Monday, September 27, 2010

"Opinions are like assholes and all..." (Don Hall)

Don Hall is an entertainingly sarcastic critic and creator of the blog An Angry White Guy in Chicago. Although he primarily reviews theater, he has been known to post his opinions about news, politics, web videos, and his mom. For example, while explaining his choice to write about an article about the former Bush Administration and the war in Iraq, he said, “[…] instead of looking back and trying to pin the most expensive and misguided war in the history of the United States' existence on someone, we should focus on the economy and the global warming and the fucktarded Tea Party taking over the government and the fact that Lindsey Lohan is an addict and that Ashton Kutcher finally slept with a woman his own age.”

This same attitude applies to his take on criticism as both a lifelong passion and profession, regardless of whether or not he is paid to do it. In a discussion article orchestrated by Kris Vire in Timeout Chicago (that included several accomplished Chicago critics), Hall rhetorically asks the group, “So is it courage or just a stubborn need to express our opinion?” In a world where the job market for critics is ever shrinking in regard to monetary compensation for their writing, this is rather profound. One can argue that they’re passionate or well educated, but if they aren’t pushed forward by an obstinate need to articulate whatever the reaction is towards any cultural phenomena, how can they be successful?

Beyond this, during the same discussion with Vire, Hall was able to consolidate the most crucial characteristic of a great critic: “In order to appropriately criticize, a dollop of self-awareness is necessary—knowing your own prejudices, etc.” The critics that are worth reading (or at least paying attention to) consider their biases when they write. You can’t accurately critique anything until you can accurately critique yourself. Without this “dollop of self-awareness”, the article is inevitably tainted because the reaction isn’t 100% honest. Like when people are freaked out by soy products, yet loudly declare that Vegan cuisine is disgustingly bland. In most cases, these people tried something once and entirely base their opinion on that single experience.

Which leads to the final point—criticism needs to be backed by knowledge. Above all else, ill informed opinions are basically worthless. With that said, one can still adequately critique French pastries without undergoing years of culinary training or residing in France for several years. However, if one has never tasted a croissant and has no idea how one is made, research and tasting is necessary. This goes hand in hand with being able to take criticism as well. Feedback in invaluable: “I like the comments from the readers. I like it when they call me an ass. I get a lot of angry e-mails—I try to answer them. The debate is the ‘sharpening stone’” (Don Hall). If outside opinions are disregarded, the writer might as well just lay face down on the floor and admit that they can’t provide substantial evidence to support their own words. Don't fucking waste my time.

Timeout Chicago - Chicago's Top Taste Makers Discuss Why They Critique Culture - by Kris Vire

Don Hall - An Angry White Guy in Chicago

Monday, September 20, 2010

What Makes a Review Good or Bad? Let's See...

Specificity is crucial in terms of any criticism, for this is what makes a good review. Not only is it essential to communicate why something is good or bad, but also to provide substantial support for the analysis. With that said, this is why the Critic’s Choice in the music section of The New York Times is thorough while The Cold Cut (blog) is lacking. And this is far from surprising.

On September 19th, 2010, the Critic’s Choice featured Jon Pareles’ review of Santana’s album, Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time. What made this both successful and insightful are his frequent references to high profile musicians from several decades. Granted, he has the advantage of reviewing a cover album of popular songs between 1960 and 1990, however, it is possible to focus entirely on other categories of analysis with only brief mentions of these artists for entirely contextual purposes. These highly accessible references provide the reader with an established foundation while they navigate through the article. One gets an idea of what the album actually sounds like. Beyond this, Pareles doesn’t slack off in his analysis. There are frequent timberal and stylistic descriptions of both Santana’s signature guitar and his guest artist’s vocals, “George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ becomes a breathy ballad sung by India.Arie, with cello obbligatos from the overqualified Yo-Yo Ma.” Opinons of market value are also included: “These oldies tend to stay close to the original arrangements and vocal phrasing, perhaps hoping that familiarity can sneak them onto the radio.”

In contrast, The Cold Cut posted a review of Imogen Heap’s album “Ellipse” on July 16th, 2009. The author doesn’t even bother to provide readers with a last name, opting simply for “Will” as the entirety of his nom de plume. And this isn’t the worst of it. The post begins with a writer’s block disclaimer that shares an opinion that writer’s block is an equivalent to laziness before even acknowledging the impending review. This should have been a separate entry since it only serves to further diminish the author’s credibility. The review itself is rather short and assuming, focusing on an album that had yet to be released. Barely touching base on what makes Imogen Heap an immensely talented artist, “Will” attempts to boil down the essence of an album that he/she hasn’t even heard yet into a single paragraph, comparing the future single and opening track of “Ellipse” to “Hide and Seek”, another Imogen Heap single from 2005, “Remember ‘Hide & Seek’? Of course you do […]”

Reviewing the arts, or anything for that matter, is comparable to explaining what something looks or tastes or sounds like to someone who tragically lost the use of such sensations mid-life. Since the target audience consists of people who haven't experienced the subject of the review (yet, perhaps), the goal is to describe and discuss the album, book, film, or whatever it may be in a way that will make sense. Otherwise, what point is there in reading the review to begin with?

The New York Times: Critic's Choice - Santana Review by Jon Pareles
The Cold Cut - Imogen Heap Review

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Uh...What is this?

Created for "Reviewing the Arts: Honors" at Columbia College Chicago during Fall 2010.

Course Description

Students are introduced to the fundamental critical skills necessary for a sensitive reading of works in different art forms such as drama, fiction, painting, photography, music, and cinema. Students write reviews of concerts, albums, plays, films, and gallery exhibitions, and, as befitting a more intensive honors class, produce writing of publishable quality.

This is what I'll be doing for the next 15 weeks. We'll see what I can come up with.