Friday, October 5, 2012

thoughts on critique & criticism

“Asking every female artist to represent 3.3b women in every project she does is a crippling and unfair request.” -Caitlin Moran, tv critic & columnist


As a writer, as a storyteller and artist, I feel that I have an ethical responsibility to be cognizant of the larger trends of representation in the culture I participate in. Does that mean I always tell a story about POC? Or that a woman is always my protagonist? No. It does mean that I analyze trends in my own work and ask questions like “why is this character a man?” “why is this character white?” “when was the last time a First Nations or Inuit person appeared in my work?”

My work is primarily poetry. Not many people will ever engage with it. And yet I wrestle with questions of representation and appropriation. Because it’s important. Because I have the privilege of reading a book or watching a tv show and seeing myself in it.The so-called universal is often produced with a person like me (white, middle class, cis) in mind.

Not always. There is no perfect center. (Almost?) no one sees their perfect representation in media. The center is a lie; we are all marginalized in some way (queer, woman). But some of us are closer than others. When it comes to storytelling, this matters so very very much. It matters because it dictates the casual choices of the artist, of the writer, of the casting director. It matters because some of us are lucky enough to not have to struggle with certain questions, like questions of class or race or gender or ability, on a regular basis. Because we are taught to see these things as difference, as “add-on” identities rather than as part of the (urgh, this word) “default”.

That’s a lie. They are default. But our culture works to obfuscate that fact.

How much more important, then, is it for producers of mass media and culture to engage with these questions, particularly when they claim to speak for or represent a whole group of people (in this case, women). When generalizing like this, representation becomes even more important. Because failure to recognize the long tradition of unequal representation is complicity. Failure to engage with these questions is a choice. An ethical choice.

And criticizing that choice is always valid.

Culture does not exist in a void. It is always political. It always has ramifications.

And isn’t that a point of making art? To connect with people? To perhaps make them feel, or grow, or think? Maybe to incite or inspire some kind of change?

Even fluff has the goal of making people feel good, or providing an escape. Even fluff reflects ethical decisions on the part of its creator.

Because art and culture have meaning, critique is essential. Culture isn’t stable; critique is a means of invigorating, changing, and pushing culture to better reflect something it lacks, or to expose the assumptions that it is built on. Critique is a means of cultural production just as surely as creative writing, or drawing, or acting.
So for a writer (a critic, even) to dismiss valid critique so flippantly, well it speaks to her own ethics and politics. Just as creating a show without any POC speaks to the ethics and politics of that show’s creator. All art, all writing, exists as ethical and political.

And as an observer and participant in culture, I get to say your ethics suck.

I don’t even think that the writer necessarily has to respond to the critique with an immediate change in the work (though that, to me, is the sign of an active and thoughtful engagement); it is okay for flawed work to exist. It’s okay to say “well, I didn’t ask these questions in this interview, but maybe I’ll think about it next time.” Because ethically, we are always doomed to a certain degree of failure. The interesting thing is trying to minimize that failure while still producing. Sometimes that means listening to critique and moving on to the next thing. Sometimes that means listening to critique and changing the current project. Sometimes that means listening to critique and scrapping the current project entirely. Often it means apologizing. But note how every step requires a combination of listening and self-analysis.

It is always interesting to see critics who deal badly with criticism. I wonder how they see their own role within the realm of cultural production? How do they see their relationship with the creators they are critiquing, and the audience that they are talking (to) (with) (for)?

Caitlin Moran will probably continue to not “give a shit” about representation.

But that sucks. And we* should do better.

And I would say something about the worth of this whole racist mess being found in the discourse that has grown, but really, that’s shit. Why should we continue to condone this bullshit, whatever its source?

So critics, writers, artists: stop making excuses for unethical work. Stop dismissing criticism just because it is about race (or class, or gender, or ability). Participate in the project of equal representation. It’s not new. We aren’t pioneers here. Look for cultural traditions that support this project (they exist in all genres), and think of them as canonical.

Recognize that your work is an ethical and political project.

Because it is. And it always will be.

*read that "we" as as me+Moran, or you+me, or writers, or critics, or artists, or white people, or feminists, or human beings, or

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