reviews is that informed criticism is one of the most powerful ways to support creators.
The piece cites one author who expressed disappointment at the lack of coverage of his most recent book. This casts doubt on the classic perception that artists and critics are naturally opposed to one another. Instead, it illustrates a more dynamic reality where critics are key to not only promoting and supporting creators, but also through constructive criticism can actually help to cultivate better art.
The piece ends with an insightful quote from author David Dark: “I always tell my students to amplify the oracle, to amplify whatever thoughtfulness you find, to sponsor the culture you want to see more of.” Criticism is a potent way to amplify the positive messages you perceive. Finally, criticism can both sponsor culture through positive feedback and advocate for reform through negative feedback.
These are just a few reasons why you should steward the voice you have in a responsible manner. It is imperative that we sustain the practice of legitimate, thoughtful criticism at a time where opinions are cheap and easy to come by.
Taking the time to simply read the words of others and to contribute your own thoughtful considerations to online forums like Goodreads or Album of The Year are simple yet important ways for you to increase your media literacy and to support or seek to change the art around you.