I was listening to NPR the other day and they had a show on that was discussing the music review industry. You know, Rolling Stone magazine and whatever came after them. They were discussing how people have a love/hate relationship with critics. Audiences love to hear it when a critic “agrees” with their viewpoint on favorite bands, books, etc. They also hate it when a critic trashes their favorite stuff.

The show mentioned one reviewer who to this day gets death threats for a poor review of a Taylor Swift album. That boggles my mind and raises my anxiety while also dampening my hope for humanity. I understand it’s an isolated incident and one or two lunatics don’t represent the Swifty population, but still, concerning. If I was the one getting the death threats, I’m not going to be thinking about how nice other Swift followers are. I’m going to be watching my back everywhere I go.

The show also mentioned that artists are in a similar position, love/hate that is. When an artist puts themselves out there, they must be able to weather the criticism that comes at them. In today’s day and age, that criticism can be quite vitriolic behind the anonymity of a computer screen. But it’s not just vitriol, mean words were used in the distant past as well as today. When negativity is performed by a trained critic, usually a caustic take on an artist’s creation has the veneer of legitimacy, if not civility. The blowhards that decide on their own that they are qualified to be critics, without any training, are the ones whose vitriolic spewing can cause the most harm, both to the artists and to their listeners.

Critics who know what they are doing do not attack the artist when they analyze a work of art. They are breaking down the elements of form to determine if the artist was successful at what they were trying to do. They are trying to determine if the work of art will speak to the purveyors of said art. They are not trying to be mean, though it may come off as such. In this day and age when anyone can be a critic and have a large following, the art of criticism takes a fatal blow to its legitimacy.

I remember in my younger days I would avidly follow the movie reviews in the Boston Globe. The rating scale they used was one through four stars, though they would throw in a half star every now and then. I would marvel at how hardly any movies got more than two stars and I thought they were very strict on their ratings and didn’t like anything they watched. But, when reading the review, the critic would single out everything the movie did right and what they enjoyed about it while also pointing out its flaws. It was fair, balanced, and informative. When a film somehow reached that four star plateau, you knew it was really something special, whether you ended up liking it or not.

These days, stars fly out of the internet like candy being emptied out of a Halloween bag. If a book or movie gets anything less than four or five stars, it’s considered bad. This inflation of star ratings has rendered the scale useless. These days, you must do work to find reviews that mean something more than the shallow opinions of I didn’t connect with the character or it was really cool, or simply, this sucked. This is unhelpful to the artists and the consumers.

What have we as a nation done to preserve the art of criticism? Nothing. Schools in general get lighter and lighter on liberal arts requirements. News outlets get bought out by hedge fund entrepreneurs and then downsized, cutting arts entertainment and local reporting. It doesn’t look good. It has never been a better time for Tik Tok to conquer the world with thirty second book reviews. In a world where no one benefits from the arts and from in depth criticism, why would artists strive to do better? Why would critics put their lives at risk telling an honest truth?

Fortunately there are some out there still trying to create great entertainment (books, music, films, etc.), and there are some folks with some genuine critical analysis that breaks these works down and gives us some real insight into whether these works of art are the ones that will get us to that place of catharsis– that smile and sigh of partaking in something well worth your time and maybe just a little bit of worthy mental activity. If you find an artist that speaks to you, stick with them. If you find a critic you can trust, stick with them. And above all, be good to each other.

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Author: Jarrod

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