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Towards A Critic’s Bill of Rights

Towards A Critic's Bill of Rights

Most film critics look down their noses at publicists, sizing them up the way sprinters size up hurdles. But maybe they could use some. Critics don’t have anyone handling their PR, and as a consequence, their public image isn’t so great. In a piece for the School Library Journal‘s Connect the Pop blog, educator and critic Peter Gutierrez says there’s a reason it’s tough for teachers to get students to think critically: “no one,” he writes, “really likes critics much.”

Why? Maybe because the word “critical” has become shorthand for “negative.” We ask “Why are you being so critical?” but we mean “Why are you being so harsh?” In educational settings, all criticism is expected to be “constructive;” not necessarily a bad way for students to assess each other’s work, but not exactly the best way to inspire the next Manny Farber either. 

In other words, criticism could use a rebranding, and it needs to start in school. Students, Gutierrez says, are trained to believe that the critic’s role is one of simple consumer advocacy: buy this, skip that. Instead, he argues, we should teach our young people to be arts advocates, and with that in mind he proposes a “Critic’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” which are, as follows:

1) You’re allowed not to have an opinion about everything. (Be prepared, however, to articulate why the jury is still out on certain matters, to explain why you’re not yet comfortable judging particular aspects of a work.)

2) You’re allowed to change your opinions down the road. (But make sure to revise or augment your original critical text: think of your critical work in terms of a portfolio that can trace the evolution of your thoughts/insights on different issues/artists.)

3) You can acknowledge that certain aspects of a text work better for different types of audiences — that is, admit that you’re not a fan of a particular genre or creator, and/or are not sure what the basic appeal is for others. (If you’re not the target audience, though, you may want to explain why you’re responding to a given work and clarify any predispositions or biases that may color your criticism.)

4) You do not have to tell readers or listeners whether a particular media text is worth their time/money/energy. (Remember, though, that if you’re speaking to an audience that, like you, is already familiar with the work, you still need to add value via your insights and observations.)

This is a strong start, although I do have a few quibbles. You’re certainly allowed to not have an opinion about everything, but if you don’t have an opinion, I question why you’re writing in the first place. You don’t have to tell readers whether something is worth their time/money/energy — but you should also strive to write articles that are so compelling and insightful about their subjects that the answer is obvious anyway.

Gutierrez ends his piece with a call for feedback, so here’s mine: let’s add some more rights to this thing. Like:

5) The right to an unpopular opinion. And you’re not required to defend your unpopular opinion by attacking the popular opinion of others. Don’t explain why they’re wrong — explain why you’re right.

Criticism shouldn’t be defensive. If your entire argument is “They’re stupid,” you’re wasting everyone’s time — even if they are stupid. Start a new conversation, don’t rehash an old one.

6) The right to write about old movies. You are allowed to believe the world does not revolve around the stuff opening in theaters this Friday. 

This goes hand in hand with Gutierrez’s argument that criticism is more than a buyer’s guide. The constant churn of new product makes it almost impossible to reflect and digest with the sort of thoroughness and thoughtfulness that great criticism requires.

7) The right to take junk seriously. You are allowed to find intelligence in something everyone says is stupid.

An offshoot of my proposed fifth right. Just because people tell you a movie is dumb doesn’t mean that it is. Good criticism identifies things anyone could see; great criticism finds things no one else recognizes and brings them to light. If you think “The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure” is, in fact, a powerful allegory for the War in Iraq, then say so (and send me the link too, because I want to read that thing ASAP).

8) The right to believe your work has value. Including monetarily.

The Internet has given everyone a voice. But while democracy has its place in the world of criticism, it can’t ever replace great critical thought by experts. If you think your opinion is valuable, don’t just give it away. If you are correct, others will agree.

Those are my immediate ideas, but I don’t think we’re done here yet — we haven’t even really addressed the “Responsibilities” part of this list. But now it’s time to hear from you — what do you think belongs on The Critic’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities? Oh, and if you know any good publicists ready to give a pro bono PR makeover to a group of poor, hard-working journalists, you let me know.

Read more of “Critical Thinking’s Image Problem… and How to Fix It.”

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