The Critical Series: When is criticism at its best?

Let’s face it. Criticism has become a dirty word. We think of it as “nit-picking, objection, disapproval.” But it doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

In a broader context, criticism is an assessment, review or observation that can even be in the form of appreciation. Nobody seems to ever talk about that one: When the criticism is good, we don’t call it criticism, we call it approval. We call it praise. We call it being appreciated. And who doesn’t enjoy sincere appreciation for their work?

Anyways, for constructive criticism to occur three things have to happen:
1.There should be interest on the part of the criticizer and the criticized
In terms of traditional newspaper reviewers, the luckiest artistic communities have critics who are actually interested in the area they’re observing. Nothing is worse than trying to engage a completely disinterested, jaded critic with an agenda of his own (I know, I was one of those!)

In terms of peer-to-peer criticism, though, this is trickier. If both of you are theater practitioners, you’d think, “Of course, they’re interested! Of course they want to discuss this!” Well, sometimes they’re not interested in getting criticism on their project at all. And sometimes they don’t want it right then. And sometimes they don’t want it from you. Interest in the criticism has to be there on both sides for it to work.

2. there should be bonding and trust that the discussion is for the right reasons
Again, a jaded, agendized critic tends to create a haze of disenchantment in the critical process. But an honest, accessible reviewer doing their best to engage with the work consistently can usually build a trust– from a distance– with the artists she’s covering. But when a producer or organization first begins to be reviewed by that person, trust hasn’t built up yet and defensiveness can ensue.

In terms of peer to peer criticism, trust is invaluable and essential.. But it cannot be built if artists stay in their own bubbles and never engage with their colleagues.

3. and the criticism should be presented as a discussion
In this day and age, this is the easiest aspect of arts criticism– blogs have comment sections, Facebook and Twitter have reply features. The interactive nature of reviewing is deeper than ever. While I don’t usually encourage artists to directly engage in a public review of their own show, audiences and colleagues should actively engage in the conversation in order to broaden the scope.

In peer-to-peer criticism, discussion is critical. There is a time and a place for it and both sides should be able to ask for clarification, challenge assumptions and be given the opportunity to mull things over for a further discussion later.

When the criticism meets these three criteria, there is a strong foundation for learning to occur, and for both members to benefit.

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