IMAGE: Statler & Waldorf from The Muppet Show
Criticism is a funny thing.
Too frequently it is mistakenly viewed as a detached, objective, practice; a figure blessed with a breadth of knowledge and experience in the field brings his or her objective, reasoned perspective to bear upon the analysis of an artwork. In truth, of course, criticism is anything but. Yes, one may aspire to impartial, scholarly interpretation, but an artwork – any artwork – is designed to elicit a response, to stir its audience in unique, intimate ways.
Perhaps the most iconic image that now leaps to the mind whenever one speaks of criticism is the fictional character of Anton Ego, the restaurant reviewer in Ratatouille (I have even cited him previously in a rant about videogames and Art). A quintessential cliché of the sneering malcontent critic, Ego* spends the film glowering and sweeping about like an insurmountable killjoy, seemingly drunk on the power he wields to act as the arbiter of literal good taste, able to make or break those who would venture to pour themselves into their Art. As the film progresses, however, Ego’s self-importance is shaken, and he is compelled to reconsider the obligation he owes to those works, and artists, that he would presume to assess.
The speech that accompanies this realisation is marvellous – Ego laments that the act of criticism can oftentimes be less worthy than the garbage it would seek to deride (‘The average piece of junk is more meaningful that our criticism declaring it so’) and he celebrates the promise available to critics: to support and defend that which is original (‘But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new’) – but the part that I find most striking is how he comes to this moment of revelation.
IMAGE: Ratatouille (directed by Brad Bird)
Ego takes a bite of an extraordinary rat’s** culinary craft, and is transported back to his youth – to the comfort and warmth and love of his own childhood home. A work of Art stirs him in a profoundly personal, individual manner – evoking a sensation that even if he could explain it, is so subjective that it could never be dissected and disseminated into scholarly prose. And it is in the shock of this undiluted singularity of experience that he reconsiders the folly of his analytical arrogance.
As Ego realises, critics, in order to be able to speak with any context about the success or otherwise of this artistry, must be willing to open themselves up in this conversational exchange between work and receiver; not to be blinded by subjectivity at the expense of all else (the most unhelpful ‘critic’ is the one who shouts, ‘Well I like it, so everyone else can just shut up!’), but rather to be mindful of their own preferences and persuasions, to know when they have projected themselves and their own prejudices upon a text, and whether this has unjustly impacted their judgement.
With this in mind, this past month I have waded back into the thoroughly fished out waters of the ‘Are videogames Art?’ debate (dear gods, how can there even still be considered a ‘debate’?) to take issue with Roger Ebert’s criticisms of videogames. Ebert famously considered videogames as a medium too ‘immature’ and ‘indulgent’ to constitute a form of Art. In his view, the act of surrendering authorial control to the player meant that the text itself became incapable of conveying meaning, and as a ‘game’, it lacked the ability to evoke empathy or self-reflection in its players.
What Ebert, an otherwise admirable advocate for the celebration and assessment of Art, failed to observe was that his own prejudices – about what constitutes ‘Art’; about what even constitutes a ‘game’ – had blinded him to a wealth of expressive potential. He was applying the expectations of a movie reviewer onto a completely different medium, obstinately refusing to actually explore these texts on their own terms, and had therefore irreparably muddied his own argument.***
In response, I decided to use Ebert’s own criteria to perform the analysis of a videogame that he, curiously, had not bothered to undertake. I chose Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil because (and here my own prejudices emerge) I just think its exquisite. The result of my analysis can be read over on my latest PopMatters column, but I don’t think it will come as any surprise that I end up arguing that Beyond is every bit as good as any film (indeed probably more-so) at evoking civility, self-awareness and empathy.
…Also, you may be surprised to learn that I still think Beyond Good and Evil is great.
But that’s all boring. Me yammering on (yet again) about a number of misguided comments a film reviewer made years ago; applauding a game that is now a decade old; hashing out an argument that for anyone not harbouring some lingering loathing for the videogame medium really is as dead as can be? Urgh.
Instead, I want to talk about what is by far the best piece of criticism I have read of late. It is an article titled ‘Australian Art and the Search for Faecal Purity’, written by an Australian artist named Duncan Staples and published on his website (Duncan Staples Art).
Before doing so, however, just so that my own critical bias is laid bare, I should mention that I know Staples personally – indeed, it is his portrait of me, ‘Writer at the Bar’, that I proudly sport as my avatar. But don’t think that just because he is a friend of mine I am predisposed to agree with everything he says****; and you can check out his Art for yourself to see that when I refer to it as some of the most lively, urgent, and expressive work I have seen, I am being completely sincere.
I mean, just check this one out:
IMAGE: In Preparation by Duncan Staples
In his article, Staples responds to the recent outrage that emerged in the wake of critic Waldemar Januszczak’s review of the Australia exhibition at the London Royal Academy. Having perused the exhibition – purported to be one of the most sizable and comprehensive overviews of the history of Australian Art – Januszczak had made a series of rather disparaging and farcically hyperbolic remarks about its quality, including gems like ‘tourist tat’, ‘poverty porn’, and culminating in the rather hysterical ‘cascade of diarrhoea.’ Overall, he considered the wealth of Australia’s artistic output (or at the very least this curated snapshot of it) ‘lightweight, provincial and dull.’
Staples, himself a member of this country’s Art history, has every reason to take umbrage at Januszczak’s petty dismissal of Australia’s ‘provincial’ tastes; but instead of getting indignant – as it appears much of Australia’s Art scene and news media have done – Staples instead chose to explore the ignorance Januszczak exhibited in his dismissal of two prominent painters, Fred Williams and John Olsen, who had their work likened to ‘cowpats’ and a ‘diarrhoea’ respectively. He takes the descriptions at face value, actually putting more thought and perspective into these snide insults than Januszczak clearly did, and by doing so, reveals the accidental truth behind them – commending Olsen’s untrammelled Romantic spirit, and admiring William’s meticulous eye for capturing the reality of his landscape.
Staples performs an act of critical alchemy, elegantly redirecting the superficial insults of a reviewer who had allowed his ignorance and disdain of the subject matter to cloud his perspective. Marrying the profound and the profane, the professorial and the puerile, the perceptive with the poop, it’s an article that is funny, insightful, and that elevates the discourse …all while still making several wonderfully indulgent references to faeces.
It is a pity that critics like Januszczak and Ebert do not more frequently take after an artist like Staples, who not only proves himself to be knowledgeable and attentive, but is alert to his own place in this dialogue between artwork and viewer. It is a lesson that they would have done well to heed. Because ultimately, even if they do not like the Art they are viewing, even if it offends their senses: they are the ones standing in it.
IMAGE: The Sydney Sun by John Olsen
* Ah, what a marvellous name for a critic!
** Ah, what a marvellous name for an artist!
*** One can even see this mistake – to a far more asinine extreme – being played out in the increasingly patronising tirades of a figure like J.Shea at the Exploring Believability blog (someone with whom I have taken issue previously). No longer merely denying videogames the possibility of being considered an Art form based upon his own arbitrary (and honestly rather sad) definition of what ‘Art’ is, Shea now appears to be fixated on some weird crusade to openly insult anyone who would dare approach them as anything more than violence generators for training psychotics.
**** We have had some quite heated debates in the past about issues of great importance. …Turning the world back around the other way at the end of Richard Donner’s Superman cannot reverse time, Staples! I DON’T CARE IF IT’S NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!