Would Island Artists Benefit From More Critical Writing, Including More Criticisms? – a conversation between Christian and Pan

Scribble 02 - Becka Viau, http://www.beckaviau.com

Written by Christian Ledwell

Prince Edward Island has a thriving arts community.  Unfortunately, much of the art that is released does not receive a substantial critical response.  I feel this is because reviewers are often not comfortable being negative when writing about art made on Prince Edward Island because they do not want to offend the artist.

A recent article in The Walrus mentions that Ernest Hemingway once read a review of his work called “The Dumb Ox” in a bookstore in Paris that made him so angry that he caused several thousands francs’ worth of water damage by punching a vase of tulips (showing himself to be, if not a dumb ox, at least a bull in a China shop).  While negative reviews aren’t normally taken so badly, they rarely create good will.  In the Island arts community, there is a strong likelihood that the reviewer and the artist know one another, and that no one will read the review as carefully as the artist.

For criticism to be effective, it needs to be an honest reflection of the reviewer’s experience of the artwork; the artist’s reaction shouldn’t be the primary concern.  But given Prince Edward Island’s small size, you have to watch what you say. This is true of any conversation held in public. Once while I was having lunch with my sister, she recommended a plumber, and one of the only other two people in the restaurant turned out to be the plumber’s daughter. Conversations on the internet are even more easily overheard, as social media allows anyone to broadcast her opinion and artists Google themselves to listen in on the discussions held about their work.

A trusted outside perspective from a good director, editor, or producer goes a long way to improve an artistic vision. Criticism also gives an outside perspective, but critics don’t have a trust relationship with an artist, they don’t give their criticism in private, and the artist cannot make changes based on their criticisms. One role a reviewer can play is to curate, sifting out what is exceptional.  But Prince Edward Island doesn’t need a Paris Review; Islanders hear about most exceptional art by word of mouth.  Regardless, after a group of people experiences art together, there is a natural instinct to talk about what they liked and didn’t like.  Criticism is a way to formalize that impulse to have a conversation about communally-experienced art.   Thoughtful private conversations almost always include criticisms, even for art that is exceptional. I don’t feel that this negativity is regularly and honestly expressed in writing on Prince Edward Island.

The Island arts community is fortunate to have The Buzz, which offers consistently good writing and comprehensive coverage of arts events across the province.  The Buzz is a vital part of why our arts community is thriving.  The Buzz writes very positively about art, and its inclusionary approach has a lot of benefits; it is especially helpful for new artists who want to promote their work.  I don’t think The Buzz needs to or should change.  But I wonder if Island artists could benefit from receiving more bad press alongside the good.

A band I play in sent out our first EP out to be reviewed by music blogs.  Indie music blogs are sent a high volume of records and so tend to only review music that they have something positive to say about.  Of the reviews our EP received, my preference was for the review in which the reviewer was openly negative about what he didn’t like.  While I stand by the material he dismisses, the songs he flagged as worthwhile are the ones that the band still plays in our live sets.  By being clear about what he doesn’t like, it lends credibility to the praise he does give.

Artists want their work to be taken seriously, but for criticism to go beyond being a pat on the back, it requires an environment in which critics are free to offer negative opinions alongside positive opinions.  Artists should be confident enough in their work that they can weather negative responses, and critics need to be confident enough in their opinions that they don’t pander in order to be polite.  Criticism about Island art written by Islanders might be an elusive goal, but I think it is still worth aiming for.  For instance, this weblog could be a good forum for artists to ask for critical feedback about their work. Until then, eavesdropping in restaurants is still a faithful standby for those looking for an objective opinion.

To Read Pan Wendt’s  Response Click …

Scribble 02 - Becka Viau, http://www.beckaviau.com

A Response

Written by Pan Wendt

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head Christian. Since this town is indeed small, criticism’s a tricky thing here. At the same time, criticism can often fuel dialogue and push artists out of their comfort zones. I think there are some misunderstandings and stigmas around it, especially when it’s negative commentary, that sometimes hold us back here on the Island. Not least is the fact that criticism or “critics” usually stand for “authority,” and fair enough. Why should any of us submit to authority blindly? But it’s more than just tastemaking in that sad, elitist sense. Just like Christian, I know the last thing I want after I put something creative out in public is a pat on the back and a “that was great dear.” Sure, I’d rather if you liked it, but I want to know why!

I would argue, actually, that in a market-oriented democracy, art that isn’t just about making a buck or selling something actually needs critical feedback to live, to mean anything beyond a moment’s entertainment, and to generate a truly lively, dedicated audience that thinks for itself. I don’t think the difference between what kind of art one likes and what kind of attitude one has toward other things (love, politics, living, whatever) is really all that great. Art is this amazing zone where statements about what you really believe in can be played out at a level relatively free from direct coercion (i.e. it’s ok to love Jimi Hendrix but not to drop LSD at work.)

Everything may just be “subjective” (there’s a word that isn’t scrutinized enough!), but who is this subject? Why does he or she love or hate this or that? What distinguishes what people tell you is cool and what you know is cool, deep down? Maybe you have to make the case once in a while, even if it’s only to yourself? To take an example, a few years ago I had been writing late, and wandered into Baba’s for a post-work beer on a dead night. There was an audience of around three for a band called Royal Rifles, a bunch of young guys from Morell, from what I understood. Nobody saw that show except the bartender, two customers, and what seemed to be a friend or two of the band. During the break I got in a conversation with the one other person at the bar, who happened to be a musician. We both decided we really liked the band, and tried to articulate why. Together we came up with a sort of “review,” just in conversation. I then mentioned this show to many people, and had thought about it enough to be able to say more than just “I liked them” or “they were good” or if I wanted to get into it more “they played fast, staccato sort of retro-mod pop-rock with young snot swagger and hilarious keyboards.” That last one is already criticism of some sort. But I was able to elaborate more, and say, specifically why I dug this band. And I truly believe that I made more out of the experience, for me, and hopefully for others, because I had to get down to details about what it is I think is out there, and a band made that possible.

On one level though, art is already a form of criticism. By choosing to make this kind of painting, you’re making a statement about all other kinds of painting, whether you like it or not, and even if the statement might at worst only amount to “I can’t pull that off, but at least I can do this” (and that too says something about how you feel about art, that you feel you are entitled to make it even if you can’t paint like Rembrandt). When the Royal Rifles got up there and played their kind of music, it was because they chose to play their kind of music.

But who is art actually for? I’d say once you put it out there in public it’s for all of us, not just the makers of the work, or the people who are insiders. Although a musician might have some special insight into music that grants him or her a certain access to what makes a good song, say, what really matters is the listener (and any good musician is their own first listener, and probably on some level their first critic). A critic, someone who sticks their neck out and tries to make a judgment call on what they think works or doesn’t, and even further explains why, speaks on some level for the listener in general. Following that, others are free to disagree. And it’s those discussions that really establish a community around a given band, artist, whatever, a community that’s both united and divided around what it thinks is beautiful, rocking, smart, courageous, funny, whatever. Not to say this is not happening on P.E.I. Every time an audience at a comedy show laughs (or doesn’t), it’s a form of criticism. Same goes for dancers in front of a D.J.

The problem, I think, is that criticism is rarely made verbally explicit here on the Island (unless you count gossip). And that’s because our connection to P.E.I.’s creative output is often personal: these are friends or relatives of ours up on the stage. That’s the good thing too – we are not related to what we like in some bloodless, abstract way. But at the same time it can be a real constraint. I think that’s what Christian is articulating, and so I’m all for whatever kind of critical platform someone wants to establish here. I understand that we’re living in a very specific context where the main point is to get more great stuff happening, not to tear down people’s brave attempts when they don’t quite work. But I’d argue that the most powerful, mindblowing stuff simply does not happen much without the challenge of a critical audience.

What is art actually for? I really hope it’s for something more than a way to fill leisure time. I think great art both says something about what we think the world is, and what we want, and enacts or makes real what the world is and what we want. I would say criticism is just another layer in that stream, a very essential one, because it reflects back on what we make, and takes it out of the isolation of “what the artist intends”. Too often art tries to justify itself in two very extreme, opposed ways: it is what it is, for its own, or the artist’s sake (which is not enough for me, nor, I hope, for you); or it is what it is because people buy it. But since the ten million fans who bought Rick Astley records were wrong, and I’m sure of it, that’s not enough for me either. Criticism, defining it more narrowly now as verbal response, is that realm where people actually try to say why we should bother with this or that; it says what dancing to the band or clapping politely after the ballet cannot.

11 thoughts on “Would Island Artists Benefit From More Critical Writing, Including More Criticisms? – a conversation between Christian and Pan

  1. Great points by both Christian and Pan. I will write my thoughts as concisely as I can.

    One of the issues is that often times, the criticism is not coming from a “critic” but is coming from another artist in your community. This causes problems for reasons that are probably obvious. People don’t want to criticize another artist’s work for fear of retaliation later on down the road. Another issue: Does the “critic” make interesting work? If you’re an artist putting mediocre stuff out into the world, you’re probably not in a position to be criticizing another artist’s work in public. Or are you? Does simply have an opinion make you a critic?

    Should amateur artists be as harshly criticized as professional artists? Prince Edward Island has a great deal of amateur artists(amateur in the sense that they don’t make a living from their work). Does their work need to be evaluated as strongly as a professional artists’ work?

    Perhaps PEI needs more outside “critics” who can express an opinion that isn’t easily dismissed because it is coming from another artist in the same community.

    Lastly, Prince Edward Island is a conservative place. I believe this is reflected in the majority of work that is produced on the island. I believe that the fear of being embarrassed or embarrassing friends and family by creating provocative work is perhaps a bigger obstacle than the prospect of having your work critiqued.

    Maybe we need a show that is focused on islanders baring themselves to each other to break down some of those barriers. If island artists are more open and exposed to each other, perhaps artists will be more open to criticism of their work from “critics” and peers in their community.

    Thanks for the interesting piece!

    1. I agree that we need a more critical response to art produced and exhibited on the Island. As a former art “critic” for The Evening Patriot and Arts Atlantic, I had the opportunity to voice my opinion about a variety of art and the artistic environment of the times. Since the demise of these publications, I’ve noticed a lack of will to enter into a critical dissertation which can be beneficial to both the artist and those experiencing the art in public publications. As a part time teacher of art appreciation, I’ve also noticed in my students’ overwhelming reluctance to comment about the work they see, even when it is very obvious they neither like or understand the work before them. I think it’s time we stopped being so reluctant to share our opinions, but without a public venue in which to vent our opinions without negative ramification, that reluctance will continue.

      1. As This Town Is Small Blog continues to grow we hope that the community will use this space to voice their opinions and share their artwork.

        Maybe this is a good place to ask for critical feedback on works of art? People from all across the country are checking in on this “public space” each week.

        We are always accepting submissions.

  2. This is a great conversation and makes me feel a little better about some of the negative comments I let slip when talking about art. This reminds me of a comment Overman had on a post just a few months ago:
    “I find it offensive when I show someone a collection of my work and they say something like, “It’s all great!” or “I love it all!”. No you don’t. You just aren’t looking close enough. Most of it is cutesy garbage with zero thought put into it, or pieces based on pseudo-wit as a marketing ploy”
    I am not an artist, but I do enjoy art and feel I have fairly strong opinions about what I perceive as good and bad art, but I am always sure to think of the Why. Why do I like/dislike this? If I can’t come up with a good reason, I usually hold my thoughts for a while and mill it over.

  3. As with so many other conversations that have been happening via this town is small, I am so glad this is being talked about!

    One of the main reasons I went back to art school and am enjoying it as much as I am is that there is constantly an open dialogue of feedback and critique, both between students and each other, and between students, faculty, and visiting artists, curators and gallery owners. The caliber of work that can be produced in this scenario is remarkable in contrast to that which can be produced in total isolation (while there is something to be said for working that way as well).

    I think of it kind of like the old “it takes a village to raise a child” statement. For the really juicy, really meaningful, really effective work to emerge, I think that to some extent, it does ‘take a village,’ in the sense that the feedback/criticism is part of what makes the art come alive. It helps give it its own life. Personally, as an artist, that is part of my goal when I create – that the work have its own life separate from my hands and eyes.

    Maybe down the road when we get a physical space, a regular open critique could be part of regular programming…I find it a real luxury and hope to find ways to continue having a critical dialogue about art outside of an educational institution.
    This wordpress site is certainly a good place to start 🙂

  4. Obviously critique is important — but there is a difference between constructive criticism and just being critical. I think what happens here on the island is you either you rave about it or bitch about it. Part of the reason could be that many artists here haven’t gone to school to learn the art of dishing and receiving constructive criticism. Hell I went to art school and I don’t know if I even got that lesson. I found the criticism different in different institutions. At UofT, critique really lent itself to whether we were expressing effectively in the genre of the moment (some sub form of Post Modernism where aesthetic was subservient to concept … and being a painter that was a pretty crushing time). I did learn. And it did inform my work. However I came out of school feeling like if I put a mark on a piece of paper that it better have some kind of concept or it was useless. The need to present work that had a mind blowing meaning had superseded that desire to explore and express and art just lost its magic for me. Then I went to OCAD where experimentation was encouraged and actually mandated! Critique still existed but it was much more constructive to my form of art.

    As a gallery owner, I find it hard to critique work when people bring it to me. I try to give them an honest assessment but, like I said earlier, many of them have never been critiqued before. I feel my role as a facilitator in the community is to encourage expression and exploration for all people and so that’s when critique really becomes an art form in itself.

    My fear is that we will become a group of overly intellectualized artists that insulate ourselves from the general public. Not that we should dumb ourselves, our work or our critique down in order to be accepted but I have to say growing up in the art industry in Toronto in the 90’s – I was getting pretty tired of having to refer to an ‘artist’s dictionary’ to understand what the hell the reviewers were saying. When I wrote reviews I would never over conceptualize — and for that I was applauded by teachers (well at OCAD – haha) like Lisa Steele who was just recently included in a show at the Confed Centre. She told me she loved how down to earth my writing was and I was reviewing the work of Collin Campbell a pretty conceptual video artist.

    So what I’m trying to say is that critique is important but it needs to be balanced and useful. We have to take care to remember that we exist in the continuum of creative evolution. What we think about something now could be different 100 years down the road. For me right now, good art exists as something that evokes a response viscerally, intellectually and spiritually. But that’s my take. And others have their takes.

    Maybe we need to start slow. Like ask the Buzz to do a column that is an honest critique of work submitted by someone that is willing and asking for critical assessment. Maybe it could be a ‘this town is small’ segment. This could introduce the concept of critique to the island artists and to the general public. It could work to teach people how to get inside of work – and how that can be done on a variety of levels.

    In both cases the artist being critiqued is doing so with their eyes open. And in that way may be more willing to hear the critique rather than reject it outright or crumple into a ball never able to make work again.

    I can also suggest a critique night, say once a month, where people can bring their work (either finished or in progress) and get a taste of being critiqued. I would offer MUSE for that as a public service if anyone is interested.

    Hmmm … now I’m wondering how this note will be critiqued. Yep, it’s always scary to put your stuff out there! No matter what it is!

  5. weird — the paragraphs got muddled up in my response (?????)

    1. Everybody is so friggin’ articulate on here. Renee, I think you hit the nail on the head: in general, people on the island either rave about something or bitch about it. I couldn’t have said it better. A critique night at a space like Muse could be a great way to get artists to open up to each other about their work. You’re right though, it is a tricky balance between being constructive and being deflating. Especially when the artist is untrained, just starting in their craft or doing it for pleasure. Having a night where artists voluntarily share their work expecting feedback – positive or otherwise – is a great start.

  6. In these discussions, we consider art criticism in two forms: the written word, and in personal interactions. In both instances, one must operate with respect.

    I believe in the necessity of the written component as a record of an art event/object/exhibition, as part of a history. When a writer takes the time to compose an article (often for very little cash if any), they see the subject as worthy of being written about, to be presented as something other artists and viewers need to consider.
    The role of a “critic” in this context is to point out where an artist may improve, but with the primary interest of bettering the practice of that artist (or providing commentary on a larger artistic trend). They should provide a launching point for further discussion, rather than stopping at “this is bad” or “a good time was had by all.” But, the critic must also consider their own biases.

    In a personal context, feedback should be in a constructive format, a discussion. After learning why an individual proceeded as they did, the “critic” should say things like: “Have you considered_________”

    It’s a respect for the practice of the artist, for the fact that you may not understand the process fully, and just plain good manners. There’s never a need to be mean or dismissive. In fact, that often creates results that are opposite to the original intentions of the critic (unless they’re just a supreme asshole).

    Art (and criticism) is about presentation, and if either is muddied, attempts should be made to clarify.

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