Big Picture: Notes on how to be a critic

LF 0620_u_bigpicture 19

Times Union Studio shot of Entertainment Editor Michael Janairo for his upcoming Unwind “Big Picture” Arts Column, shot on Wednesday, June 16, 2010, in Albany, NY. (Luanne M. Ferris/Times Union)

Happy New Year!

2012 looks to be an exciting year in arts and entertainment for the Capital Region, with events such as the Broadway musical “Memphis” in April at Proctors in Schenectady, Roger Waters “The Wall” in June at Times Union Center in Albany, the release sometime in late summer or fall of the filmed-in-Schenectady “The Place Beyond the Pines” and, in November, the exhibition “Heroes and Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross” at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

The Times Union will have plenty to contribute to the ongoing dialogue about the arts in the region. In that spirit, and buoyed by the promise of a fresh year, I have a three-part agenda that is like a New Year’s resolution, except that it is more about what I want from others than just about what I will do. (Is that even allowed?)

1. I want to read more thoughtful comments on the Arts Talk blog at, where everyone is welcome to comment.

2. I want better comments online in general, because nowadays everyone’s a critic.

3. I want to skew the word critical to its more positive definitions. Too often it means “nitpicky” and “negative”; however, the word also means “analytical” and “vital.” It’s all in the dictionary. Look it up. I’ll wait.

What passes for criticism on blogs sometimes goes like:

Commenter No. 1: “This show is awesome!”

Commenter No. 2: “Hey, No. 1, you must be an idiot for thinking that turd of a show is any good.”

Commenter No. 1: “Idiot? You’re a (multiple expletives deleted).”

As someone who has assigned, read and written criticism for years, I humbly offer a handful of notes that can help you develop a critical perspective and improve the level of discourse in the Capital Region:

Be open. Few people say, “I’ve never heard of this band before, but I’ll drop 50 bucks plus fees to see them!” Most often, you go to arts events — plays, concerts, exhibitions — because you’re a fan or read something in a review or ad or heard something from a friend that made you want to go. So you have expectations that can be based on a history with an artist and on things that have absolutely nothing to do with an artist. For example, my sister thought “E.T” was one of the best movies ever, which raised my expectations for it. I was disappointed, however, because it was just OK and nowhere near as cool as “Star Wars.” Then again, my sister saw that film on her first date with the man who would later become her husband, so that may have influenced her reaction to the film. Expectation vs. experience is one way of approaching talking about an arts event, but a more discerning critical perspective would try to set aside expectations and evaluate something based on the difference between the art event and what it was trying to achieve. (Just knowing this difference exists will take you deep into a critical perspective.)

Be sensitive. A critical perspectivedepends upon understanding that meaning relies on two things: the art and the audience. When you have an emotional response to something — laughter, tears or a white-knuckle grip — remember that the art is acting upon you through the use of techniques and you are responding to it based on your own history. If you are sensitive to your responses, then you can ask some good questions: What just happened in the book or movie or music to make me feel this way? Was it a unique situation? Or do I always react this way when a parent/child/beloved animal dies, and if so was it a cheap way to play with my emotions? In other words, a critical perspective means you don’t just react to things; rather, you evaluate those reactions as you are having them. It may sound tough, but I think the human mind is capable of multitasking this way. For example, in the recent “Muppet Movie,” who didn’t choke up when Kermit launched into “Rainbow Connection”? OK, maybe you didn’t. I’ll readily admit I’m a sap, and that scene seemed to be manipulative, playing on my own nostalgia for when I saw the original “Muppet Movie” as a kid, and ate from a “Muppets” lunchbox, and watched the TV show each week, and listened to the soundtrack on an LP.

Take notes. People are emotional and thoughtful. So over the course of strolling through a museum exhibit, a two-hour concert, a 90-minute movie, an hourlong dance piece or even a five-minute pop song, you are bound to have a variety of thoughts and emotions. If you are sensitive (see above) then you can write down what techniques were used to make you feel different things. Then again, you may not always know why, but you should at least take note of your thougths and emotions. I still don’t know exactly why I felt such a strong positive reaction to El Anatsui’s monumental wall hanging “Intermittent Signals” at the Clark, but I did and I wrote it down. Once written, I could then view the other exhibitions with a clearer mind and be open to more thoughts and feelings.

Be specific. If you have good notes (or an extraordinary memory) then you can avoid broad generalization such as “It stunk!” “It was awesome!” Instead, you can turn your reactions into well-formulated criticism by referring to the techniques that were used in saying why something worked or didn’t. With the El Anatsui piece, for example, it could be the size, 11 by 35 feet, or the color, a glimmering gold made of discarded bottle caps and old copper wire. The details let others see, hear and feel what you saw, heard or felt, and allow them to judge for themselves.

Know what you know. The art-audience dynamic mentioned above is another way of saying that people make sense of things based on what they’ve experienced before. So if you know something, and that knowledge informs your reaction, say so. (Don’t worry if it sounds like bragging or name-dropping, just do it.) This can be different from your expectations, because it can come from unexpected bases of your knowledge. It could sound like this: “The Feelies’ unexpected and uptempo cover of REM’s “Carnival of Sorts” was more rocking then when I last heard REM play it live back in 1986.”

Know when you don’t know something. No one understands everything all the time, and that’s OK because no one has experienced everything. You know you don’t know something when you are sensitive enough to realize you aren’t bringing anything to the art event. At those moments, you can say something didn’t work for you as opposed to saying it didn’t work at all, and thus potentially embarrassing yourself.

Weigh the whole. This one is tricky because summing up a complex experience is never enough. Sometimes people want just one-word (like “awesome” or “awful”) or symbol (thumbs up or stars) so they can know where you stand. These shorthand conventions are good for marketing and media, but in online comments and in conversations, you have the time and space to be more thoughtful. After all, the whole of the experience involves whatever the arts event brings to you — in orchesral music, for example, that can include the conductor, the musicians, the music and the venue, and their histories — and whatever you bring to the event, that is your own experiences and history. The “whole,” though, isn’t limited to the time and space of the event. Cultural events occur within the broader scope of whatever is happening in the world, and can be seen as products of larger forces (economic, political and social, for example) that comment on our attitudes toward things like race, class and gender, and how we live today. In the best moments, having a critical perspective allows for the sharing of ideas about what the arts can tell us about life in the broadest sense. One of the jobs of a critic — that is you, because everyone is a critic now — is to begin that conversation.

Well, these tips turned out to be longer than I expected (and its almost three times longer than the average concert review in the Times Union). Let me know if these tips help you, and may you have an arts-full and happy New Year.

For more Big Picture columns, click here.


One Comment

  1. This is terrific. If I could suggest one addition: Avoid hyperbole.

    As consumers, we’re bombarded with lofty claims and it’s easy to let that slip into our regular conversation. I know, because I recently found myself becoming a purveyor of great praise or dire criticism the likes of “That was the BEST MOVIE I’VE EVER SEEN!” or “That actor gave the WORST performance of their career!” The truth is, my desire to encourage or deter gets swept up in a innocent exaggeration but I ultimately realized, when other people do it to me, simply makes me question their judgement. Now, I save those glorifications for the things that deserve it…like Transformers 3….”THE GREATEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME!”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s