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Websnark’s Eric Burns-White on criticism

This was too good of a picture NOT to use.

This was too good of a picture NOT to use.

Over at Websnark, Eric Burns-White posts a lengthy essay on criticism. I’m still not sure what to think of it. It’s the sort of piece that you have to read several times to let the points soak in.

Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve beaten this drum before, but there are really three definitions of criticism in use today, which have had the unfortunate effect of muddying the waters for everyone involved. In no particular order:

1. Criticism is the interpretation or analysis of creative work, attempting to discern both technique and meaning within one of many potential contexts. This is the one Kris Straub will make fun of me over — criticism in this definition refers to working out what an artist has done and how he has done it. While the analysis is necessarily subjective, this definition is less about judgement and more about interpretation. There are lots of “critical theories” that critics of this stripe subscribe to, ranging from traditional analysis through political filters like Marxism or Feminism (or any other -isms you care to apply) up to modern and post-modern theories like the (quite old) “New criticism” through the esoterica of Deconstructionism. When you read literary journals, this is ostensibly the kind of criticism you’ll find.

2. Criticism is the judgement rendered by (theoretically) qualified, (hopefully) impartial analyst over the effectiveness of given creative work at meeting its intentions and the suitability of the work to popular enjoyment. This is an overly highfalutin’ way of saying “Critics review shit.” This is the Roger Ebert side of Criticism — it may touch on aesthetics or artistic merit or the like, but generally it says “this work is good and you should consume it” or “this work sucks and you should shun it,” or some value in between the extremes. When we make references to film critics, book critics, theater critics, the old television cartoon The Critic or the like, almost always we’re referring to Reviewers like this. Any time you’ve seen stars or thumbs as part of a criticial essay, you’re reading a review.

3. Criticism means pointing out the flaws in someone or someone’s work. This is unquestionably the most popular day-to-day usage. “Do you mind some constructive criticism?” “To be critical for a moment….” “If you can’t take criticism maybe you shouldn’t ask my opinion.” And so on and so forth. Criticism is innately negative, in this definition — it isn’t about what people do right, or how well a given work (or given person) accomplishes its goals, it’s about they’ve done it wrong. Criticism is innately negative under this definition, and the only good that can come from it is reform.

You can see the problem, I trust. Someone can work diligently under the first definition of criticism and be conflated with the third by virtue of terminology. Reviewers and analysts becomes one thing, and the people who read their essays will expect elements of both somewhere in the work. It’s not enough to describe how something is done — the majority of the audience wants to hear whether or not the work’s any damn good.

Eric goes on to discuss whether or not a criticism can be criticized.

I mention the artists above essentially to dispose of them. The question at the top of the essay remains. Can criticism be criticized?

I was unequivocal in saying ‘yes.’ Of course criticism can be criticized. More to the point, all criticism is subject to all three definitions of criticism given above, just like any other produced work, regardless if the criticism itself falls under the first, second or third definition.

Incidentally, that guy named “Rook” from the Tad Williams message board mentioned at the beginning of the article?

That’s me.

The joy of webcomics

You know, when you devote your time reviewing webcomics, you tend to view reading as a job. A, uh, really low paying job. So, just to switch it up, I to have some fun and catch up on some favorites. Some of these are old, so you may have read them already.

  1. Fanboys takes on Seinfeld. You know, I wasn’t too thrilled when Scott DeWitt changed his style a couple months back. I actually liked his Kricfalusi-esque style from the earlier iteration. The current, more unique style — where the eyes and mouth get exaggerated yet the rest of the face seems more solid — really shines here, though. DeWitt really captures the facial expressions and mannerisms of the Seinfeld cast. In fact, this scene may have, at some point, taken place on the TV show if it were ever established that Jerry and the gang were huge D&D fanatics.

  2. Kate Beaton and Rene Engstrom (Anders Loves Maria) team up to take on Jane Austen. Because Mr. Darcy is a sex machine. Some content not safe for the kids. (As if I needed to tell you. It’s Mr. Darcy, people!)
  3. Websnark does a profile on highly influential web cartoonist Ryan North. I knew North was the goods based on Dinosaur Comics alone. But did you know he’s largely responsible for both Ohnorobot and Project Wonderful? A very engaging read, as Eric Burns’ articles usually are. I just wish he’d stop using the phrase “Hoi Polloi” so much. Seriously, it’s one of the few phrases that gets under my skin.
  4. The Pod Race sequence ends in Darths & Droids. Drama Girl reveals that she’s aces at playing the game. She ends up switching characters from Anakin to Shmi, but as us moviegoers know, that status quo can obviously not hold. Countdown to when Drama Girl takes on the role of Anakin permanently (hopefully up until the end of Return of the Jedi.) Me? I’m just psyched that the first huge boss battle (Darth Maul) is coming up pretty soon.
  5. Finally, Cyanide & Happiness responds to Ctrl+Alt+Delete’s atrocious miscarriage storyline.
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