When Reviews Get Personal

Close up of Untitled work from 2013 (c) Aaminah Shakur

Writing reviews is not as easy at it seems. You have to balance being a little cold/uncaring with also being passionate. If you are too enthusiastic about something, everyone says your review isn’t objective enough and you’re pushing a personal favorite. If you struggle to find anything positive to say, everyone thinks you’re being mean-spirited or you “just don’t get it.” I write book, film, and art show reviews, and I’m pretty sure after many years of doing it I still don’t strike just the right balance but I try.

I recently wrote a review of The Ridiculous 6, Adam Sandler’s newest film for Netflix. It’s a misogynist and racist film, and it’s also just not great storytelling. I don’t feel compelled to downplay that I found it offensive and low-quality. I don’t care about Sandler’s feelings, and I doubt he cares about my thoughts about his film. In the past I’ve written book reviews where the authors cared a great deal about what I had to say about their book and argued with me publicly. Of course, in the age of the internet and fandoms, more often it is the fans reviewers are likely to be attacked by. Harassment for having an unfavorable, or even just insufficiently positive, opinion about something is more and more common. Like many other media makers and reviewers — particularly women/non-binary, queer, and people of color — I have been called names, sent numerous emails, threatened, had my employer contacted about things that have nothing to do with my day job, had editors in private writing groups who engage in racist speech say they would never accept pitches from me for pointing it out or for unfavorably reviewing their recent work, had smear campaigns and even fake websites set up to intimidate and attempt to delegitimize me. It’s been a long while since it’s gotten that bad for me, but I constantly see evidence of it happening to others.

There are things I have chosen not to review because I struggled to find something good to say. For example, I was once asked to write a review of an online art show, but after looking at the show I declined to write the review. In that case, it was a show of art around a particular theme of social justice in relation to a particular issue — but the people effected by the issue had not been included. The entire show was made up of work by outsiders to the community, and while some of the work was quite moving it mainly came across as self-serving. I spoke to the editor who had contacted me and told them honestly how I felt about the show. I was willing to take the risk of writing the review as I really saw the show, but they were not willing to publish it unless I removed any critique of intentions, exclusions, and how the selected participants were all people who directly benefitted from the issue not changing despite their artistic protests. So I never wrote the review, though I did speak about it briefly in my social media circles.

I’ve read books by acquaintances with the intention of reviewing, but then decided I didn’t have anything unique to say about them. Either the critiques or accolades had already been sufficiently written and I had nothing new to contribute, or I simply wasn’t inspired enough to say anything at length. The last thing I want to do is waste a friend’s time or insult them unnecessarily. Certainly some things just aren’t meant for me, and it’s ok if I don’t always personally enjoy something. I’d rather just say that on Goodreads while still suggesting the book to others than offer a lackluster or pointless review.

Now I write reviews about local art events, and this has brought with it a new set of issues. It is so much easier to critique financially comfortable and distant filmmakers, poets, and curators than middle-class people from your own city and arts community.

I wrote not long ago about thoughts I had while working as a gallery guard in the gallery of my college during ArtPrize. I agonized over whether the curator of the gallery would take anything I was saying as a critique of her work, because she is someone I not only need to deal with in my community, but also someone I do have deep respect for. In addition, it is an under-recognized gallery that I believe is providing the most relevant work and conversations locally. My comments were not intended to critique the curator or the gallery itself, but the way our local art institutions as a whole are or are not inviting to diverse people and how we do or do not encourage active engagement with the arts for more people in our community. Someone from a different organization completely misread my questions and responded somewhat rudely that it was a matter of resources. Never mind that their organization has significant resources and is one of the least accessible — in all the various meanings of “accessibility” that address disability, class, race, etc — of local organizations.

While I’ve attended far more things I have enjoyed, I have also attended a number of shows, artist talks, and events where I struggled to find much to say positive about what was being presented. My issues are the art itself, the way artists present themselves and their work, the accessibility challenges of the venue, the way staff speak to patrons (or doesn’t speak to certain patrons), the way marketing material is written in a way that makes it useless and uninformative, the failure to provide reasonable directions/accommodations or basic signage, and more. But to talk about these things would be to put myself at odds with the movers-and-shakers of my city’s arts community. To acknowledge that I find many popular and well-liked artists dull, at best, and deeply problematic at worst, would be to indict all of their friends and colleagues who have supported them and given them opportunities to bore or insult me and others.

Some local artists have long spoken about the lack of genuine inclusiveness of artists of color, disabled artists, poor artists, artists without formal training, women artists who are also mothers, and how often women artists are not even seen as artists in their own right but as extensions of the artistic men in their lives. I haven’t seen that improve in the past five years that I’ve been an active part of the artist community in my city. I see a lot more lip service given to diversity, but the same artists, or types of artists, continue to be centered and continue to do the same work they were doing five or more years ago. And they continue to get the same accolades, funding, and opportunities to do it. Those same artists often speak disparagingly about the other previously mentioned types of artists. I find myself unable to write reviews of these boring, uninspiring, and often appropriative shows and events, or to look past the personally unkind behaviors and attitudes of the artists. To write the truth would be to bury myself, when I’m already considered a nobody who rarely sells work locally and never has a show unless I put it together myself.