Everybody’s a critic now. Pop open your Facebook feed or your favorite subreddit and you can read thousands of opinions on art big and small. Need a sixteen year old boy to break down the Transformers series? The internet’s got you covered. Want to know what Grandma thinks about Mad Max: Fury Road? Ask and you shall receive. The current crop of artistically complex television shows like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones has trained viewers to appreciate quality and more of them than ever want to be able to discuss what they’re learning. Part of the fun of these shows is the instant ability to discuss and debate what you’ve just watched with more than just your roommates and dog. Networks seem to have caught on, with more and more shows featuring in-episode Twitter handles, or releasing director and writer commentaries material after the episodes themselves. Which is crazy to think about. How many people ten years ago could even name a television director, let alone sit and watch one celebrate their work for thirty minutes? It’s empowering to see viewers become more literate in the art forms they enjoy, and hopefully will encourage the creation of more difficult and groundbreaking art for them to enjoy.
But every wave has its nasty back draft, and this new criticism is no exception. In every discussion about the latest films or television episode, there are people who aggressively disliked them. Which isn’t inherently wrong. It would be ridiculous to expect everyone to like everything, or for all art to be good. People have different genre tastes, different reasons for tuning in to something, different expectations for their art. I have a bit of experience with this; I’m the resident ‘LUCY’ apologist in my social circle. I’d never lose sleep over people not enjoying that film as much as I did (although, of course, they’re wrong).
EXCEPT for one specific kind of criticism.
I call it the “just quit working” line. Sometimes it’s the “fire that shitty director” approach. But it always seems to focus on getting whichever artists are involved with the thing the critic didn’t like to lose their job. Some people not only had a bad time, they seem personally insulted that anybody could have had a good one. These people circulate petitions demanding that cast members they don’t approve of be fired. Who decry every plot inconsistency or glossed over event as “inexcusably poor writing.” The people who see even the slightest perceived dip in the quality of their favorite franchise as a good reason to yank the whole thing away from the people hurting it.
It’s frustrating enough to deal with when the target of criticism is a big budget Hollywood feature or multimillion dollar television series. Nobody enjoys wading through page after page of repetitive, shallow pseudo-intellectual criticism. But where it’s actively harmful is when the same attack criticism is applied to first movies, festival shows, or developing work. How many times do first time or student films hit the front page of our favorite websites only to be torn apart and the people involved lambasted as talentless and hopeless? “Cringey” art, works in progress, older projects dredged up for the smarter and more talented to take a good laugh at. Useless, heavy-handed criticism is heaped on these artists to put them back in their proper place (aka the local coffee shop). When a critic seems more interested in shouting down or silencing other voices than debating or engaging with them, no good can be achieved.
Non-artists very rarely get the chance to engage with art in its in-progress form, or meet artists still developing their craft. It can be difficult to understand the fine line between a masterpiece and a complete flop, or the amount of work and effort put into objectively bad work. Calling out and attempting to cull new artists who don’t meet some mythical standard of quality is only harmful long-term. That’s not to imply that every artist is thin-skinned or incapable of accepting criticism. But indiscriminate bluster or hatred isn’t helpful, the same way that thoughtful and considerate feedback is.
Is trading in the vitriol for more thoughtful and nuanced critique of your favorite show going to change the minds of the artists involved? To be perfectly honest, probably not.
Reading your helpful, reasoned responses could be developing the tastes of the next big great. And at the least, practicing our more interesting and thoughtful criticism will make us all more interesting at parties. Which, when we all get down to it, is every critic’s dream.