I’ve been thinking lately about critical entitlement, mainly because of a rant a friend of mine posted on facebook a couple of weeks ago. I’ll paraphrase his or her words to hide identity:
“One can form their own opinions, but one should not criticize something unless one can actually do that something, i.e. Don’t criticize a writer if you can’t write; don’t criticize an actor if you can’t act; don’t criticize a drawing if you can’t draw; don’t criticize a musician if you can’t play their instrument, etc. I will listen to such criticisms, but I will assume they are sourced by ignorance and not take them seriously.”
I can sympathize with the fair, if undiplomatic, sentiment of the above ideas. Why should someone who has never tried their hand at writing a novel be taken seriously when they criticize a novel? Shouldn’t they walk a mile in a writer’s shoes first? My first instinct is to say, “Damn right!” After all, since writing a novel myself I find myself critiquing with a lot more respect for the accomplishment of writing a novel, for all the planning and energy that went into it. But then I remember that every artist, whether they like it or not (yes, I’m talking to you, J.D. Salinger), is in a relationship, a give-and-take. Otherwise, it’s us and them, us on one side of the wall and them on the other, and we throw our work over on the other side. But if we never get a message back from the other side telling us what those people over there thought, then it’s just us, right? There’s nobody on the other side of the wall. It’s crushing. We’re in a worse spot than Evey in V for Vendetta, who at least got messages through a hole in the wall.
We’d lose our artistic sanity without feedback. Artists need feedback. Artists need critics.
In addition, one is not unqualified to criticize a piece of art simply because one is not an artist in that medium. Why? Because for every writer there is a reader. For every musician there is a listener. For every visual artist there is an observer. For every actor there is an audience. An indispensible part of the relationship is the reception, the absorption. A reader who has read 1000 fantasy novels surely has enough comparitive knowledge to warrant a critique to be taken seriously.
“But what of those who haven’t absorbed so much?” you might ask. “Shouldn’t they keep their mouths shut?” I would say yes, but only to a degree. You see, there’s nothing wrong with someone saying, “I just like it” or “It just wasn’t for me.” Such opinions might not be strong recommendations to take into account when you are considering the purchase of a work of art, but they shouldn’t be discounted, because they are simple opinions, and opinions are neither right nor wrong. They just are.
To return to what my friend said: “One can form their own opinions, but one should not criticize something unless one can actually do that something.” In my humble opinion, I agree that everyone has a right to an opinion. Opinions are subjective, and shouldn’t really be taken too seriously. They should be joyed in when people find common ground, though, i.e. “You hate Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge for the totally irrational reason of hating his stupid smile and cheesy singing voice too? Awesome! High five!” As for criticisms, they are most effective, and usually most well-received, when they are objective, concrete, and come from a source of knowledge.
To my friend I might say, “Roger Ebert wrote a few screenplays in the 70s and acted as himself in some movies, but he never directed, was never a cinematographer, never sound-edited. Still, I don’t discount his criticisms on movies. The man knows movies. Sometimes, though, I just don’t share his opinions on them. I loved Zoolander. He gave it 1 star out of 4.”