It's a tough time to be a critic. Everyone's got an opinion they're all-too-eager to deliver, and in today's wiki-esque maelstrom of information sharing, we're all supposed to be equal. In the best case scenario, knowledge aggregation is a good thing: we're all part of a dynamic system of checks and balances, mutually governed by the pursuit of truth. Worst case scenario? The pursuit of truth is a pretty subjective enterprise. Consider the sad, stoic tale of Judith Miller (or for that matter, the even sadder, perverse tale of Judith Regan); the amplified criticism of reality show TV; the abusive cross-fire between celebrities; between politicians; the finger-pointing aimed at writers exposed as frauds.
If you're an artist, criticism is even more complex. Freedom of expression may be a given, but it doesn't feel so free when you're the victim of a negative public outcry. Maybe this is why the Dixie Chicks five-award sweep at the Grammy Awards last night feels like more than a triumph. It's a vindication.
Let me be the first to say that country music is not everyone's cup of tea. (It's been said that one of the stranger torture techniques at the Abu Ghraib prison was a heavy dose of country music: apparently, heavy metal and ten-minute drum solos scarcely made a dent, while intense exposure to country music brought prisoners to their knees.) Still, it's hard not to be impressed with this trio of young women who write most of their own music and aren't afraid to speak their minds. (They're also working parents: even more impressive.) Mostly, though, they're strong women with even stronger points of view, artists whose public opposition to the Bush administration beginning four years ago resulted in concert cancellations, album burnings, even death threats. Still, they persevered.
Is it perseverance in the face of adversity that the critics sought to recognize last night? Or is it just that their music is good? And what qualifies as good, anyway? That it represents innovation? Diversity? Vision? Beauty?
Such considerations — not easy to quantify on any level — frame similar discussions in the design disciplines: from graduate school admissions to industry-wide competitions, these early winter months frame the season of design reviews and judgings. Having spent three out of the last seven days engaged in precisely this kind of criticism, I feel somewhat qualified to make these pronouncements. (No doubt others will disagree and debate me on these points: after all, what is a blog if not a public space for debate and critique?) Curiously, though, because competition judging takes place behind closed doors, a rather different atmosphere is created: rather than a public free-for-all, this is the rarified domain of peer review. Among peers, what happens is that criticism is self-contained but no less vociferous. It's channeled and purposeful, like a pressure cooker where no unnecessary steam is released. It's protected and focused, and as a process in search of a goal, I would argue, it's highly successful as a result.
This past week, I experienced what may have been an ideal constellation of forces. I spent two days in a room with 25 designers from all over the globe, a group of people who, in spite of their differences, were united in two things: one, they were without exception lovely human beings, and two, they were unequivocally tough on the work they were being asked to judge.
Tough on the work —not on each other. Tough in the sense that the work was held up to scrutiny, and our discussions were led by our collective pursuit of excellence. Was it timeliness we were after? Appropriateness? Novelty? Might we recognize the manifestation of pure, even extraordinary skill? Could a piece be praised simply for being sublime? And how to define that, exactly? None of them were easy questions, but how gratifying to be seeking answers with qualified, like-minded individuals.
It's often been said that if you put Bill Clinton in a room with 100 people, 99 of whom adored him, he would spend all his time trying to win over the lone naysayer. Let me be the first to admit that I am firmly in this camp: personally, I prefer to engage in any argument in which I know my opponents are similarly predisposed. (The Dixie Chicks have one another to turn to for support, too.) Conversely, the life of a critic is rather isolating, because the point isn't to get people to agree with you: it's to get them to think, to consider something differently, to see something in a new way. Such positioning requires a kind of ruthless focus, a strong internal sense of self, and the courage of your convictions. It's about being opinionated, but not nasty; passionate, but not dismissive; brave, but not pompous. In an era that's likely to be remembered for its love of the communal, raising the bar, like raising your voice, is likely to result in epic dissent. And why not? After all, everyone's a critic.