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On Criticism and Art

August 11th, 2008 by | Tags: , , ,

I saw an interesting conversation on the blogohedron last week. It was about criticism and its place in art. It started here, with Johanna’s review of How to Make Webcomics, which was written by Brad Guigar (Evil Inc.), Dave Kellett (Sheldon), Scott Kurtz (PvP) , and Kris Straub (Starslip Crisis). It’s an overall positive review, though she dings it for proofreading errors (which is totally fair and most likely warranted), but the controversy (or whatever you want to call it) arose from this paragraph:

Oddly, the promotion chapter doesn’t mention either press releases or getting reviews, both sources of free coverage; instead, dealing with critics is covered in the audience chapter. The author of this section, Dave Kellett, breaks them into four categories and says, “each one can be diffused or made impotent by kindness and politeness.” So the goal here is not to listen, but to deflect. And that’s reflected in his categories; not one covers someone pointing out a legitimate flaw or place for improvement in the work. In other words, he doesn’t think critics are ever right. (The categories are the person who’s mean without meaning to be and really loves the comic; nitpickers correcting “useless details”; the hater; and the troll. This section, by the way, was the first piece of the book I read — it’s where the copy I was browsing fell open when I first picked it up. Fate!)

Scott Kurtz talked about the review here, and says this:

I’m not sure how I ended up in so many tug-of-war competitions with bloggers, where the outcome of our match determines the superior position: creator or critic. But it seems to be cropping up again. There is a strange sense of entitlement, an eerie assumption of an unspoken working relationship that I am happy to inform does not exist. Why we insulate ourselves from the notion that the external critic can EVER be right, is because their critique is moot in regards to the progression of our work.

Click through for the rest of the post. I’ll have some excerpts here, but not the full text.

I’ve got kind of a huge problem with this statement. The biggest problem I guess is that no one has ever said this in the history of ever. If anyone has actually said it, they were probably a pretty terrible critic.

I don’t think that any critic believes that he or she is a part of the direct creative process. Indirect? Yes. Direct? No. Critics do not exist to tell you how your work should go as you’re making it. They exist to tell you how you work has gone after you’ve finished. My mental image of a critic is still that first bit from History of the World Part I. The caveman paints on the cave wall, his friends and family praise it, they cheer, and then the critic walks in. And the critic pees on the drawing.

It’s probably a bad example, because the critic pees on the work and I can’t think of anything that’s really worth all that trouble, but it fits my view of a critic. Critics come along after the work is done and judge it. Whether they’re judging the literary worth of the work or just whether or not it made them laugh, they’re there to judge the finished work in whatever form it may take. Whether they pee on it or praise it is up to them.

Kurtz goes on to say–

Think about Star Trek and the Prime Directive. Sometimes, civilizations take a left turn in their natural progression and things go tits up. Sometimes there is a dictatorship or a famine or a plague that is going to steer this civilization into trouble, but the crew of the Enterprise CAN NOT ACT. They can NOT interfere. To interfere with those hardships would be to damage the natural progression of that civilization.

I feel like this is a labored metaphor, but maybe that’s just because I’ve never been a trek fan and had to actually ask someone about the Prime Directive. Anyway, his point here, boiled down and hopefully not misrepresented, is that you can’t interfere at all in the creation of art because that will kill the creativity inherent in it.

Again, I can’t agree. I think he has half a point, here, but feedback is important in the creation of anything. The best teacher I ever had was my senior year IB English teacher who wouldn’t hesitate to hand you a paper back with “rewrite this entire terrible thing” scrawled across the top. Critics exist to point out what you have done that didn’t work. It can give you pointers on what’s succeeding and what’s failing with your audience.

No critic is going to, or deserves to, stand over your shoulder while you’re at the drawing board or your typewriter and go, “Hey hey, hold up! You should change this word here and that line is way too heavy. Lighten that up and try this specific brush. Also make his cape blue.” That’s not why critics exist.

It might just be the critics I read, but I don’t get a sense of entitlement from any of them. It’s more about reading a book and giving your opinion on it. These opinions come in a lot of different forms, be it free association, measured responses, retailer-oriented, rambly new journalism, fairly highbrow, irreverent, worthless fanboy/fangirl screaming at the heavens (too many examples to count), or whatever. It’s up to the artist to read these and decide which ones are valid and which are not. Some of them may valid, all of them may be valid, or none of them may be valid.

The trick is being discerning. Not everyone’s opinion is going to make sense. Discounting the idea that any critic can ever be right seems kind of silly. No one is perfect yet, which Kurtz seems to agree with, but how exactly do you figure out what you did right and wrong? I’ve had things that I think work that turn out to be opaque and terrible. I’ve read interviews with creators who have had things pointed out to them that they never would’ve realized otherwise. Alternate points of view are important.

It’s not that we don’t realize we’re making mistakes. It’s not that we’re oblivious to the fact that our work is imperfect. But if we play it safe and never risk those imperfections, then we’ll never grow as artists. Ultimately, we can’t chart our course based on what our readership or critics thinks is working. We have to go with our gut.

Kurtz seems to be thinking that critics exist to encourage (or force) artists to work inside little boxes and never grow. “Nine panel grids or death! That person better be five heads tall! Why isn’t this three act structure?” There are critics who do that, yeah, but they aren’t the end-all, be-all. Honestly, I don’t even think those critics are any good.

This is kind of how I approach reviewing. I’m not there to try and diminish it, so much as to try and spot what went right and what went wrong. Sometimes comics outstay their welcome. Sometimes clunky dialogue kills an otherwise fun story. Sometimes someone writes a story where two adults with superpowers don’t realize that they’re upside down until eighteen pages in. Sometimes you get a sublime mix of words and art like JLA: Classified 1-3.

If anything, the critic should be a help to the creator. It is something the creator can go to, check out, and judge himself. Maybe they have a valid point. Maybe something wasn’t as clear as he thought it was. Maybe he’ll find something to take away from it, maybe he won’t. That’s the luck of the draw, I guess.

Recently, I called Mike Krahulik to compliment him on a new coloring technique he had used on a recent Penny-Arcade strip. I opened my phone conversation with the following statement: “Mike, Ignore all emails about the new coloring. It’s awesome. Pursue it.” But it was too late. He had already read all the mail and had been sufficiently discouraged enough to just drop the matter. “That’s what I get for trying to innovate.” he said to me.

He was joking, but there was some truth to his statement.

And that’s why there is no chapter in our book on when to accept that, sometimes, the critic is right.

This is kind of a terrible anecdote, though. Kurtz liked something that Krahulik did, other people didn’t, and Krahulik already decided to quit it, deciding that it wasn’t worth the hassle. I’m not sure exactly why that is why there is no chapter on when to accept that, sometimes, the critic is right, but okay?

It did illuminate one thing for me, though. It made me realize that Kurtz holds fans and critics to different standards. Critics exist to give negative feedback and fans exist to give positive feedback. It’s a thoroughly false dichotomy, and kind of an intellectually dishonest one, as well. What Kurtz told Krahulik is just as much criticism as what JDC displayed in her review of the book. It’s offering a critical opinion of a work. The idea that positive feedback is valid while negative feedback shouldn’t be paid any attention is a terrible one. Feedback is feedback, whether positive or negative, and both can help to grow a work.

I’ve got a friend who just screened his movie, Yeah Sure Okay. It’s something new and innovative, both for him and possibly for movies in general. I know that he co-created it with that idea in mind. After the screening, he went around soliciting feedback. What worked, what didn’t, what was hokey, what was awesome, and so on. He did it because he needs to know if he succeeded at his goal, and if he didn’t succeed, what parts weren’t hitting with the audience. He didn’t decide that he should never listen to critics because critics will alter the natural course of his creativity. He decided that it’s important to get feedback so that you can be sure that you’re on point.

That’s what the critic is for.

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12 comments to “On Criticism and Art”

  1. Art is one of two things: Communication or Masturbation.

    If your art is masturbatory (or I guess self-involved/self-therapy) in nature/conception/execution (not that this in itself is necessarily a bad thing) you should probably completely ignore critics good or bad.

    On the other hand if your work is about communication, one good critic can be worth a million focus groups, as a good critic can see through artifice and has a point of view that can quickly cut through the bullshit, and the ability to articulate which parts of a particular piece work and which don’t.

    But Artists and Critics need to unhook the value of the work with the value of a person, which is what happens. Scott Kurtz puts down critics, but critics create too, the analyze and try to find meaning in other’s works, which in turn leads to more work (see Andre Bazin’s “What is Cinema?”).

    To Dismiss the work of the critic out of hand is foolish and immature. To call out and dismiss the work of a bad critic is business as usual.

    As an artist, a common mistake is to take feedback and criticism on a binary level. For example, if someone were to say “I didn’t like that Han Solo shot first because it makes the character seem like a bad guy” your response shouldn’t be, “let’s flip it around” neither should it be “Fuck you critic guy!”.

    You should examine whether that response is something that you actually need from someone, so that when Han Solo shows up to save Luke in act 3, there’s actually a bit of tension there, and that it shows that the character has had some growth.

    As far as a Movie Screening, it’s a different ball game, screenings are great, but comments and feedback tend to be useless, merely sitting in the same room as the people watching the movie should give you all the feed back you need as you’ll know what works in the movie as those are the parts where you don’t feel the excruciating anxiety that the audience is bored.


  2. I look forward to Kurtz’ angry PvP strip denouncing you and all other critics of his criticism of critics. And by look forward I mean sigh, shake my head and go “Oh Kurtzy don’t ever change. Because you probably can’t”…

    And then you’ll become buddies or something. I don’t know. He seems to have a talent for making friends with the same people whose work he denigrates and SAYS he ignores…


  3. [...] David Brothers over at 4thLetter.net is riffing on a blogging/criticism controversy. Johanna takes umbrage at… [...]


  4. In defense of Kurtz: He’s coming from a place where a lot, maybe the majority, of people commenting on his strip are dumb fans of PvP who don’t want anything to change, or pretty much people who hate him and call him fat. That’s probably a large part of why he thinks that “critics exist to encourage (or force) artists to work inside little boxes and never grow. “Nine panel grids or death! That person better be five heads tall! Why isn’t this three act structure?” They’re not good critics, they’re not the be all and end all, but they are most of the voices he hears.

    Doesn’t make him right, but I think it approximates where he’s coming from.


  5. It amuses me that Kurtz is basically using the same defense against criticism that Tim Buckley does when he likes to crack jokes at CAD’s expense as much as most people who read webcomics do. There’s a million ways to argue against what critics have to say in their analysis of your work but shoving fingers in your ears and going “YEAH WHATEVER” is not one of the good ones.


  6. Dressed up in whatever way, it boils down to two brutally simple points.

    1. Webcomics are part of a milieu of commercial art. If the art is making money, the creator couldn’t give a flying fig if a critic a) exists, b) likes what they’re doing. And that just kills most critics, who are much more egocentric and relevancy-starved than most creators – since creators who have survived long enough to get published have a very different set of priorities. Long may it be so.

    2. Creators often see themselves in terms similar to the old saw about teachers. Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. Retired creators, in this view, would be the only legitimate teachers, those who hide out in any form of academia, let alone zero qualification online critics, would be on the level of lint. Creators care about judgements by their peers. Critics are NOT their peers. Hence what the creator meant- critics aren’t ANY part of the creative process. They are a self-defined special case within the audience. As such, anyone can be and is a critic. Critics are a supreme irrelevancy. And again, long may it be so.

    Fake Steve Ditko channelling- done.


  7. If you’re channelling Steve Ditko, you should’ve tossed in some Ayn Rand stuff, and maybe something about how critics appealing to morality is ‘fake’ and only creates ‘phony issues,’ alluding to Steve Ditko’s essay about how violence in comic books is a phony issue.

    I also think that if 1 is Kurtz’s point, his anecdote contradicts himself. The audience, that people who give Penny Arcade its massive traffic and buy their prints, books, shirts, and so forth, are the ones who mailed Krahulik, not critics.


  8. Jonathan, as a Holocaust denier and 9/11 truther, what is your (undoubtedly) carefully measured position on the fact that nothing you have ever said or produced is of any intellectual or emotional worth?


  9. While on the one hand, I can see someone responding to Johanna Carlson like that, especially given her jaw-dropping “review” of The Black Dossier, and her history of picking fights on Usenet and passive-aggressive attitude, none of that was on display in her review. It seemed a reasonable response.


  10. I think the point Kurtz (et al) is trying to get across is that there are a number of critics who consider themselves – and criticism in general – to be just as important in the creative process as creators.

    (There are also some who believe that critics are more important, but I think the former is enough to annoy creators like Kurtz)

    Vitally, though, it’s not the ‘standing over the shoulder’ concept that’s the problem (really, any critic doing that is just a rabid, overly-entitled fan) – it’s the ‘my critique adds value – or even legitimacy to your work’ idea that grates on people.

    For example – a number of webcomic discourse sites popped up around the same time, and some went as far as to state that now [these critical sites existed] webcomics had legitimacy. Which is a silly statement on a number of levels – but the most pertinent being that people talking about webcomics can’t really have more impact on the medium than people creating webcomics.

    It should be very easy to see why this mentality annoyed artists.

    I’m not saying that criticism isn’t valid – I for one enjoy criticism of my work (but I’m arrogant enough to ignore the bits I disagree with, so it’s easier to enjoy…), and I suspect that Kurtz isn’t saying that either.

    But I do agree with the mentality that it isn’t as valuable as creation – no critique is more important than the work it’s based on; no work becomes greater simply because it has been critiqued… and so on.

    You get my point (I hope).

    (oh and of course I’m well aware that I’m talking about a subset of critics here – Kurtz’ problem is that he’s somewhat conflated that subset (and some others) into ‘all critics everywhere’)


  11. [...] 4thletter! » Blog Archive » On Criticism and Art Ah, another piece to the ongoing creator/critic debate. (tags: comics criticism) [...]


  12. [...] 1 minute ago I wanted to add my 2¢ to the current debate about “Comics Criticism” that David Brothers over at 4th Letter 4th Letter has already [...]