[sic] Magazine

The Hypocritic: A Review of Reviews

I like to read reviews.

No, that isn’t strictly true. Let me rephrase that.

I read reviews.

Well, that’s truer, but still not technically correct. I’ll have one last stab at it.

I look at reviews.

Yeah, I think that’s about as accurate a statement as I can make in regards to my relationship with reviews. I will look at the words, scanning through the text searching for nuggets of information that are of actual use to me rather than just somebody else’s opinion on the value of an artistic object. The words that my eyes are searching for can be grouped into two categories; 1. the names of other artists and other works that the reviewer adjudicates to be comparable to the subject of the review, and 2. concrete descriptions of the piece under discussion, usually in the form of genre labels, stylistic elements and links to related aesthetic movements. Obviously, these too are subjective judgements formed by the reviewer and informed by their prior experiences, but they at least function as either (depending on the knowledge of the reader) reference points to handily introduce the reader to potentially congruent works (RIYL; recommended if you like etc.), or sources of information to increase the knowledge of the reader, enabling further exploration and more opportunities to discover things that could provide pleasure or generally enhance their lives in one way or another.

The least important part of a review is whether or not the reviewer liked the subject of the review, and by least important I actually mean of no importance to the reader. (Maybe ‘importance’ is the wrong choice of word here, as every individual has the right to decide for themselves what is or isn’t important, but I don’t want to be drawn into a semantic cul-de-sac here, so will just propose ‘immaterial’ or ‘of no substance’ as less controversial alternatives.) That number attached to the start or end of reviews awarding the subject a score out of 5, or 10, or 100, or that icon of a thumb pointing upward or downward, or any other method of applying a value to the subject is completely meaningless to everyone except the reviewer. So many people fail to understand this quite simple fact that it boggles my mind. The amount of vitriol incurred by a reviewer for bestowing a negative review on a piece is often quite staggering, and this can only be explained by a failure to comprehend the reality of the nature of a review; that at every level it is only relative to the mind of the reviewer, and beyond that it is a mere reflection of their own unique interpretation of not only the subject of the review, but reality in toto. That is to say, reviews say infinitely more about the reviewer than that which is supposedly the subject of the review.

So I understand that reviews are completely subjective, yet I still look at them regularly for the aforementioned reasons; to increase my knowledge on a subject and to provide a convenient set of comparisons to similar artists and works that can allow me to make an educated guess as to whether or not there is a strong likelihood that I will enjoy the piece, or at least gain something ‘beneficial’ from its consumption.

Yet there is the problem with reviews in that reading them prior to consumption of the subject must surely, to some extent, influence one’s subsequent opinion of the work, either in acquiescence or in opposition to the sentiment of the review. Whether a positive or negative rating will create an inclination of the same kind in the opinion of the reader will be dependent on each individual’s disposition, but the reception of that external opinion will undoubtedly have some impact on a later appraisal of a piece, and possibly even subconsciously influence critical decision-making during the digestion of the work. I’ll freely admit that even though I understand the subjective nature of reviews. I, too, am still vulnerable to their influence, and because of this I try not to read them before I have formulated my own assessment of a work; I want the freedom to make my own decisions about a work. Of course, this is easier said than done, and on the path to discovering new art it is almost impossible to bypass the utilisation of reviews entirely, mostly due to their complete ubiquity in the business of reporting and disseminating artistic ‘products’, not to mention the adoption and citation of positive reviews by advertisers to promote their charges.

Another problem with reviews is also quite obvious; tastes change. How I feel about a piece of art now will most likely be quite divergent from how I will feel about it in 10 or 20 years. Thus, not only is the opinion contained within the review subjective in relation to other people, it is subject to the passage of time, and the myriad possible alterations to the reviewer’s psyche in the interim that cannot be represented in the original review, unless that itself is reviewed and updated on a regular basis, which of course is quite pointless in that most reviews are written about new works, and that is where most interest is generated amongst the readership.

So not only are reviews specific to the author, they are representative only of a specific time in the author’s life; a critical snapshot; a single frame in an infinite film reel.

With this in mind, consider my next statement:

I write reviews.

Why would I do such a thing? At first, it appears hypocritical of me to write reviews when I believe that their key reason for existing is essentially meaningless when transferred to the minds of other people, but it would be completely solipsistic of me to assume that my reasons for reading reviews should be the same as everyone else’s. Even discounting the facts of the matter, if somebody simply enjoys reading reviews and finds beauty in their existence, then that is enough to justify their creation. The review itself can be a piece of art, and therefore, logically, is a piece of art.

So although for myself a list of related artists and similar works would be sufficient cause for me to read an item on a piece, there is no doubt in my mind that even if the rationale behind a review that offers a value judgement on a piece is fundamentally flawed, it can nevertheless yield something worthwhile, whether that be through informing and inspiring, or conversely, dissent and redress, as long as the response is constructive it doesn’t really matter. And by constructive I mean anything created with the intention to enhance somebody’s life experience, as opposed to a response that contains only negativity, but even then, (similar to the ‘flawed’ review) that negativity can potentially spawn a constructive response, leading to a situation whereby all reactions are equally valuable. However, to pick a hyperbolic example out of the aether, the First World War was directly responsible for the creation of a vast amount of artistic work, yet I think most would agree that the positive effects this art engendered pale in comparison to the negative impact the conflict had on the lives of the people of the belligerent nations. Obviously, that is my subjective take on the matter, and there may be people who believe the First World War’s aesthetic legacy outweighs its immediate humanitarian costs, and I have no grounds to argue against such an opinion, but I am resolute in my conviction that art is life, and that to make ‘good’ art is to improve someone’s life in some way. Everything else is just semantics.

Therefore, whilst the content of a review may be in many ways inconsequential, its presence is not. By simply existing the review serves its purpose: to improve awareness of the subject. This generation of exposure for the artwork is mutually beneficial to both the artist and the audience, regardless of the nature of the review. So whilst I accept that reviews are not necessarily a bad medium to promote a piece of art, and that the presence of a review is, for the most part, better than an absence of one, there are questions that remain unanswered; Why are they so commonplace? Why do people care about other people’s opinions on entirely subjective matters? What alternatives are available?

The reason for their prevalence can be explained quite simply; people like to read them. This could be one of those semi-paradoxical questions though, in that they are so common precisely because they are so common. By this I mean that because they are so universal and accepted, people will have grown up reading them and just naturally assume this kind of evaluation of art is ‘the done thing’, never questioning the necessity or the pros and cons of their usage. Obviously, there must have been a point when there were no reviews (at least in the sense of what that word denotes today), and this is why we must extend the definition of the word to include all communications of one’s opinion on art (anything?). This leads onto the second question.

When dealing with the question of ‘why’, one is entering the domain of philosophy, and as such, must be acutely aware that any answers cannot be absolute, being at best, sensible and at worst, ridiculous (neither are inherently incorrect, mind). For this reason, anything I can postulate would be complete conjecture, and seeing as I am not overly familiar with any sociological theories on the topic, nor am I particularly interested in the motives for such behaviour, I’ll just leave it at people enjoy listening to the opinions of others, and conversely, enjoy telling their opinions to others. I could suggest it has to do with forming bonds with like-minded individuals, or evaluating the chances of compatibility with someone, or the need to express ourselves and carve out a distinct persona, or it could simply be a desire to just communicate and interact with other human beings, the subject only being a tool to fulfil this craving. Many a time I have found myself in a conversation about a film, or browsing the comments section of a YouTube video, and consciously thinking why am I bothered about what somebody else thinks about these things. Yet, time after time, I find myself drawn in again by curiosity to canvass these meaningless opinions, and masochistically I subject myself to the fruitless debate generated by a misunderstanding of the nature of art.

Take this piece of writing you are reading right now. This is my opinion and I am expressing it. Why I feel the need to do this isn’t relevant to anybody else other than myself. All that is of consequence is that I am writing it, and that it can be read. Whether it is read or not might be valued by myself on a vain, personal level, but the fact that it exists is enough.

It is enough that the painter paints, the singer sings and the dancer dances. It counts for naught if no-one in the world enjoys what these artists produce. The mere fact that the artists know that there is a possibility that someone may like their art is enough. The creator’s intention to increase the amount of beauty in the world is sufficient to justify the endeavour. Transporting this back to the reviewer, if they think that their reviews can enhance anybody’s life in some way, then that is more than enough reason to justify their creation. Whatever the case, the ‘why’ doesn’t particularly hold any great intrigue on my part. All that matters is that things are the way they are, and they can either continue being the way they are or they can change; and I vote for change.

However, there is still the question of what to change to.

I’m all for simplicity; something like this would be ideal:

• Title
• Artist(s)
• Genre / Style
• Similar artists / RIYL
• (Additional information dependent on nature of work, such as record label, network, venue, studio, company, publisher, exhibition/tour dates etc.)

Sure, you could present it in a neater and more appealing way, spruce up the presentation to compensate for the perceived lack of individuality, but as long as the relevant information is included and the reviewer imparts a modicum of their knowledge and expertise into the review, then that is enough to satisfy all my requisites without introducing any value judgements or elements that may adversely affect the personal appraisal of the reader.

We could go even simpler and remove any semblance of opinion from the ‘review’, basically having filtered advertisements. I say ‘filtered’ because there should ideally be no money involved in the selection of what pieces are reviewed, meaning the tastes and preferences of the review outlet (newspaper, magazine, website etc.) will still be identifiable purely by the presence or absence of a work from their review section. In effect, the role of the review outlet would be more along the lines of a collator, gathering their choice of the insurmountably vast deluge of artworks existing out there in both the physical and virtual world, presenting them to the audience like curators of a museum, guiding people’s vision but not blinkering it. Clearly, this is going to extremes, but I can’t say I would complain if this was how things worked in reality. It would be very hit-and-miss though, as no outlet’s preferences will perfectly align with one’s own, hence the use of genre tags and RIYL sections to allow for a more expedient route for the reader to find something they are more likely to appreciate.

I can already envisage the possible criticisms of my proposals; the devaluing of art criticism, the depersonalisation of aesthetic discussion, the de-emphasis of human response to creative stimuli, and so on. To an extent I agree with these criticisms (apart from the last, as I am only de-emphasising the communication of these responses from person to person), except I view them as improvements on the current review system whereby people talk in absolutes, tastes are presented as badges of pride, and opinions are flaunted like jewellery at a cocktail party. Most crucially, the whole notion of criticising art makes no sense to me. Art has no definite goal or point to it other than to exist and to enrich the experience of living, and this can be achieved in such a multitude of different ways that it is futile to even try to suggest that there are any better or worse methods employable to produce art. To criticise such a thing would be a rather strange and, frankly, miserable action to put serious thought into, but there are plenty of people in the world who enjoy pissing on people’s parades, so it isn’t exactly surprising to witness such behaviour. Yet if a writer had a strong desire to critique a work, then I would have no issue with that so long as everyone was tacitly aware that the subsequent writing was essentially a critique of the author, and any parts related to the work beyond statements of physical fact are representative of one person’s way of thinking, bearing no real link to the actual art work. (I’m not condemning criticism in general here, just please save it for reviews of medical practices, or economic theories, or marketing strategies, or anything where the goals of the activity are relatively simple and quantifiable. Even criticism of the infrastructure surrounding art, the financial and promotional aspects of the industry, is perfectly reasonable and makes infinitely more sense than evaluating the art itself, especially when facets like the art market are so skewed and irrational, where names and brands are more important than anything else to the monetary value of a work and criticism is essential for progression and the advancement of understanding.)

All this paring down of the subjective is because I value the art over people’s opinion of it, and among those people’s opinions I include those of the creator of the work as well. I don’t care what they were trying to express in the piece, what certain elements are supposed to represent, which emotions are meant to be evoked at certain points, or any other views that are not explicitly communicable via the piece (without annotation or commentary). All that matters are our own opinions of the work, and they only matter to ourselves. We apply our own meaning, interpret our own poignancies, understand any story through the filter of our own experiences; we take what we want from the work.

But more than anything, I want people to stop giving a shit if some guy you don’t know and will probably never meet awards a film you love one star out of ten, or if some girl thinks a rapper you don’t like is the greatest musician on the planet. Or if someone feels they absolutely must respond to a review in some way, then don’t just perpetuate negativity by abusing the reviewer or the artist in question, create your own review and accept that both are equally valid.