My son is taking Creative Writing in his first semester in college. He’s come face-to-face with the nastiness-as-criticism phenomenon. “There’s a boy who never has anything good to say about anyone’s work,” he said. “He acts so superior.”
Then it came time for my son to criticize that boy’s writing. “Don’t retaliate,” I told him. “Your teacher will appreciate that you kept it polite and constructive.”
“Look at this, Mom.” His classmate had written a long prose poem about scoring sex from naïve young girls.
“Well, the rhythm is compelling and he has the voice right,” I started. That’s what I liked about Eminem and Ray Davies, I told him. Their characters weren’t likable, but they’d drawn them well. As I was about to extend my point, my son interrupted me.
“That’s his own voice. The only part that’s fictional is the part where he actually succeeds in getting laid.”
Nonetheless, I cautioned him, criticism is not about personality but about searching out meaning in art. It’s best to stay away from the question of whether a work of art is good or bad, and instead address whether it hits its target in conveying a mindset, idea, or worldview.
In retrospect, I think I gave him bad advice. A work of art is also about the character of the artist. This is why I cannot warm up to Picasso’s paintings; I don’t like the spirit radiating from them. The boy’s subject was predatory sexuality, and his audience included its potential victims. That would have been a valid point.
I stand by my initial statement that there was something successful in this poem, because it provoked a response, even if that response was disgust. It’s still better than the slick, completely anodyne work of so many professionals.
My former studio assistant, Sandy Quang, had just finished her MA in Art History when we were puzzling over a Tom Otterness installation at the Memorial Art Gallery. Both of us are well-trained in offering criticism, but we were having trouble.
“Maybe they were in storage and they got them cheap,” she suggested.
“From what I read in the paper, they weren’t cheap, and they were created for this spot,” I answered.
“Well, I suppose you could say that they reflect a certain aspect of modern…” Her voice trailed off as the idea refused to coalesce.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” I snapped. “They’re drivel.”
I hope time proves me wrong, but I’m not optimistic.