Defining Art and our Approach to Criticism

One of the hotly contested topics within the upper echelons of the anime blogging community is the critical approach. While few have proclaimed to have directive on what is and isn’t the ‘correct’ way to approach anime as a medium, there has been no shortage of articles, twitter threads and video rants that paradoxically push for some kind of higher form of critique by metric. The phrasing of these messages remind me that everyone is defining art differently, leading to vastly different conclusions on how we as a community are supposed to improve the arguments we construct. Commonly, these arguments form in the theme of “you’re doing it the wrong way”.

While I have a general dislike for authoritative remarks about criticism, in truth I can’t avoid asserting my own angle when addressing accusations of intellectual deficiency. From my experiences with art historians, curators and educators, the case for modern art tends to be the same case I would make for modern criticism: Art is Art because we make it so through contextualization. How we go about processing context is the one consistently defining factor in separating someones trash from a contemporary masterpiece. It is therefore the process of contextualizing art that I would argue creates the only necessary distinction of valid from invalid criticism.

Take for example the work of Félix González-Torres and one of his crowning works, “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers):

felix-gonzalez-torres-untitled-perfect-lovers1991

On the surface the piece is easy to construct. Take two commercially available clocks, stick them on a wall together and then you have art…right? Well actually the truth is a little more complex than that. The reason this piece is so compelling is not because someone hung it up and called it art but because the work in question invites us to consider context in a way that has always been present but rarely so transparent before. You see Perfect Lovers wasn’t made by just anyone, it was made by Félix González-Torres, an openly gay man during a turbulent time in american gay rights history. The lovers aspect refers to his partner who, at the time of this works creation, had been diagnosed with AIDS. When he put two clocks next to each other on the wall, ticking in a similar way to how our hearts beat,  you could then use that knowledge to understand it as a metaphor for their ephemeral relationship. It masterfully weaved between both the personal and the political. With that in mind…

Let me ask you a question: Is someone inherently wrong for talking about Perfect Lovers from the literal perspective of two clocks racing out of sync, instead of a metaphor for the artists relationship? 

What about this: By what metric do we define ‘right’ criticism if the accused ‘wrong’ criticism still contextualizes the work?

Lastly: Is it valid to deny an approach validity even if it still speaks to something?

In the same way death of the author seeks to take control back from authorial intent, just as equally it can be said that your linear dictation of ‘right’ critique is misguided. For example many critics take a very compartmentalized perspective on reviewing anime. Aspects get divided into categories like animation/sound/story etc. which are then explored mostly in a vacuum to one another. While this rejects a holistic approach, which others argue makes it inherently wrong, the critic themselves are simply contextualizing the work under confines they have come to intimately understand. Were it not for anime being comprised of carefully constructed sound, animation and writing, the critic themselves could not approach it as such. If the art itself allowed them to work with that, then I say we cannot be the ones to say they were incorrect to do so.

Taking anime as a commercial product and speaking about how it is designed to sell itself is context. Explaining a characters real medical condition as a means of relating to how they behave is context. Separating the animation from the narrative in order to judge the technical skill of the animator is context.

If Perfect Lovers is anything to go by, we define art by how we engage with this nebulous kind of context, and the critic on trial is still considering the work through a certain contextualization. They may be avoiding an important style of context and they will certainly miss out on alternative understandings in the process, but the same can be said for every critique from “the colours are pretty” to a Derrida style deconstruction. Rather than driving in pursuit of a comprehensive outlook on the work that will never be feasible, I actually prefer the idea of fostering an environment that doesn’t judge criticism by standards of right or wrong approach, but rather by the way it uniquely reframes the original art. Granting authority and power to any one approach to critique falls into the same trap of treating art as being comprised of strictly defined components. Things will be missed in the process. Having voices that tackle anime from specialized lenses are important, but equally important are the voices that are immune to such teachings. In the act of literary blindness these supposed laymen provide clarity on aspects that would be missed in a world of blanket critical conscience.

I’d argue that the rejection of critical essentialism does not come hand in hand with a sweeping lack of critical thought entirely, rather, we can continue to sustain this apparent need for depth without inadvertently shunning more individualistic dialogues. Contrary to popular belief it is the essentialist notion that remains trapped in time and not the supposed lesser/base form of critique. In truth the popular criticism we look down upon today is in a state one thousand times ‘better’ than it originally was. What was initially beyond the understanding of past critics is now common doctrine, and will continue to develop as so naturally through repetition and reenactment. It is then from this perspective that we can say the laymen opinion is the most integral to developing deeper understanding for a broad audience, if indeed the aim is to make ‘comprehension’ better.

I ask those looking for a ‘pure’ way to view art, and to those associating themselves with unchallenged righteousness, what would be lost if we didn’t allow these people a place for them to speak? If we are to lock the gates, or at least brand aspiring critics as inherently obsolete, share a thought for how that might regress the state of criticism rather than develop it. Trying to define the right way to approach criticism is more accurately to specify the lens you wish to have centralized. It is to say “this doesn’t display a great amount of X, which is what I look for in Y”. To place this in an analogy, it would be like advocating for us to just appreciate media as passive consumers; while rejecting those who are looking to the margins, to behind the image, to what’s in the frame and what is absent from it; and even what might be lurking behind it. Far too many ideas are implicated for you to say “no” to one thing without also saying “no” to an entire system of thought.

I want to note that this article is not a manifesto for the next era of criticism in the anime community, but rather a defense of the free flowing tinkerer. I want to challenge the notion that opinions are denied all or some validity because they don’t factor in established texts from academia, or that a failure to consider one thing takes precedence over a success in highlighting another. Lastly, I want folks to recognize that what you consider integral to interpretation is worthy of celebrating, no matter how distinctive it may be, and that pushing people out will never net positively.

Thanks for reading.

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10 thoughts on “Defining Art and our Approach to Criticism

  1. As someone who is in Architecture, context is essential to the field and what you’ve said in this post is true. I agree that in order to critically look at something is to look at the context of it. I spent my entire education analyzing and studying architecture and what I love about it is that everyone looks at the context differently. It’s awesome when someone points out something that you ever really picked up and if anything adds to the conversation. There’s never a “wrong” way to interpret something because we all look at something through different lenses. But I get it a lot of people aren’t open minded to that idea as if there’s a regimented way to look at something. This was a great post-thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can easily see how someone such as yourself could inform me about the role and presentation of architecture in both anime and the real world, which is exactly what I think would be missed if we started setting strict rules around interpretation and viewing habits. I’d hate for people to fear sharing because of such arbitrary rules.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent post. I’m so impressed. As a university student and a former book review blogger, I was a huge advocate of “elite intelligentsia” approach in critiquing. However, this burned me out and took the enjoyment away from the book or show I’m watching because I will always have…or perhaps the better description is that I seem to always have the “need” to find something, anything in a book or show, and make it into a big deal somehow. This is not saying that I don’t enjoy critical analyses of something…it’s just that I’m only a person and I’m not always in the mood to always wear the critic hat. Sometimes I just want to read that book or watch that damn show and let it entertain me without thinking too much. That’s why now as an aniblogger, I just write whatever the heck I want to write. I don’t believe there’s a “correct” way of writing an anime critique post. This is the Internet, not a university. If I want to write a criticial essay, I would write it and hand it to my professor at school. But as a blogger, I don’t want to sweat too much about it. I just want to be as creative as I can be, writing posts in the way I want to write them, and most importantly have fun in the process. Anyway, once again excellent post. Keep it up. Cheers!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That creativity you and others have will always be more important to me than playing along with the dominant decorum in critical circles. Like you, I can appreciate both sides of the coin, but have a problem with the “punching down” that tends to cultivate itself. I think it’s important not to forget how much we can learn from one another and to stay open-minded as a result.

      Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly. There will always be someone out there who is more eloquent and has a more interesting way of conveying ideas. If we’re open about learning from each other, it’s so much better than being all high and mighty and thinking that we’re the best because we’re more academic. Once again, great post. Keep it up.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. A really insightful post, and very well written. I really appreciated the way you presented the notion of context, and the inherent problem with discarding any given criteria that someone might use.

    One thing about having a standard critiquing mechanism is having that “language” that everyone understands. You can instantly process the information a review is providing and apply that knowledge to the work. Of course, this makes you lose out any context outside of the one the reviewer is using. You can get the best of both by doing some work to understand the reviewer’s criteria, if they explained it well enough (I don’t :/ )

    Thanks for sharing this in any case. You do a good job of pointing out the value of different reviewing methods in a very objective way.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting read. I’d add that one important reason the compartmentalization of certain features (character, story, animation) in reviews often falls flat for me is because the critic forgets that each of these aspects is a context for the ‘text’ of whatever’s being focused on. If a critic wants to do a ‘character analysis’, they can’t escape how image, sound etc. construct character for us. But some do, reducing a character down to rough lines of ‘objective’ info (“they develop”) rather than respecting the nuances of relationships between character and performance. Those critics always strike me as having poorer levels of comprehension.

    Like

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