What Makes a Good Critic?

Hi, welcome to Part I of the Criticism Special. As I promised in my last post, I will devote July and August for issues regarding criticism.  One of the issues that plagues criticism is some people’s seeming lack of trust on critics. Responding to this issue, I’ll highlight a few important characteristics of a credible, trustworthy critic. The values I will discuss go beyond merely having a good writing style or a confident voice because, at the end of the day, a good critic is not solely defined by the beauty of his/her prose. So what then makes a critic a good one?

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Whenever I think of good criticism, I often think of the scene where Gertrude Stein critiques Pablo Picasso’s painting in Woody Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris. For me, that scene shows us a glimpse of what honest, constructive, informed criticism would be like. Stein is not ranting about whether or not she likes the work. Rather, she explains how the artwork can be improved, pointing out weaknesses of the work in the process but also displaying an understanding of the potentials of the work. Yes, she does say what she doesn’t like but she does this not for the sake of making her preferences heard. Stein is actually concerned about the output and the treatment of the subject.

Sadly, because of some bad practices of criticism, critics become viewed in a bad light. They are often perceived as frustrated artists who assess and analyze because they actually cannot create, making it seem that criticism is just a case of sour grapes. Sometimes they are imagined as biased, inconsiderate judges given much power that they do not deserve, or as brats who rant when things don’t appeal to them. I hope that, despite the internet being a melting pot of both exemplary and promising, but often also terrible writing, we strive to search for and recognize the good critics. I hope that eventually we get less of the hollow or ill-informed criticism, and get more of the substantial ones.

But what makes a critic good and what makes criticism honest, constructive and informed?

The articles of Phillip Lopate and of Daniel Mendelsohn, titled “The Essay, An Exercise in Doubt” and “A Critic’s Manifesto” respectively, may help in answering these questions. Lopate highlights the importance of doubt in the process of crafting an essay while Mendelsohn cites taste and knowledge as important qualities of a critic.

“Wait! How could taste and knowledge even be combined with doubt?” you may ask.

Well, I think taste and knowledge are marks of a connoisseur or an expert and are therefore important to any critic because criticism requires understanding of the art and its world. A critic or anyone who is in the business of giving comments on someone else’s output needs to have credibility in order to be taken seriously. To see potential in a yet unknown artist, to appreciate beauty in a work that is not in your preferred style, to recognize quality buried in a sea of ordinary, or to notice tiny details all necessitate an in-depth understanding of the craft, regardless of whether you are a practitioner of the art or not.

However, when one has become an authority, one may forget to doubt one’s ideas. When one can already break apart a movie’s structure, explain the composition of a painting, analyze layers of a story, see several adaptations of a play, or narrate the history of a musical genre, one may overlook aspects of the current artwork being evaluated. Thus, doubt needs to always be practiced, even by experts. Doubt may remind critics to give a chance to whatever work is in front of them. When combined with knowledge and taste, it may push critics to explore the entirety of a work before passing judgment (and thus help the critic write a comprehensive explanation) or it may encourage them to give a work a second look even when they are not initially impressed by it (and then realize that the work is actually a gem).

I admit that taste, knowledge, and a good ounce of doubt are not the only qualities that a good critic needs to have and that whatever advice I, or we, make there is no formula in creating a good critic and that even the best ones will make mistakes from time to time. Still, these are important things to keep in mind… for the good of the critic, of the artist, and of the creative industry in general.

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For you, what other characteristics should critics have? Feel free to post a comment below, and stay tuned for Part II of the Criticism Special.

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