In my first film class, before I’d ever made anything, I got in a debate with my professor about the usefulness of film critics, and critics of the arts in general. My professor’s background was in live TV news production, and she had done a few infomercials. She believed that critics were valuable because it provided the public with a buffer as to how to use their time.
My argument wasn’t the most unique; essentially I stood firm that it’s impossible to judge art without sitting down with the artist, asking what their ambition was, and then sitting down with a large, diverse group of people, and anonymously polling them as to whether or not said goal was achieved. Critics, as far as I know, don’t do that.
I also questioned her as to “who becomes a critic?” It may have come off as condescending to the profession; especially coming from a 120 pound eighteen year old wearing a Pearl Jam t-shirt, but it was an honest question. Somewhere in my brain it didn’t click that someone could “professionally” judge someone’s art. Were these people void of taste preferences? If not, how could they “review” art within different genres without bias? If so, how could they critique art?
I used to really follow the music review website Allmusic.com. There was a period of time in which before I would go to Tower Records I would verify with allmusic that the album had received four or more stars. Then, as time went on, my discomfort with the website grew. There was no method to the ratings system and the reviewers wore their hearts on their sleeves. This wasn’t a professional examination of a piece of art, which a recorded music album is, instead it was one person who works for a popular website’s opinion on the album.The reviewer did not inquire with the artist about their motivations, did not seek an audience reaction, and instead decided to rate this unique album against other artists albums.
For example, in the early 1980’s legendary Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynne sought to create a rock opera driven by various keyboards and synthesizers, about a fellow who gets transported from 1980 to the year 2095. This was before Back to the Future made time travel a niche of decade, and the synthesizer was just beginning to take over popular music. The album was called Time, and in my opinion it is entertaining, catchy, and paints a fantastic image of a technologically driven future.
Allmusic.com gave this album a “two star” rating, and in their four sentence review cited a lack of cohesion and originality as the reasons. At the time of writing this, 54 allmusic.com users have rated this album, giving it the average score of “4.5” out of “5.”
Myself, and the average of 54 other people who took the time to register and vote on the website, were all moved by this album. Jeff Lynne’s imaginative idea of a piece of music about time travel resonated with us. But because an allmusic reviewer named James Chrispell thinks the album is only worthy of “2 stars,” his review will serve as a “buffer,” as my professor put it, preventing someone from listening to this album, instead directing them towards something with a more prosperous rating, perhaps Britney Spears’ 2000 album Oops I Did It Again which received a 4 star review.
Rolling Stone magazine was at one point a relevant publication that reviewed releases in music, literature, and cinema. In 1996 they listed the Weezer album Pinkerton as one of their “Worst Albums of the Year,” likely “buffering” plenty of people from listening to it. Over the next several years that album took on a cult identity, becoming one of the more significant albums of the 90’s. In fact, less than ten years after it was one of the “Worst Albums of the Year” it was inducted into the meaningless “Rolling Stone Magazine Hall of Fame” (and yes, it even retroactively received a “5 star” review from allmusic, but don’t fret, a separate Weezer album, 2009’s Raditude was initially given a 4.5 rating, but was demoted to a 3.5 in early 2013. I supposed the track “I Can’t Stop Partying” became less relevant over time to the reviewer, and was no longer worthy of the lofty 4.5 rating).
Another popular art rating website is Pitchfork.com. Unlike allmusic.com, Pitchfork does not attempt to be an unprejudiced measurement of music. Pitchfork tends to reward counterculture, while becoming grossly offended with anything mainstream, unless said mainstream act has been around long enough to become a nostalgia act to the websites writers and following. Though they don’t try to hide it, Pitchfork.com and it’s writers serve as the shepherds for countless sheep who got picked last in gym class, and therefore can’t listen to the same music and like the same movies as the kid who got picked first… or second… or fourteenth. Pitchfork is the uniform for those who want to be different.
In a recent speech at the South By Southwest arts festival, Dave Grohl, the drummer of Nirvana, one of the most artistically influential groups in American history, and the leader of the Foo Fighters, one of the most popular music acts of the past twenty years, had this to say about judging art;
Fuck guilty pleasure, how about just pleasure? I can truthfully say out loud the “Gangnam Style” is one of my favorite fucking songs of the past decade. Is it any better or any worse than the latest Atoms for Peace record? Hmm. If only we had a celebrity panel of judges to determine that for us. What would J-Lo do? Paging Pitchfork. Come in, come in. Pitchfork. We need you to determine the value of a song. Who fucking cares? Who’s to say what’s a good voice and what’s not a good voice… The Voice? Imagine Bob Dylan standing there singing “Blowing in the Wind” in front of Christina Aguilera? [Mimicking her voice] Mmm I think you sound a little nasally and sharp. [Returning to his normal voice] It’s your voice, cherish it, respect it, nurture it, challenge it, stretch it, scream it until it’s fucking gone, because everyone is blessed with at least that. And who knows how long it’s going to last.
As social media has evolved, so has the ability of any geek with a laptop to call themselves a critic. Most of these people wish they could be artists like the ones they are judging, but often lack the talent or guts to become artists themselves. Instead they diligently punch buttons on their keyboards until they eventually regurgitate thoughts they’ve read on other people’s art. Whether positive or negative, these thoughts are usually based on some expectation of what other artists have done before the piece of art that they’re judging was made. Some of these people went to school to be journalists, some of these people just watch a lot of television. Some of these people write for newspapers and magazines that have subscribers, others create their own blog and pass it off as a way to get credentials at album release shows or movie premieres. And then record labels and movie studios give them passes with the hope that these people will be so happy to be there that they’ll behave nicely and feed into the cash cow.
The one thing all of these people have in common is that they’re not artists, and the ones who attempted to become artists often gave up. Sometimes because they lack talent, most often because they can’t comprehend how much guts and devotion it actually takes to acquire talent.
The debate between my professor and I took place over eight years ago. I don’t even remember her name, but in that time span I’ve gotten my first glimpses into the real world of critics, and I’ve come to the conclusion that most of them are even less worthy of your attention than I’d even thought. I’d be more bold but I like to keep this blog as tasteful as possible. What I’ll offer is this:
Remember when you were in junior high and you thought all your teachers were so smart? Then you got older and saw which of your peers were actually becoming teachers and thought to yourself, “man, that girl was really dumb and sort of a slut, no way I’d ever let her teach my kid!” And then you realized that that’s exactly the sort of person who educated you, as well. It’s the same way with art critics. These people were the least artistic, most unimaginative people you grew up with. These were the people who sat in the lunchroom eating poptarts while talking about who would win in a fight between Conan the Barbarian and He-Man as the drama kids put on shows, the band kids practiced their Sousa, and the punks through rocks at their teachers cars. You didn’t take those people’s advice on what to do with your life then, why would you take it now?
Listen to what you want to listen to. Enjoy the movies and TV shows that make you happy. Buy the painting that you want to see every day. It’s your life! Art isn’t baseball. If you ask me “does Ryan Braun deserve the NL MVP award?” there are countless stats I could look at to make a rational decision, and various questions I could ask myself to draw a definitive yes or no answer. Did he lead the NL in RBI, OBP or fielding percentage? Is his team going to the playoffs? Who else had a great season?
But if you ask me what was better, On The Waterfront or Movie 43, I’ll reply “better at what?” On The Waterfront made me think more, and I enjoy the timeless flow, but Movie 43 made me laugh more. Better at what?
I love Picasso but I have a painting of me with a giant head that I got from Six Flags in my room.
Rick James makes me want to dance but I find myself listening to Tom Petty, who never makes me want to dance, a lot more.
So the next time you think about reading what a critic writes, ask yourself, “what was really the goal of GI Joe?” “Am I in the mood to feel the emotion that the goal of this film is trying to convey?” And then answer “yes” or “no.”
That’s really all the “buffer” that you need.
Jason Michael Brescia
April 4, 2013 5:39 P.M EST