And why that is more dangerous than ever before
Back when I was younger, I used to love watching Siskel & Ebert — and if you’re too young to know who these two were, they hosted a very entertaining movie critique television show. They were clever, balanced. But most of all, they were … Qualified.
They knew about film. They studied film. They even made film. They were experts in their field. And I never once, that I can recall, heard them call a film “garbage,” or “the worst ever,” or even something as simple as “bad.” They calmly debated their specific qualms about a film, their likes, their misgivings.
But it was all based on one important aspect of that “critique:” their shared knowledge of the art form, years of carefully assembled and curated expertise.
Back when I actually went to movies, my friends and I would leave the theater and say something like “That was terrible,” or “I loved it,” or “God that was sooooo boring.” And then we would laugh, argue and move on with our lives.
Flash-forward 20 or so years. We all now have platforms, many of us with platforms that reach hundreds, even thousands, of people. Social media is a glorious, useful and fun tool to help us connect. But it is also used, far too often, to tear things down — food, entertainment, entertainers, movies, TV shows — all in the course of even ONE event’s timeline.
Which brings me to last night.
I watched the 2023 Super Bowl (OK, in all honestly I watched the halftime show through the end of the game), and I was privy to the performance by Rihanna. I could not identify a Rihanna song if she was standing in my living room right now, singing it inches from my face. I wouldn’t know who she was if she walked into a room. I just don’t follow pop music.
Did I enjoy the absolutely FREE 10-minute performance? I did not.
There were some interesting visuals, which I did enjoy, and the spectacle of it all was fun. But, nah, it just wasn’t for me. And that’s OK. It wasn’t for me. I wasn’t qualified to judge a piece of art I have no training in.
But it WAS for many people. My Facebook timeline overflowed with “Wow — best show ever,” and “Oh, I loved it,” and “IS SHE PREGNANT?”
But, more so, my timeline featured headlines such as “Worst Super Bowl halftime ever;” “That was garbage;” “Why did she have to grab her crotch?” I even read a post that said, “That was so bad, I will never watch a Super Bowl again.”
What’s worse, I saw fellow musicians and artists making similar blanket statements — other people who create art! For a living! Other people who must endure the same ribbing Rihanna did!
Are we allowed our opinion? Of course we are. We are consumers, even if the product was delivered to us in our homes for free. But where is the value in making generalized critiques, sometimes savagely, and judging entire performances on our own personal preferences and taste? What expertise do we have, other than our own walled-off-belief-and-taste-system, to make general statements about any performance, piece of art, film, or show?
And here’s why it’s not just unsightly but dangerous: Long gone are the days of sitting in the car with your friend after a movie, arguing over its merits. We influence people, every single day. Whether we want to or not. Our reach goes further than ever before. We can’t just argue in a car, then head to Whataburger for a cheeseburger and forget the entire thing.
When we critique, publicly, we brand ourselves as “experts.” Hint: we are not.
Our personal taste does not give us the right to be armchair critics of any art form, of any person putting art into the world. What we “like” has NO BEARING WHATSOEVER on the quality and worth of that piece of art.
I recently returned from Paris where I was so fortunate to visit the museum of my favorite visual artist of all time, the sculptor Rodin. I was reminded that Rodin was despised during his lifetime. His art was ridiculed by both critics, and the public. It was called “garbage.” And now he has his own museum. And his “Thinker” is perhaps the most recognizable sculpture in history.
One more story — and this is the one that TRULY gets me worked up. I was able to catch the revival of the beloved, cheesy, and popular Oklahoma! musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein in Dallas. This was a reimagining of a familair piece of art. It was dark, violent, sexual. Provocative. Personally, I LOVED it. It was made just for me, my kind of show. But at intermission, I saw half the audience leave.
So, I had a conversation with the souvenir vendors from the tour. I asked them “So, in general, how many people in the towns you have visited get up and leave at intermission?” They braced themselves as they thought I was going to complain about show. Still they answered, “About half. But Dallas has been the best, actually.” This made me proud of the city I call home.
I saw posts from friends: “Horrible.” “How dare they?” “Worst show ever.” Oh, and my, the list went on and on, with nastier and nastier comments.
I loved it. It still haunts me a year later.
However, a glimmer of light. I sat in front of an older than I couple, who I assumed HATED the show. (This was NOT their Oklahoma.) They stayed. But were obviously uncomfortable.
I asked them after the show, “Can I ask you what you thought?” And this little old lady said this to me: “It wasn’t what I was expecting, and, no, I didn’t like it. But I sure appreciated what they did. I won’t see it again, but I’m glad I stayed through it.”
I loved that little old lady. It just wasn’t her “jam.” And that’s OK.
In this day of “everyone has an opinion” — and specifically — “everyone has an opinion and has the means to share it with thousands of people,” let us remember the old adage: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Or even better, from the wise Clariee from Steel Magnolias: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me.”
Find a friend and share your thoughts. Have a lively discussion. Disagree on the merits. But NO art is EVER garbage. No art is EVER bad. And to call something “horrible” or “garbage” can only be done, and rarely then, by those with the education, experience, knowledge and background to do so.
If someone puts something new into the world, something many people love, then it’s worthwhile. Hard stop. And frankly, it’s more than most of us ever do.
2 great big THUMBS UP for this article, Sean! I agree so very much. Thank you for putting into words what I have been feeling for a long time now. Such truth in your writing. I sincerely hope your words will have an impact on those who read it, especially the ones who have decided they should be the judge and jury for all things in life. Great work!