Since it’s something that’s going to be a focus of my writing here, I think we ought to take a moment to discuss critique. In the world of education in the arts, the dreaded crit is well feared, but respected for its importance in helping shape and sharpen creative minds. In art history, critique is the life-blood and language of all discussion. Art critique is about dissecting and analyzing an inherently nebulous thing – art – in an effort to understand it and ourselves, both as artists and viewers, better. By scrutinizing minute details, contrasting it with other pieces, digging into the reasoning of unconscious decisions, studying the context of the piece’s period and the history of its life, etc. we, as critics, attempt to get an idea of how art works. At the same time, we, as artists, attempt to utilize that knowledge to strengthen our own work. And so, the dialogue between artists and critics continues through art.
When we shift gears into entertainment and mass-consumer media, things get a good bit more confused. With the introduction of the consumer into the whole equation, the role of the critic expands into and blurs with that of ‘reviewer.’ A review attempts to answer the question, “should you consume this and would you enjoy doing so?” and is inherently addressed to the consumer. Critique, on the other hand, asks, “what is this? Does it work and if so how? If not, why not?” These lines of questioning aren’t mutually exclusive and, in fact, the questions of critique are exceptionally helpful in reaching a conclusion for a review. However, critique is not inherently addressed to the consumer and is essentially never directed at them. It remains a dialogue between the critic and the creator through the work. It inherits all of the subjectivity that is inextricably tied to the nature of anything related to art. Critique is useful to the consumer only in so far as helping make informed purchasing decisions or satisfying the curiosity of learning more about their own tastes or ‘how the sausage gets made,’ so to speak.
Here’s where we start to run into problems. When a critic is exceptionally harsh, or a crit particularly surgical, it is easy for a consumer who happens to enjoy the work in question to feel personally attacked. Even outside of brutal critique, in an otherwise favorable review a small element of light criticism can feel deeply frustrating to anyone who doesn’t see it the same way. In response, confused and angry consumers lash out at the critic or reviewer for the perceived attack they feel hurt and insulted by, or even denounce the idea of critique and its importance. Conversely, critical praise for work that a consumer does not enjoy or agree with can also cause frustration and a sense of unfairness. There can already be fairly vitriolic dialogue in the world of the arts and theatre, where everyone involved usually understands the nature of the beast that is critical discourse, so it probably should come as no surprise just how much of a screeching verbal melee can break out around critique of popular consumer media, when not everyone gets what’s going on (and how badly said screechery can be magnified by the modern miracle of uncommunication that is the Internet). You’ve undoubtedly borne witness to it, you’ve maybe been a party to it.
So what am I getting at? What is it that’s not being ‘got?’ I believe the essential concept so frequently not communicated in these discussions is that critique has no bearing on consumer. By that I mean that if something is critical of a piece of media you enjoy, it is not being critical of you. You are not made a worse person for it, nor would you become elevated by critical praise it receives. Again, critique is a dialogue between creator and critic through the work in question. It simply does not involve the consumer any more than they will it to. It is perfectly fine to enjoy media that others are critical of, as it is perfectly fine to not enjoy media that others hold in high esteem. This is especially true for things that you recognize have issues and failings – we’ve all got our guilty pleasures or have least favorite parts of our favorite media. That is allowed.
This has never been more necessary to understand (and perhaps, never less publicly understood) than in our modern, social-media-riddled, hellscape of mass-consumerism and prolific fandom. Now, most everyone has the opportunity to share their critical thoughts with the world or come in contact with the musings of others, with traditional hierarchies of publishing and ‘art societies’ utterly upended and dramatically more direct lines of communication existing between creators, consumers, and critics than ever before. In many ways, this is gloriously democratizing and has incredible benefits (especially for marginalized voices that used to have to fight like hell for any hope of a place to be heard, at all), but like everything resulting from the Internet, has come as such a rapid transformation that we didn’t have time to teach ourselves how to responsibly adapt.
This has manifested in all manner of loud, all-caps-shouty ways online, as I am sure you have seen: conflation of criticism with censorship, deeply toxic fandom, harassment campaigns against reviewers and creators alike. As bad as it gets around comics and film, it tends to be particularly heinous throughout the gaming community. So even if you already unconsciously understood, or were somewhat familiar with these ideas, or cannot believe any of it needs to be said or reiterated at all, take a moment to remind yourself: criticism for a piece of media is not criticism of its consumers. No, that review that is lowering the Metacritic score isn’t an affront to decency. Yes, you are absolutely still allowed to watch and enjoy that movie that got panned. No, someone pointing out some basic feminist theory does not amount to an attack on your hobby or you (although, maybe take a moment to reflect on why you felt like it might be?). Yes, it is entirely possible to take issue with certain parts of a thing, or wonder how something could be better or stronger, without that being a condemnation that it is suddenly, irredeemably bad.
I hope this has helped. If you have any critical feedback for my thoughts on critical feedback or for my work here, please don’t hesitate to consider not sending it.