Recently I was listening to Bjork’s album Vespertine, and it reminded me of how I’d reviewed the album for Willamette Week when it came out five years ago, just after the September 11 terrorist attacks. I gave the album a good review, but I also didn’t really get to know Vespertine anywhere near as much as one ought to if rendering an opinion that’s going to be printed in 100,000 copies of a newspaper.
I wish I could tell you this is the exception to the rule with arts criticism, but it’s not. The system just isn’t structured for someone to be able to really ponder and, more importantly, get to know any work thoroughly.
Only in the last year or two, for example, have I come to really get a feel for Vespertine. But there’s very little media interest in people writing about albums that came out five weeks ago—hell, maybe even five days.
It’s funny how on one hand I’ve always felt proud and privileged to be in a position to write arts criticism over the last several years: movies, architecture, music, visual arts. Yet at the same time, in writing those reviews over the years, I’ve grown more doubtful about most criticism that’s out there.
Besides, I’ve always felt my editors were looking for good writing more than any particular verdict one way or the other. As long as you can support your argument clearly and succinctly as a piece of persuasive rhetoric, you’ve essentially done your job. But even though any opinion is just that—there is no fixed answer as to the quality of a piece of art or lack thereof—I’ve always felt a desire to keep gaining a deeper feel for certain works.
There’s not enough hours in the day to read, watch or listen to all the works being generated, of course, yet so many works over the years I’ve only come to fully appreciate after experiencing them many times and having plenty of additional time in between to walk away from the works and view them fresh again down the road. I remember seeing The Limey at the KOIN Center Cinemas when it came out a few years ago, and I liked it pretty well on a surface level as a kind of lone-wolf revenge orgy. But only after Valarie and I watched it several times on DVD did I come to truly appreciate the incredibly rich nuances of the movie’s editing.
Being a good critic, I guess, requires a twin set of skills. You’ve got to be perceptive about the work itself, but you’ve also got to be able to do so very quickly.
All the time I was growing up and into adulthood, whenever I went to a movie with someone I disliked it when he or she would start talking about whether the movie was good or not as soon as we walked out of the theater. It’s a natural thing to do, of course, but I always wanted to digest it a little bit before deciding. As a movie reviewer, I remember having kind of grow a new muscle in my brain for rendering a verdict a lot more quickly than I had ever been used to. But it’s still hard. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that any kind of review done for a weekly or daily publication is going to be rendered hastily. The old cliché calls journalism the first draft of history. I guess I liked to think of the criticism side of media to be something more enduring, but in the end it’s very transitory.
Actually it’s another form of writing, weblogs, that has taught me a good lesson about reviewing: that it’s not an end, but a beginning. That success can be measured not simply by whether the writing’s good, or if one succeeds in getting the verdict right, but in how successful it is at getting a conversation. Even then, however, it’s not an open-and-shut case, because some of the best conversation starters are the one’s most guilty of hyperbole and extremism. I don’t want that either.
It’s funny: I’ve actually made myself more confused about the role of criticism as I’ve written this. In searching for some kind of final words or theoretical connecting thread, the only thing I can come up with is just to continue the pursuit.