Conversation is the way we refine our work and make it better. Any discipline worth pursuing seriously will allow for confrontation between the producer of an idea or piece of work and critics who, while they may agree with or appreciate the piece of work, or indeed be friendly with the creator, will nevertheless interrogate the carefully crafted edifice to make it better. In academic work this process is known as peer review. In art, this process is called art criticism.
Any thing worth pursuing is pursued to be good at that thing. If one writes, one does so to become a good writer. If one runs, one runs to become a better runner. If one pursues the visual arts, or dance, or theater, or film, one does so to be good at those disciplines. Most creatives, if pressed, will tell you about the countless hours they put into perfecting their craft. I have a dear friend who tells me that one can only be considered a master of a craft if one puts in over 10,000 hours of work. Yet mastery is a lifelong effort, and a lone human brain is insufficient to achieve this heightened state. We have friends who help us along the way. A responsible creator will welcome criticism. Books are published, galleries hung, and plays put up to not only present a vision to the masses, but also to showcase the achievement of the creators. But creators will only get better if they receive feedback. Most folks who do anything worth doing understand that “good job, I loved it” can ring hollow, and want something more.
We may borrow from a book our culture values: “He who blesses his neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing…Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” The study of art is designed to make our work better. At a minimum, a work of art should be evaluated for its aesthetic value. Having established that a work of art is good or bad, we may then move on to evaluate the statement of the art. Often this relies on the mood or affect the art presents to us. It’s telling that in this day and age of artist statements and constant political activism we are plagued with bad art. Nevertheless, art makes a statement, and can be valued upon that alone. Art that is pretty to look at but poorly communicates the intention of the artist is rightly condemned as bad art. Our conversation is focused upon the improvement of craft, not the denigration of the creator.
Trophies for everyone did a number on our society. Not all efforts are equal, and not all creative products are equal. While popular approval or disapprobation of a work is often taken as the last word, it often doesn’t rise to the level of a conversation about the aesthetics of a work. Art must be considered on its own merits, without regard for the background or station of the artist, or the background or station of the receiver of that art. Criticism of art goes beyond liking or disliking a piece. The critic provides reasons as to why. A good critic will provide feedback for improvement. This conversation makes the craft better. Art is not a hobby.
Criticism is a part of having adult conversations about the things that shape our world and our understanding of our world. Conversation is essential to the improvement of a pursuit. Art criticism is not slander.