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Blog // Creativity
3 weeks ago

Why Criticism Still Matters

Critics used to play an important role in popular culture. But many people think we’re better off without them. That might not be true.

For a moment in the 1970s, The Bee Gees were the biggest thing in pop music. With their distinctive falsetto voices and lush vocal harmonies, they released hit song after hit song. Their soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever powered the film that launched John Travolta’s career as a movie star.

But at the peak of their popularity, the tide of popular culture turned against them. The kind of fun, dance-oriented music they were synonymous with was suddenly out of fashion. The 2020 documentary, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, highlights the way the “Disco Sucks” movement killed the mainstream popularity of bands like them.

In 1979, at an event in Chicago called Disco Demolition Night, disco albums were collected and then blown up during a break in a major baseball game. This moment signalled a cultural shift. The stunt revealed a nasty secret. A lot of albums fans destroyed were by Black artists. Much of it wasn’t even disco music.

The Disco Sucks movement was a reaction to the huge popularity of disco music. But also, many of the artists making disco were Black. Many of the clubs popularising the music were gay. The result was record labels stopped signing disco acts and promoting disco albums. The charts became whiter, straighter, and more conventionally rock oriented.

That was the world at that time. The direction of popular culture could be shaped by a few powerful voices.

Criticism or Creativity?

If you go back far enough in the archives of this blog, you’ll find lots of reviews. I used to regularly write about films I saw, books I read, albums I listened to and performances I attended. For a while, I even co-hosted a film review podcast. I was a fully fledged critic.

Then I stopped.

A big influence on that decision was something photographer and director Chase Jarvis said. His idea was that if you were an artist, then you shouldn’t be a critic. You couldn’t inhabit both mindsets.

Creator or critic. You had to choose.

Like so many either/or distinctions, this one has fallen apart over the years. I no longer believe it’s that simple. In fact, I’ve come to value criticism far more than I did before.

Where we once had criticism, we now, too often, have opinion and complaint. This infects much of the popular discourse. And it never moves us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, our culture, or the art under consideration.

But criticism is fuel for creativity. It inspires and informs. It’s a lot more than just saying whether something is “good” or “bad.” It transcends stars and lists and rankings. In a way, criticism is its own art form. And like all art, it challenges the status quo and transforms culture.

The Function of Criticism

The critic isn’t simply an opinion-giver. Their role isn’t to issue decrees. This is good. That’s bad.

We can think of criticism as akin to tuning an old radio. Criticism brings clarity to our appreciation of a work of art. A good critic helps us understand how and why something is good (or not good). They help us see beyond the product to how it was produced and why it matters.

They draw lines for us, from craft to culture.

The best criticism is the kind that still makes sense to engage with after you have seen the film, read the book, watched the performance, or seen the exhibition.

Good criticism elevates our appreciation. It helps us articulate our experience. It gives us a framework for understanding our own tastes, preferences, and even prejudices.

Our culture has supposedly been democratised. There no longer seems to be any role for critics. And yet so many people complain that it’s hard to find good new music to listen to, books to read, films and TV to watch. We are drowning in content. And lacking conversations about that content that rise above the nuance-free shouting matches that dominate a lot of online spaces.

Critical Creativity

Criticism can bolster our creativity in a number of ways. Criticism makes us think about our own taste. The aesthetic values that motivate us. It reminds us of the importance of craft. Every act of criticism is a reflection on how we feel things should be made. And criticism is always connected to a community. To a body of practice. Or a shared identity that gathers around certain kinds of art and creativity.

In an essay dealing with the role of criticism in contemporary arts culture, Jane Howard says:

“To review is to grapple with a piece of art, yes. But it is also to grapple with yourself: how do you see the world, and how does the world see you? What are the biases you bring to life and to art? Who are you, experiencing this piece of art, on this day, in this place?”

When we engage with criticism we actually engage with ourselves. With the project of being more in touch with who we are and how we want to move through the world. The goal of criticism isn’t firing off our opinions in all directions. It’s moving through the world with self-assurance.

Through criticism, we learn to navigate culture.

This is a pretty powerful way to both plant your flag, telling others who you are, and invite deep conversations. Where mere opinion-giving is fragile, reactive, and defensive, criticism is solid, able to withstand disagreement, and invite deeper exploration.

Criticism Is Not Complaining

What substitutes for criticism and garners engagement on social media is a discourse of complaint. Whether it’s a movie or a piece of music, the thing itself isn’t evaluated on its own terms. Rather it’s reviled for not being something else entirely.

Films based on comic books are the most egregious example. Rather than seriously consider the adaptation, the critic engages in a kind of hypothetical comparison to some imaginary version of what could’ve been made.

And at its worst these kinds of complaints can fuel movements like “Disco Sucks.”

But even at the much smaller level of sharing our own personal projects this happens. We face the “you should’ve made something else” complaint. Except we didn’t make something else. We made the thing we made. So please look at it.

In his book Clear Thinking, Shane Parrish says something relevant to this point:

“Complaining isn’t productive. It only misleads you into thinking that the world should function in a way that it doesn’t. Distancing yourself from reality makes it harder to solve the problems you face. There is always something you can do today to make the future easier, though, and the moment you stop complaining is the moment you start finding it.”

Good criticism engages the world and the things in it as they are. Not only as we wish they were. Rather than avoiding reality and evidence, it embraces them as the starting point. It tethers us to what’s possible instead of letting us fly off to a fantasy world where everything should be as we imagine it.

Years ago, I made some artwork on the theme “Don’t Complain – Make Something.” It reflected my thinking at the time, and I still believe it. I’d just add that good criticism counts as making something.

Feel Free To Critique

Criticism still exists. At least at the margins. Literary journals like the New York Review of Books keep it alive. Some newspapers (or news websites) still host reviews. We’re

But my plea is broader than that. We could all do more criticism. Using whatever platform we have. Something more than just saying a thing is good or bad.

Reveal your inner values and aesthetics. Help us be more serious about our culture. Demonstrate how to feel more deeply. Enjoy more profoundly.

Hopefully, we can all be moved to the core by the great work we experience.

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