Critics. Not many people like them, and it’s not hard to see why. As an artist, I can understand, especially when someone feels a close personal connection with their material. It hurts to see your labor get torn down. This is also true for an audience member. People feel close connections with works of art that inspire or move them, so seeing someone ridicule it, often it is hard to swallow.
So it follows naturally that critics are often cast in a very negative light. Most recently was the Oscar winning Birdman, where Michael Keaton is at odds with a theater critic who aims to give him a negative review simply because she didn’t like his action films. There was the final Dirty Harry film The Dead Pool, where a critic clearly based on series’ non-fan Pauline Kael is horribly killed by a mad slasher.
No case is more blatant however than M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. In this self indulgent mess, Shyamalan casts himself as a writer who will change the world with his art and is contacted by an aquatic entity to inform him of his importance. Who is the villain in this film? Why, it is a film critic, who is portrayed as a pretentious upstart who puts the rest of the cast in danger for, gasp, daring to call the plot ludicrous! An obvious response to the critical backlash that The Village received, this villain and the film at large are some of the worst examples of a vanity project ever to grace the silver screen.
Now, I am an artist. Whether or not I am a good one remains to be seen. Even if my work isn’t good, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of passion and love for it. Sometimes when I hear my work get criticized, it really does sting. It just plays to that insecurity of ‘if I wrote something bad here, everything else must be terrible also.’ So, the following statement may shock you.
Critics are your friends.
Why does a humble artist like me side with the devil? Let me explain.
A critic has one job, to critique a work and say what they do or don’t like it. That’s pretty much what we do as a general audience whenever we go and check out a new book, film or game. Only difference is critics do it as a profession, and often will have some expertise in their chosen field.
Yes, you will have critics who get into their line of work simply to give bad reviews. The aforementioned Pauline Kael for example despised Clint Eastwood, giving a scathing review to every one of his movies. Gene Siskel didn’t like horror movies, so of course he tore Silence of the Lambs to pieces when it came out. However, these are outlier examples who don’t represent the entire profession. Most critics just sit down at a keyboard and explain their tastes, going into detail why they did or didn’t like something. Vendettas don’t generally come into play.
So, isn’t this the kind of thing that artists need to hear? That is after all one of the reasons we always take our works to friends and family, to hear what they have to say and figure out what needs improving. Family and friends however can be biased, predisposed into giving us positive marks. A critic has no such bias, unless they are your second cousin Frank. They are coming at it from the same perspective as a general audience member, the kind of people you are trying to attract to begin with. They will be asking questions the audience will, so that gives you an idea of what things to look out for.
The life of a critic is of constant exposure to whatever they are critiquing, constantly watching films, reading books and so on. Seeing the same old tropes and cliches over and over again will drive almost anyone crazy, so it’s much harder for something to catch their attention. This is one of the reasons Ebert initially gave Die Hard a negative review. It was only after the film had been acclaimed for years he reconsidered his position.
Now some will be saying that since the criticism is made after the fact, it does an artist little good. I’d beg to differ. Any artist should take that as a challenge, take note of the criticism and say ‘well I made some mistakes there, but I won’t on the next project.’ so you take that as a list of things you need to improve on. Maybe on the next piece you will have a more coherent plot, communicate an idea more effectively, and be all around better at what you are trying to do. These things won’t hurt you. They’ll help you be more satisfied with your work, and help you reach more people.
Critics however are the biggest friends of all to up and coming artists. When they point out mistakes or voice opinions on art, it is often young artists who read them. They read a piece by a popular critic and start thinking ‘wow, those were some silly mistakes. I’d better not make them when I work’ thus improving their art before it’s even finished.
If that is not an artist’s friend, I’m not sure what is.
Yes, criticism about something we love can be hard to hear, harder still when it’s something we ourselves made. Ultimately though, they want to sit through something good, and will enthusiastically tell the world when they have, getting u on a pulpit and saying “I just found this amazing thing, and I want to share it with you.”
Maybe what you’re making isn’t going to be a critical darling. Maybe it is for a type of audience that a critic generally won’t belong to. That doesn’t mean a valid criticism can’t be found amongst the reviews though. Maybe instead of claiming our genius was misunderstood whenever we hear a few mean words and instead say ‘Now I know how to make it better.’
You know what this means people? I want to see some heroic critic roles. When are we going to have a movie about a film critic who knows Kung Fu and kills terrorists?