I like it when someone doesn't like a movie (a novel, a painting, a poem). I like it so much more than anyone's bland acceptance, like the word "good," when presented with a manmade creation. A friend's passionate aversion to a work of art conjures my defense of it. Sometimes it changes my mind. It pushes me beyond sitting silently with only my unformed experience of the book (the play, the album).
(I guess a disclaimer is needed here: I'm not referring to personal attacks or opinions based on ignorance, which are really the worst. I am also not referring to comment trolls. I compulsively read comments; it's a curse, really, on my internet life. I have discovered people will have comment wars over anything, including a recipe for borscht or a YouTube video with instructions for replacing an oven door. I don't like that. The sort of critique I'm getting at is rarer.)
Needless to say, a friend, a party-mate, a colleague liking something with zeal is most welcome, too, but only if the approval is articulated to the same degree as the intense aversion (somehow people find the words more easily when they dislike). Tell me what was good about it.
Often people don't like to disagree on a work of art; they will back away from the conversation, as if disagreeing about a movie were a form of aggression or the argument were personal. As if aesthetics were on the list of topics to avoid at social occasions, along with politics, religion and sex: but then, what else is there? Please invite me to a party where the talk is mostly along the lines of politics, religion, sex and aesthetics!
The saying goes that critics are failed artists. Because they cannot do anything, they critique others, spewing envy and frustration. I go back and forth with a friend who thinks that if you're not making something, you're not entitled to pronounce your own snippy thoughts, because making something--for example, directing even a crappy Hollywood movie--is hard. You haven't directed a movie, who are you to say it was crappy? To this, I say, Is there no room for the thinking viewer? We're being asked to give our attention, our time. Are we then supposed to withhold any thoughts it inspires, or offer only the favorable ones?
I do think it's a different story when the critic represents a greater authority, like the notorious Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times Book Review. I can understand a novelist objecting to the fact that the king-maker, the executioner, has never struggled through writing a book herself.... But official critics shouldn't be rejected wholesale. They often account for the only culture coverage we get in the mass media, and they can help bring attention to worthy projects. They can serve the same function to your own thinking as a friend liking or not liking something. You just have to feel the courage as a nobody-reader to disagree with all of them, too, if necessary.
I don't mean that I would like to see everyone start a blog featuring their Very Important Opinions about what to read or watch. But wouldn't it be grand if a forum where people were expressing their thoughts and preferences, say, a Facebook feed, yielded more strong opinions about movies (books, etc.) and fewer photos of what is being eaten? I can appreciate a picture of a decadent meal in the way I can appreciate a funny picture of a cat. But sometimes it feels like the picture of the food has taken the place that an experience of art used to occupy. It confers the eater with a sense of having accomplished something, said something, of having acquired the creative spark used to create the food. Except that with the food, unlike a performance, what that person will be doing with it, basically, is putting it in his face and saying, "Mmmm." ...The question is whether people are afraid to speak strong opinions (fear of fewer thumbs-up "likes", fear of seeming unlikable), or whether we've lost the patience to find the language to express the opinion.
Finding the words gets you on the path to pursuing your own sensibility, to go beyond passive consumption. That sounds like work, but is actually a thrill. It means going beyond categorizing books as good or bad, or art as high-brow or low-brow, or music as hip or lame (because some critic said so); it means being able to find what nourishes your thinking life, your sense of beauty, your cares, your sensibility in particular.
If you happen to make poems, drawings, those sorts of things, a strong reaction to a work is also a clue to your own aesthetics. You may not like something because it's the opposite of what you want to be doing with your own work. That is valuable information in a time when there's such a bewildering explosion of varying criteria for what constitutes art.
Thanks to Best American Poetry Blog folk, Stacey Harwood and David Lehman, for having me back this week!