Cartoonist Scott Kurtz (with whose work I’m not familiar) has a snarky post up about how much more important art is than criticism.
I’m not sure how I ended up in so many tug-of-war competitions with bloggers, where the outcome of our match determines the superior position: creator or critic. But it seems to be cropping up again. There is a strange sense of entitlement, an eerie assumption of an unspoken working relationship that I am happy to inform does not exist. Why we insulate ourselves from the notion that the external critic can EVER be right, is because their critique is moot in regards to the progression of our work.
Think about Star Trek and the Prime Directive. Sometimes, civilizations take a left turn in their natural progression and things go tits up. Sometimes there is a dictatorship or a famine or a plague that is going to steer this civilization into trouble, but the crew of the Enterprise CAN NOT ACT. They can NOT interfere. To interfere with those hardships would be to damage the natural progression of that civilization.
All of the progress I’ve made in my work, be it writing or art, was accomplished through getting it wrong the first time. My father always told me that the first brush stroke will never be perfect. There’s only so much you can learn from reading books on writing or art theory. You have to create and get your hands dirty and see what works. You have to take risks and you have to fail.
I agree with the overall point, actually…but not for the romantic artist-as-tragic-hero reasons that Kurtz gives. The point of criticism really isn’t to help the artist out — at least not in the sense of telling the artist what it is he or she should do or change. A finished piece is a finished piece. You say it’s good or you say it sucks, or you say it’s somewhere in between, but that assessment is aimed at the work’s (potential) audience, not at the artist.
This is obvious when you review, say movies — the folks involved in Dark Knight aren’t going to read or care about my review, and everyone knows it. The comic-book world is small enough and insular enough that I think these distinctions can sometimes get blurred — Jeff Brown, for example, has suggested that I have a personal vendetta against him, when in fact I just don’t like his comics (or some of them — I rather like others.) Along the same lines, I think comics critics can write as if they’re giving feedback, rather than writing a review.
The distinction gets especially tricky when you’re talking about, say, comments on a web comic or something, where the posters *really are* giving feedback and telling the artist what to do. Obviously, the artist is under no obligation to listen…but you do want some relationship with your fans, and encouraging feedback is a useful way to figure out what the fans think and how you can cater to them.
I don’t know. I guess the point is that critics are generally speaking to everyone *except* the artist in question; fans are often speaking directly to the artist, for whatever that’s worth. Taking a principled stand that you’re never going to listen to either is fine…but putting it in an essay in which you whine about the criticism you’ve gotten seems maybe a little silly.
I think it’s also worth pointing out that, while as an artist you may not want to listen to “critics”, you tend to want to listen to *somebody*. The splendid isolation meme is probably satisfying in a Ayn Rand kind of way, but the truth is that virtually all artists want some kind of audience. Art is about communication, and that communication isn’t just one way. It’s interesting that at the end of his essay, Kurtz says this:
Recently, I called Mike Krahulik to compliment him on a new coloring technique he had used on a recent Penny-Arcade strip. I opened my phone conversation with the following statement: “Mike, Ignore all emails about the new coloring. It’s awesome. Pursue it.” But it was too late. He had already read all the mail and had been sufficiently discouraged enough to just drop the matter. “That’s what I get for trying to innovate.” he said to me.
The point Kurtz is trying to make is that Krahulik shouldn’t listen to criticism. But the story is actually about Kurtz *offering criticism*. It’s even *negative* criticism; he’s telling Krahulik that he’s wrong to drop his new coloring, and should go back to it. And it’s even unsolicited negative criticism — he called Krahulik, not the other way around. And, what’s more, it’s unsolicited negative criticism that does exactly what Kurtz says you shouldn’t do as a critic — that is, assume that, as a critic, you have the right to dictate aesthetic choices to the artist.
Of course, Kurtz and Krahulik are friends (I presume), and they probably have a relationship in which feedback is expected and encouraged. Fair enough — but then the issue starts to become, not that artists shouldn’t listen to criticism, but that artists should only listen to the *right kind* of criticism; criticism, presumably, that Kurtz agrees with.
Which is to say, that artists do, of course, solicit and respond to crticism. And why shouldn’t they? You’re trying to reach people with your work; it makes sense that you would have some interest in figuring out what people think about it. Critics and artists don’t owe each other anything, and don’t have to listen to each other…but at the same time they’re in a symbiotic relationship — especially if by “critic” you mean, not just people publishing reviews, but random fans emailing you with their opinions (and the last seems to be what Kurtz does mean.)
So…where do I end up? I think almost all artists (except for a handful of honest-to-goodness whackos like Henry Darger) need and solicit feedback. An artist is certainly welcome to (and indeed advised to) figure out for him/herself where he wants that feedback to come from, whether it be fans and critics (in the interest of marketing or sales) or trusted friends (in the interest of aesthetic improvement).
Also, after reading Kurtz’s post over again, I have to say, as a critic, that it’s really kind of a big old pile of blustering, self-indulgent shit. “Why we insulate ourselves from the notion that the external critic can EVER be right, is because their critique is moot in regards to the progression of our work.” Come on. Could you possibly sound more pompous? “…you can make bold strokes and insulate yourself from those who might react poorly to it.” Yeah…it sure is bold to present yourself as some kind of romantic genius and parrot aesthetic talking points from, like 200 years ago. “Ultimately, we can’t chart our course based on what our readership or critics thinks is working. We have to go with our gut.” Fine, you’re gritty and real and dangerous, and we can tell this because you’re whining and whining and whining about what was actually a positive review. Get a life, man.
And when I say “Get a life, man” I’m not actually trying to influence the way you live or your art or even what you do with your blog posts. I’m just making fun of you — which, I think we can all agree, is the proper job of a critic.