On Artists and Criticism

To make something is to lose something. Whether an artist is sketching, writing, composing, directing, or choreographing, she edits, she throws out, she kills her darlings. (Or, more often than not, someone comes along and murders them for her.) Artists are always attending to loss. They are in perpetual mourning, and we should treat them accordingly.

Loss is essential to what artists do; our task is not to shield them from it. But we would do well to be gentle with them. And I see the opposite happening today.

For one, the culture of criticism has overshadowed the culture of creation, and that goes for professional as well as lay critics. These days, a book, a film, a sculpture, a performance, a collection, an album is turned into carrion before it has even had a chance to breathe air into its lungs. We no longer consume art with an eye toward appreciation or understanding, but with the intention to pick the flesh from its bones.

“We no longer consume art with an eye toward appreciation or understanding, but with the intention to pick the flesh from its bones.”

Criticism is a very specific pursuit, and it has gotten away from itself. I am addressing the professionals now, because the climate of criticism trickles down from them; if they do their job as it is intended, it will have a salutary effect on the rest of our culture. The role of the critic is to describe a piece of art, to contextualize it, and to give an informed opinion on whether or not the work is successful within that context. Full Stop. It is not for a critic to say that they love something or hate something, that it is good or bad. It is not for a critic to make mention of the person with whom the artist is sleeping, unless it relates directly to the work. (A critic who personalizes his criticism is a lazy one). A critic’s job is to educate the rest of us about where the work fits into the history of the medium, to illuminate the aesthetic and conceptual underpinnings of the work, and to help us understand whether or not the artist’s intentions were well translated into the finished product. True critics are invaluable resources to the art world. They are the historians, the record keepers, the scholars whose knowledge helps to clarify and make accessible the art that might otherwise fly over our heads or slip through our fingers.

I say true critics, because there really are two kinds. The false critics are the ones Hemingway wrote about, the “men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors.” These critics exist solely in the realm of destruction. They do not add anything of their own to the world, they merely plunder what is already there. About them, and their targets, Theodore Roosevelt said,

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

The commonality here is the distance from where the art is being created that the critic chooses to stand. A false critic is not a part of the world he attempts to dissect.

A true critic is an artist as well. In his appreciation and illumination of others’ work, in his elucidation of what is important, he creates something new and, by doing so, places himself inside the arena and on the battlefield. Roger Ebert was a shining example of this. His love of film was undeniable, and in writing about it as enthusiastically and thoughtfully as he did, he contributed to the medium. There are reviews of his that don’t make plain his opinion of a film, devoting the column inches instead to helping the reader make sense of what was going on in the world during the time period in which the film takes place, or telling a personal story that related to one of its themes. By sharing parts of himself, he made his readers understand what certain films brought out in him so that we could look out for what they might bring out in us. It was clear he always wanted actors and filmmakers to succeed, and when pointing out a misstep or an ineffective choice, he did so without relish or schadenfreude.

“A true critic is an artist as well.”

It is this rampant schadenfreude that threatens the survival of our artists. The most egregious example is our treatment of actors, perhaps the most sensitive creatures of the whole blessed lot. Painters, sculptors, writers, musicians can to some degree externalize their work; it comes from them, but they can hold it at arm’s length. An actor does not have this luxury because their bodies are the vehicle through which they create, as well as part of the final product (the same can be said for all performing artists, though they come under less scrutiny than actors because of the cultural hierarchy).

We should wrap up our actors, some of the greatest storytellers at our culture’s disposal, in blankets of support and allow them their privacy. Instead, we hunt them like game, with flashbulbs for bullets, creating dysfunctional unhappy people who might otherwise be sane given a semblance of a normal life.

There is a subtext to our treatment of actors, musicians, and of all the artists who have made it to the top of their field, which is: You asked for it. You knew what you were getting into. This line of thinking is specious and must be rejected. For one, given the infinitesimally small likelihood of making a successful living in the arts, anyone who pursues a creative life does so with a personal imperative that supersedes money or fame. Secondly, a person who was born with a gift for telling stories, whether through their bodies, music, words, hands, or imaginations, and who has worked to acquire the skills necessary to bring those stories to light, did not at any point ask to be stripped of a private life. There has been a long-standing tacit agreement that we have been unwilling to acknowledge, which goes like this: We will grant you fame and fortune and influence and status and good seats at restaurants and, in exchange, you will grant us whatever we want from you.

I see an intolerance of anyone with success complaining about the downside of this agreement. We do not allow it. They should take the money and shut up. Again and again, I hear actors in interviews, when asked about the pressures of fame, say, “I don’t mean to complain. It’s not like I work in the mines.” How sad that we glorify manual labor in a way that we do not value emotional labor. An actor is the bravest kind of artist. They make themselves vulnerable for our amusement. And instead of acknowledging that vulnerability, we defile it.

“How sad that we glorify manual labor in a way that we do not value emotional labor.”

We are not taking care of our artists in the way that a civilized society ought to. Artists are a precious and perishable resource, and to properly look after them we have to understand the perils of the creative life. We have to understand that for an artist to have a single success — an article accepted for publication, a grant awarded, a script greenlit, a piece included in a show — they may have to withstand twenty, fifty, a hundred rejections, sometimes more. Twenty people telling them no, fifty people not believing in what they are trying to do, a hundred people ignoring them entirely. The amount of stamina, faith, focus, energy, and self-belief required to weather that percentage of failure is unimaginable to most.

Imagine now that an artist has persevered, has traversed the maelstrom of rejection, and has received a yes at the end of forty-nine nos. Imagine the amount of pride and care that goes into making that single piece of work — the performance, the essay, the album, the movie, the sculpture — so that it can be shared with the rest of the world, which, it turns out, is waiting with bated breath to tear it to shreds.

Please think about this the next time you write a review from a high place or post a comment from outside the arena. Please consider the life of the artist, and consider the life of the work. Really consider them. Even if you do not like what they have to say, give them a chance to feel the light of the world on their skin for a time, give them a chance to breathe some air into their lungs.