Week 11: Critics, Reviewers & Your Art
Critics and reviewers are part of your creative work life. What role do they play and how do you interact with them? This week we’ll delve into the history of art criticism to understand how it developed and the role it has, along with reviews and how to approach journalists.
Critics and reviewers. As you have already identified in your responses, there are times when you will be engaging with journalists and critics. You are already working on your public profile (your website, portfolio, and any social media accounts). This is part of the conversation you’ll be having with such professionals.
But there are further steps as well that will needed. For instance, putting together a Press Kit. This will need to be prepared while you are working on your project — which can be difficult when you’re still changing things. Ultimately you need to craft a kit that gives journalists everything they need to talk about your project (hi-res images, videos, description with hooks, awards, team, dates, etc). We will talk further about other methods you can use in dealing with journalists at the end. For now, let’s delve into the crucial question of what journalists and critics do.
History of Criticism
When we’re talking about criticism, we’re not talking about a negative comment on your work. Instead we’re talking about a type of writing that involves a thoughtful discussion of a creative piece. It is not necessarily positive or negative. So what is it then? To understand what criticism is, let’s step back in time…
…all the way back to first century BCE, to the ancient Greek geographer Strabo (depicted on the engraving to the left). Art history theorist Kerr Houston explains how Strabo is an example of early art criticism because he contemplated the effect of an ancient temple of Artemis. Rather than describe the geographic specifics of the area, Strabo considered the quality of the construction:
“insofar as the size of the temple and the number of votives is concerned, falls short of the one in Ephesus; but, in its well-designed appearance and in the artistry visible in the fitting out of its sacred enclosure, is much superior.” (Strabo in J.J. Pollitt’s (1974) The Ancient View of Greek Art, pp. 171)
Likewise, in the fifth century CE, a late antique scholar named Procopius recorded his reaction to Constantinople’s Hagia Sofia (see image below). His language does more than describe the details of the construction, it moves into the realm of describing the experience.
“From the lightness of the building, it does not appear to rest upon a solid foundation, but to cover the place beneath as though it were suspended from heaven by the fabled golden chain.” (Procopius in Lethaby W.R. & Swainson H.(1894) The Church of Sancta Sophia, Constantinople, pp.26)
Further on, in the early 1700s, we see English painter and writer Jonathan Richardson the Elder dipping his toe into on art theory and (what become known as) art criticism: An Essay on the Theory of Painting in 1715 and Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism as it Relates to Painting and an Argument in Behalf of the Science of the Connoisseur in 1719. Significantly, Richardson then developed categories for people to assess a painting through a scoring system…like Rotten Tomatoes, and scores out of 5 or 10. To Richardson, this system gave anyone the tools to assess a picture.
But, as Houston notes, what Richardson was “criticising” was older paintings…paintings centuries old… Part of the reason for this was the experience of art was sequestered to the upper classes. Art was commissioned and bought and displayed in their homes, not for the general public. It was behind closed doors. This doesn’t facilitate open conversations about the pieces for there is no market, no audience.
This is why the introduction of Salons transformed the experience of art for many. In 1737 the most prestigious academy in France, Royal Academy of painters and sculptors, started a Salon — free and open to the public events— to show artist works for 2 months at a time.
In 1769 the British Royal Academy also started a Summer Exhibition, which is so popular it continues to this day…
Everything you'll see at the Summer Exhibition represents what is happening in the art world right now. New and recent…www.royalacademy.org.uk
But, as Houston explains, the opening of doors to the public in the mid 1700s was not embraced by all:
“The inclusion of the public at large prompted some unhappiness among members of the cultural elite. A few observers complained of overcrowding, and contrasted the smell of commoners with the sophisticated scents that emanated from the wealthy. There were reports, too, of pickpocketing. Among the most nervous observers, however, were the artists, who wondered if their work could be seen with understanding by those with no formal training in the visual arts. Regardless, the response of the public was clearly enthusiastic. Salon attendance generally rose, over the course of the 1700s, and so did the number of artists who participated in the Salon; if artists sometimes objected to the sharp assessments of critics, they clearly valued the exposure that inclusion in the Salon could bring.”
(Houston, K. (), pp.26)
Drifting amongst the scents of commoners and the wealthy were catalogs. Written by the Academy, they provided basic information about each painting. But as Houston reveals, non-Academy writers started to publish their own responses to the works and sell them outside of the exhibition or in newspapers. Indeed, the “earliest surviving sustained commentary on the Salon” is an anonymous text written in 1741. It attacks the aristocrats who attend the Salons, depicted them as “members of ridiculous old guard that was now eclipsed by a more savvy general public” (Houston, pp.25). Here is where we see the counter movement against the upper class, rendering their interpretations of the works of art as meaningless. Interestingly, the text includes a passage on the painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s Bizarre Antlers of a Stag Taken by the King on Last July Fifth (see image below for another of Jean-Baptiste’s paintings), which echos the kind of “it is so real” writings we see about cinema, 3D cinema, and VR technology now:
“I believe that there has never been anything better in the genre. You could take the Horns of the Stag in your hand. They seem to stand against Planks which are so deceiving that one can scarcely keep from believing that the artist did not work directly on these very boards, and though we know we are in a Salon of painting, we must apply our powers of reasoning to convince ourselves that this is only a work of art.”
Along with the development of art criticism according to viewpoints and social positions we also saw the development of a common language. Terms such as “pingible” and “pictorish” emerged.
The natural developments are observable today, when we see certain terms and even entrenched ways of reviewing endemic to a discipline. Consider this parody of video game reviews relocated to film to see the disparities that have emerged:
But for a long time there were mainly positive responses to the Salons, partly because the Royal Academy tried to limit negative assessments. But this changed. La Font de Saint-Etienne issued an uncompromising attack on painters. He argued that the public provide the most valuable and objective reactions.
“It is only in the mouths of those firm and equitable men who comprise the Public, who have no links whatever with the artists…that can find the language of truth.” — Reflections on some causes of the present state of painting in France, by La Font de Saint-Etienne, 1746
Reflections on some causes of the present state of painting in France with an examination of the principal works shown…www.gregorybringman.net
Houston continues, explaining how this caused an uproar. Indeed, in 1749 the Salon was closed, and then wasn’t reopened until 1751 amidst reluctance. Artists were concerned the criticisms would affect their reputation (sound familiar?). But the debate was reframed by critics, claiming that if you opposed criticism you were opposing democracy. The unease continued until the King made the decision to censor all non-Academy writings through the 1760s. To get around this, critics continued writing by using pseudonyms, writing anonymously, writing private newsletters, or using international publications. One such person is Denis Diderot. In Correspondance Literraire, Diderot wrote long pieces (180 pages of criticism) for small readerships of about 200.
“To a certain extent the genre [of art criticism] remains what it was when Denis Diderot invented it, the record of spontaneous response and fast judgment to the presence of new work.” Lawrence Alloway, 1984
With the writhing bangs of the Revolution in 1789, criticism continued through these unusual channels.
But then in 1799, the world of Napoleon changed things. Political commentary was closely watched. Interestingly, what emerged out of this dark overseeing was the use of art criticism as a way to surreptitiously comment on politics.
What about now? What are some of the debates we face?
We certainly have our experiences that echo the tensions of the past. Consider a controversy that happened in 2014 in Australia. Key Australian film critics Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratten have been sharing their reviews of films for decades (only recently ending ‘At The Movies’). It became known that they refused to review a top earner at the Box Office: Wolf Creek 2. When queried, their official Twitter channel responded that “they didn’t want to review it”. The director of the film, Greg McLean, made it known that they did not review it, and followed up with questions as to why. He didn’t mind if they tore it apart, just as long as they reviewed it.
Some argued that it is their duty to cover Australian films. They have a huge cultural function and so to not review the film is to deny the film respect and promotion (even if they didn’t like it). Stratten did publish a review in The Australian (giving it 2 stars), but the question highlighted for some genre snobbery. Do you think they should have reviewed the film?
What is the difference between criticism and reviews?
It is perhaps helpful here to also clarify the difference between criticism and reviews. Game designer Greg Costikyan published a blog post about this after attending GDC and witnessing a panel conflating the two:
Reviews are the inevitable epiphenomenon of our consumer society, writing to help consumers navigate the innumerable options available to them. They can be well or poorly done, but they are nothing more than ephemera. […] Similarly, there would be no point today in writing a review of Ultima IV, since it is long out of print. A useful work of criticism, however, is entirely conceivable: discussing, perhaps, its role as one of the first games to consider the moral implications of a player’s acts, and to use tactical combat as a minigame within the context of a larger, more strategic title. Such an article, well-written, ideally with an understanding of the influence of tabletop roleplaying on the development of the early western CRPG, and of the place of this title in the overall shape of Richard Garriot’s ouevre would be of interest to readers today, even if they’d be hard put to find a way to buy the damn game. And it might find a place in anthologies and studies of the 20th century origins of the popular medium of the game, going forward into the indefinite future. (Greg Costikyan, quoted on The Gameshelf)
What are the skills needed to be a critic or journalist?
As we can see with some of the historical examples, and there are practitioners in various disciplines that write reviews and are involved in criticism as well. You can learn a lot from analysing other works, and then even potentially gain some financial income (another income source). Daniel Mendelson wrote about the skills needed to be able to do criticism well:
“Knowledge, then — however you got it — was clearly the crucial foundation of the judgment to come. The second crucial component in the drama of criticism, the reagent that got you from the knowledge to the judgment, was taste, or sensibility — whatever it was in the critic’s temperament or intellect or personality that the work in question worked on. From this, as much as from anything else, I learned a great deal.” — “A Critic’s Manifesto” Daniel Mendelson
In the nineteen-seventies, when I was a teen-ager and had fantasies of growing up to be a writer, I didn’t dream of…www.newyorker.com
Adam Sessler talks about what it takes to be a good game journalist:
He cites, among other works, a text that can inform your writing: Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Fredric Jameson (1991) Source: Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism Verso, 1991. Just two sections…www.marxists.org
But where do you find good criticism? Back in 2009, Critical Distance was founded to answer the question: “Where is all the good writing about games?” They continue their work to this day, “to bring together and highlight the most interesting, provocative and robust writing, video and discussion on games from across the web”, along with conferences where game critics and developers meet to discuss the art of writing.
Mark Harris talks about the development of sites like Pitchfork and how they help and don’t help music criticism:
It is also important to note that writers have been experimenting with how they research and share their thoughts about creative works for the community. For instance, game critic and researcher Brendan Keogh has written a book (and ebook) dedicated entirely to one game, Spec Ops: The Line. Games journalist Cara Ellison traveled the world for a year living with game developers such as Brendan Chung (Blendo Games) for a series called ‘Embed With…’. And likewise film critic and SAE educator Huw Walmsley-Evans traveled the world to interview film critics.
Something weird happened to me last year, when I wrote about a game called Rollers of the Realm . It was a fairly…www.wired.com
What makes you good at talking to journalists?
Most of you will be conversing with journalists at some time in your career (you will definitely if you work on independent projects). You can send off a press release (which takes skill to construct well, but here the web framework mentioned earlier to guide you). But you may be ignored. There is a reason for that. So think about:
• Research the journalists and reviewers and critics
o Find out what publications they write for
o Find out what they write about
o Find out their target readership
o Find out their views
(hint: Whenever you come across a review or criticism about a game similar to what you’re creating, make a note of the writer and the article in your own Excel document. When you’re ready to release you’ll have a list of people who you know may be interested…)
• Craft a personal message
o Don’t send an anonymous and impersonal email
o Address them by name, mention something about how their previous reviews relate to your project
o Offer them a review code, password, or download link
o Tell them who is available for interviews
o Incorporate humour and/or your personality…
“The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or
a new material his impression of beautiful things.”
Oscar Wilde, Preface to ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1854–1900)
Arts is an aesthetic experience. Audiences need a key to unlock.
Critics ease the art of interpretation.