Sunday, 27 December 2009

Constructive Criticism, Reviews and Academic Analysis

Of late I have been pondering the importance of delineating types of criticism in the fields of art and culture. Roughly speaking, I would argue that there are three main types. Listed in some sort of chronological order, these would be:
  • Constructive Criticism
  • Reviews
  • Academic Analysis
So, what are they?

Constructive Criticism is an important part of the artistic process. Most appropriately it is given by people who has been asked to provide it and normally before a given work is considered "finished" by its creator. It can also be given after the work is finished, then in order for the artist to improve him-/herself in his/her next venture, but still, unasked for criticism of this type might still be considered somewhat bad manners. For an artist (art form disregarded), it is perhaps needless to say very important to find people who can provide good Constructive Criticism (I will return to the notion of good criticism in my next post) in order to develop his/her craft.

Reviews are clearly not aimed at the artist or written for his/her benefit. While many culture critics would probably frown at the notion, the purpose of reviews is to serve as a form of market guide for the "users". Don't get me wrong. I don't mean this in a strictly capitalistic sense of buying the cultural product, but whether we look at culture through a capitalistic lens or not, we are nevertheless consumers and not merely in the financial sense. Whether we are reading a book or a comic, watching a film, listening to music or catching a show (concert, theatre or otherwise), we have to invest a certain amount of time (and mostly also money, there simply is no escaping that). As such, the main purpose of a review (whether of a book, comic, film, piece of music, play or otherwise) is to help us pick and choose among the available cultural material at hand. What this means is that the review as a genre primarily is aimed at an audience which is not familiar with the cultural material. The most blatant example of bad reviewing (and one far too common these days, I hasten to add) is reviews that contain spoiler material. A review should simply never give away important plot points or the like, and that includes most of them that is not there early on as part of the basic premise of the narrative. Far too many critics seem to mistake their role as reviewers with that of academic critics, which nicely leads us to the last type of criticism at hand.

Academic Analysis is the area of academic critics (though I'd argue that self schooled "academics" could enter the area as well) and it is not aimed at an audience unfamiliar with the material. In many (if not most) cases, the opposite is actually true, as the academic critic can assume his/her audience's familiarity with the material. Even if he/she opts to provide a quick summary of the work at hand (so as to help people less familiar with it to follow the analysis), such summaries would by nature contain spoiler material simply because the analysis itself looks at the work at hand in full, dissecting it, looking for answers to questions raised by the work itself, the critical community or contemporary culture.

Obviously, this type of criticism is important on a societal and cultural level in any society, but it is simultaneously important not to mistake it for reviews. Just as it is of equal importance for reviewers to understand that they are not producing Constructive Criticism or Academic Analysis. After all, the three different types of criticisms are aimed at three different types of audiences.

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