Alexandra Lange | Essays

Critics Critical Criticism

Illustration by Tom Gauld for the New York Times Magazine

Some meta-criticism over the weekend, courtesy book critic Dwight Garner in the New York Times Magazine. In his Riff essay, "A Critic's Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical," he suggests that respecting the effort that went into the creation of a work of art with generosity and silence will lead to the creation of a "zombie nation": "a place no thinking person above the age of 7 would want to spend an afternoon." I have to admit I found myself in the following description.
It’s a job that mostly suits my temperament. I like people — artists and civilians — who aren’t rude or censorious but who aren’t mush-mouthed either. Since childhood I’ve been a loather of America’s feel-good, everyone-on-tiptoes culture. Give me some straight talk. Give me a little humor. Give me something real. Above all, give me an argument.
Garner is talking about literary criticism, of course. It has always bothered me that the default definition of criticism is of books, and I realized while running the (now on hiatus) Let's Get Critical site that the number of book reviews dwarfs the critical production of all other fields. I suppose there just are more books, but it sometimes feels like the television people, with their recaps and live-blogs, are making a good run at catching up.

Garner's language, particularly that rallying cry, "Give me an argument" echoes a talk I gave on the usefulness of architectural criticism last year in Lisbon. Hard times for an industry require more thoughtful criticism, not less.
Why don’t people like criticism?

1. They are afraid of negativity. It’s rude. It may be counter-productive. It doesn’t win you many friends. People are thrilled by the endorphin hit of a take-down, they rubber-neck at the spectacle of a critic taking on a sacred cow, but the design sites they want to cuddle up with every day? All positive.

2. We don’t like having second thoughts. No one likes the feeling that we have done it wrong. That we’ve spent all this money on something Useless. That we have spent all this money at all. Architecture criticism sometimes offers nothing but buyer’s remorse. We are too late to change anything.

When the buildings are going up fast and furious, a hit or a miss doesn’t seem to matter as much if you are just reading about it. It is a different story for the city with the concert hall that leaks, or the tower that destroys the skyline.

But now construction has slowed down. That should mean we have time to consider our options. That should mean clients spend their money more wisely. And that should mean architecture and design projects have more value added: greater sustainability, greater public engagement. That makes them harder to criticize. Just as no one likes to trample the metaphorical daisies of those design blogs bursting with positivity, no one likes to be the naysayer to good works.

So why do I (or we) persist?

Criticism isn’t always negative. I prefer to think of it as writing with a purpose. Sometimes that purpose is the search for beauty, but it can also seek utility, sustainability, humanity, economy. Criticism has the most detail packed into the smallest package.
Garner's Riff was partly inspired by Jacob Silverman's recent suggestion, via the Slate Book Review, that a culture of niceness had been created by Twitter. I consider this suggestion apocryphal, but no harm ever came to a writer on Twitter by writing about Twitter. It was the niceness that got Garner's goat.

Silverman's anti-liking, plus a surprisingly nasty review of two books by Alix Ohlin in the New York Times Book Review, provoked yet another meta-critical response on Salon, this time by J. Robert Lennon. His essay, "How to write a bad review," finally advances the argument from observation to instruction, just in time for school. I could send the link around to the incoming class at DCrit, because his first point, "provide context," is key to the design criticism endeavor.

And context is precisely where design critics can have so much more fun than book critics. Humor, realness should just come naturally. Context, for us, is not a slog through all previous novels, or even biography. It can be a tour of all the architect's other buildings, searching for tics. It can be a stroll down the block, to see what's been cropped out of the photographs of that latest architectural marvel. It can be as easy as trying to buy a ticket at the swoopy box office, or as difficult as tracing the historical references. Students are often nervous about taking on the hard work and reputation that go into a building. But I always tell them, Tell us what you see. Explain why you think that. Details. Observation isn't personal (another point on Lennon's list). Even the most positive review requires a little pepper of negatives to be believable (he says, "be balanced"). That's not hating (he says, "don't be a dick," but for critics like me that's not an option).

And, thank god, it still isn't "liking."

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media, Technology

Comments [5]

"Tell us what you see." That in itself is the best form of criticism possible--the problem is that it almost never happens. Everyone takes the easy out--talking about politics, brands, perceived conflicts, or these endless meta-critical discussions etc. And the end of the day it becomes less about design than it is about status and brands--person or company. And yet it is right there in front of you, a physical reality, unlike the criticism of books or ideas.

Of course, it is easier to talk about books because they are almost non-physical ideas that can be easily distributed. There is a reason why the technology of the media continues to advance at a fast rate while the physical world around us decays. But can you believe that 40% of the world doesn't have access to toilets for god's sake? That's not politics, or a blog post, or a harsh criticism, it's a fucking reality.

Also, I don't think that a building is "useless," just because some critic didn't like it.
Ed Nai

If there were critics in the stone age, they would have demoralized the primitive man. "Your cave is a subpar work--the opening isn't wide enough, and the proportions are all wrong. And the paintings inside look childish at best."
The caveman would have then realized that the cave was fine and then proceed to bludgeon the critic with a stone.
R. Mackintosh

Yet many see the politics, the brands, the (perceived) conflicts that drove a certain product, building or publication into existence when they look at it, Air Bud.
I feel it is vital to consider not just what something is, but why it is – and then examine the how that bridged the gap between idea and "reality".
Julia Errens

I am reminded of a Wallace essay, "Consider the Lobster," an exploration of that sea creature and its relation to industry. In the 1800s, Lobster was a throwaway food--cruel to feed prisoners. Today it is a delicacy. Personally, I find the whole process (boiling alive, breaking apart) disgusting to get to a tiny bit of food--but it seems that many of us subvert these natural feelings because of the intense branding that blinds us. Lobster is now this great thing, but maybe they were right in the 1800s, know what I mean?

Politics and brands can be a driving force in the creation of design, but they blind us to reality. Apple's brand is valuable because they make "pretty" and easy to use products (in China), but maybe that brand blinds us to the fact that they fail in exactly planned increments (like many products). We live in a culture of disposability (see: Twitter), and I hate to think that Apple is seen as a marker of great design when their products are becoming flimsier than ever.

Now there is a certain "Kitsch-Criticism" (especially in blogs) which aims not to analyze the physical, but discuss design that has some kind of whimsical or nostalgic brand-tie-in (and isn't even a good brand). This includes any article about Facebook, Philip Johnson (a bad architect, let's be honest), sponsored design parties, any midwestern city approached generically, houses with wood slats, anything in Brooklyn, food that looks like design, celebrity-design tie ins (there's a slippery slope to Architectural Digest). Seriously, it makes me nostalgic for the days of Ouroussoff (at least a good curator) when architecture was still futuristic and optimistic. Now everything is derivative, even this comment.

Design, ideally, should be the starting point. This is how the best designers think--if only the journalists thought this way too.
Ed Nai

Isn't the dearth of criticism about architecture due to the simple fact that most criticism has the practical purpose of reviewing a consumer good?

There is a bigger market for [literary/art/film] criticism because people buy more [books/museum/movie tix]. Most architecture has little consumption-oriented corollary.

The "did you like it?" tendency in criticism is directly related to this consumptive urge. (The most read film criticism is in fact a meta-criticism that distills all substantive thought into a simple percentage, rotten tomatoes).

The less consumer-oriented criticism in most fields has just a small an audience as architecture, with the single exception of lit crit.

The easy reason for that is that the type of people who like the idea of reading criticism without regard to the question of "should I buy and read this also?" are the same type of people who read more and faster than others. (Corollary: they spend more of their disposable hours reading rather than watching films or riding roller coasters)

There are a lot of short films made about films, but few films made about books.

PS Air Bud: "Authority and American Usage" in DFW's C.T.L. is a coup de grace that is the single finest piece of litereary criticism I have ever read. It actually made me want to read a dictionary. (But I didn't).

P.P.S. Air Bud the movie sucked.
david whitehill

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