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 …
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.