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Is Arts Criticism Cruel?

In defence of negative reviews

In an interview on Steven Bartlett’s Diary of a CEO podcast, comic and actor Seth Rogen shared how upset he was after receiving bad reviews for his films The Green Hornet and The Interview: “I think if most critics knew how much it hurt the people that made the things that they are writing about, they would second guess the way they write these things…It’s devastating. I know people who never recover from it honestly, years, decades of being hurt.”

So, is criticism really too cruel? Is it doing more bad than good? In some cases, yes, I agree with Rogen. I wholeheartedly discourage unnecessary snubs and knocking something for the sadistic joy of it. Critics shouldn’t insult for the sake of it or to craft a more entertaining article. Celebrities are people too and in a world where broadsheets already participate in trolling and knowingly impact the mental health of public figures, I don’t advocate adding fuel to the already hateful fire. But, sometimes, tosh must be recognised as tosh. Sometimes films are such shockers they really do warrant a negative review.

Also, there’s a difference between criticising and attacking. The right to interpret and criticise art must be ardently defended, for without critique, the weight of celebration is lessened. A lack of negative reviews negates the celebration of the positive ones. In recent years, the world of celebrity has gone to increasingly great lengths to avoid criticism. It is now commonplace for big stars to clear questions in advance of interviews, giving them creative control over a process that should allow journalists to directly criticise and question the interviewee. Likewise, many film studios now also pay journalists or publications for favourable reviews. So, as real criticism becomes increasingly hard to come by, negative reviews are a welcome sign that not all hope is lost.

Furthermore, in the face of more and more review sites like Rotten Tomatoes, we must hold on tight to more holistic and nuanced full-length reviews. Review sites present films as merely good or bad. The impersonal numerical data prompts people to view the ratings as prescriptive, as barometers of success. While a written review can acknowledge where a film triumphs and where it falls flat, binary criticism like ‘the tomatometer’ encourages people to see the success of films as purely black and white. At a time where people are increasingly divided and all politics is reduced to “sides”, nuanced interpretations are more important than ever.

It is also important to remember that a critic’s duty isn’t to the artists behind what they review, but rather to the readers of what they write. The purpose of reviews is not to tell the creators what to do better next time. Nor is it to tell readers what is or isn’t worth your time. The true role of a critic is to offer a thoughtful or original take that may encourage readers to view the piece in a different light or stimulate dialogue and debate. You need not agree with reviewers but their work is no less valuable if you disagree for you are still engaging with their point of view. That’s why you should always read reviews after you’ve experienced the art in question. Establish your own first impression, then consider the interpretations of others.

That’s all reviews are, interpretations. Critics, like most journalists, are professional opinion-havers, not tastemakers. You don’t need to agree with them, but you should celebrate their right to express it. There are plenty of films that critics revile, but audiences revere. A critic is no better positioned to judge a film than you or I. There is also definitely a tendency for some critics to over-intellectualise the success of films, books, music etc. Whilst enjoying art on an intellectual level is important, the value of art is greater than the sum of its technical and artistic aspects. Experiencing art is much more personal than that. The best measure of art’s success is how it makes you think and feel, which seems sometimes to be bypassed in critical discussion.

Ultimately though, criticism is undeniably valuable in generating discourse and encouraging audiences to engage with alternative interpretations. However, by its very nature it cannot always be positive and rightfully so. It is understandable that creatives are sometimes hurt by unduly cruel criticism and when a critic chooses to cause offence for the sake of making an article more entertaining, they forget their true duty. But, as the death of nuance looms ever closer in our increasingly divided society, it is crucial that we continue to criticise, interrogate and discuss, remaining receptive to perspectives that may differ from our own.

Illustration: Otto Heffer

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