Ah, I live in a funny place, this Flint.
I love it here, loved it enough to move here four years ago and become involved in the arts here. Loved it enough to stand up for things when I see something wrong. And there is the rub. Flint is, as well known as it may be (though most of what is known is hyperbole and exaggeration), is a pretty small city. We are rebuilding, are growing again, but for now, we are small still. And being a relatively low income city, there isn’t a lot of love for the arts on the whole. Oh, we have arts, and some amazing venues and artists, but the arts, the Arts, are seen as a luxury many cannot afford and are not that invested in. I did my part to help change that and will be so bold as to say that we, my friends and I, made a difference on that front. But with a city this small, with such a small arts community, you have to be careful. Careful not to make too many enemies (which is sad and petty but, as a friend put it, if you wanna do shows here, you can’t make enemies with the people that run the galleries), and you can’t piss all over the artists.
Which is where things get funny. A local free paper that appears to be a political paper, ran an article that was a terribly biased and 0ne-sided criticism of the one alternative gallery we have in Flint. I have not always agreed with this gallery, and I have had my distinct disagreements with the gallery but, I like to think I am fair in what I said and, ya know what, I never wrote a damn article about them that went into a paper as NEWS. So, reading this article I felt compelled to speak up and wrote a letter to the paper and got a very gracious email back thanking me for the letter, which they printed.
Pretty classy move.
Well, until that is the recent issue, where a local poet took me to task for standing up against biased journalism. According to the commentary, I was upset that someone was criticizing art, which is not any part of what I wrote, but which the writer used as a jumping off point to talk about, uh, I think having thin skin regarding the arts.
Aside from missing the point of my email, and well, writing a boring article, it is pretty much a rubbish opinion piece.
See, here’s the deal, I totally agree that art should be assessed and dissected and, I guess criticized. My thing though is that most people cannot do this, at all. Most people criticize the person WITH the art, whatever that art is, and I know I am guilty of it too. But if you are going to play the critic you have the responsibility of what you are doing and the power it holds. I mean, I wanna read a movie review. I will glance at record reviews. Books and art reviews I could generally care less about, though Entertainment Weekly did clue me to some hip writers back in the day. You bring so much baggage with you when you review something and you have to make sure not to take out any issue you have with the art on the artist, because, you know what, they have the same right to do the art that you do to criticize it, and in a town with so few active artists, it seems silly to denigrate the few that are here. Just like, I mean, with so few active poets, it seems silly to call them out and make them feel stupid.
As artists, we (and i hate saying i am an artist, FYI, because i don’t feel like one) have the responsibility to thicken our skin and not get angry and upset when people don’t dig what we are doing. Hell, I have gotten some awful reviews and, it sucks, it will always suck, but that person didn’t get what I was doing, and that is fine. And maybe it means I need to work on HOW I do what I do. But I know I don’t like getting shit talked about me, and at least with my ‘art’ I can differentiate that and me.
Alas, most critics are not so great that that.
So, is art that is left to its own design valuable? Yes. Even awful art is valuable because it may touch SOMEONE. Criticism is the leech on the body of art. Now, many times that leech is more of a sybiant relationship. Generally though, really, critics are rarely very good. Especially in this city.
Ah, but as artists, and I hate calling myself that because it sounds pompous and I don’t FEEL like I do art, but whatev, we have to grow thicker skin. We have to accept that not everyone will dig what we do. We have let those critiques go or see if they have a point. We need to continue to grow as artists and go from there.
For now though, there isn’t a lot of valuable art criticism in this town. Sorry, it’s the truth.
Now, do we need criticism for art to be of value? God no. Not at all. Art, even poorly done art, is valuable in some way. The same cannot be said of most criticism. At its most potent, criticism gives you a bearing, a guide to what something is, distilling it down and giving you its essence. At its worst it is a hammer against glass.
Art needs to be sheparded, especially in an economy with little money FOR the arts and especially in a city where there are few art options. This doesn’t mean we need to act as if we are all children with low self esteem but, until people can take things and separate them from the person that did them, maybe we don’t really need that critic to tell us how good it is.
It is helpful to have a tourguide sometimes but sometimes the most valuable adventures, in life and in art, are the ones we take unguided.