Bad Advice

So. The Guardian UK is holding a young critic's competition (again).

Figure 1: Hard at work on a Stockhausen critique, a young critic thoughtfully selects the orange pencil to signify hope.

Well, first: I lied. The deadline for submissions has passed; the winners (and their work) have not been announced.

No, I'm not taking this opportunity to lambaste some poor teenager's prose. (You're the jerk for even thinking that.)

Figure 2: Navin R. Johnson

What, then, am I on about?

(Besides the delightfully absurd and annoying entry form.)


Fancy yourself as a critic?

Doesn't matter; I entirely fail to qualify, as I am not under 18, British, or proximal to a time machine that'd let me get my entry in before last Friday.

(And no: I most certainly did not submit a fake entry. I can't believe you people would even think that.)

Think you've got what it takes to be a critic? Send us a review of between 300 and 350 words of an album, film or concert that inspires – or disappoints, or – annoys – you this summer.

M-dashes are on the what now?

We'll be judging the competition in eight different categories: film, pop, visual art, theatre, TV, classical music, dance and architecture.

Parsing these categories would be fun (architecture but not books? Pop is assumed to be music, but there's no "classical" category except music?), but ultimately not amusing enough to spend time and space on right now. So I'll go for the easy joke instead:

Y'all spelled "theater" wrong.

Figure 3: "Oh no, the sink's clogged! Call the plumbre!"

Our judges – who also include architect Will Alsop, choreographer Hofesh Shechter, and chair of Arts Council England Liz Forgan – will be looking for powerful, persuasive voices, with original opinions and a flair for expressing them. Each category will be judged in two age groups: under 14s and 14-18-year-olds.

That's fair enough, a solid all-around idea, and has some people from actual arts industries involved. What could possibly go wrong?

You should review something new or recent in your chosen category (though we'll make an exception for architecture, which can be new or old).

That's interesting: a new concert of old "classical" music counts as recent...but architecture is exempted. Again: really? Architecture? Not books?


To enter, download an application form here...

They also had a contest for under-14-year-old form designers?

The deadline for entries is Friday 28 August 2009. You'll also find lots of useful information on the website here, including details of free and discounted events across the UK, a full list of this year's judges, last year's winning entries and top tips on writing a review from the Guardian's team of critics.

Good. Fine. Praiseworthy, even. It seems that...


What was that last bit?

....top tips on writing a review from the Guardian's team of critics.

Ah. Better take a look at that, eh?

(I ask again: What could possibly go wrong? I mean, as long as they're "top" tips. Right?)

The judges offer their advice for all budding arts critics

Charles Hazlewood, conductor
Judge in the classical music category

(Charles Hazlewood's website)

Critics sometimes forget that they wield immense power.

Figure 4: An arts critic relaxes after a day of hard work. (The small box in his left hand contains the souls of recently maligned musicians.)

When, as an artist, you get a good review, you feel as if you're walking on clouds. But when someone writes a really damning review, you feel as if someone has slit a hole in your guts and pulled out your entrails.

Good reviews make you feel good. Bad reviews, conversely, make you feel bad. It sounds radical, I know. But hey, who's the barber here?

A good critic is aware of this.


They are knowledgeable, thoughtful, reflective, but also compassionate. They recognise the important difference between expressing reservations about something, or even disgust, and being poisonous for the sake of it.

Okay, good. This seems like an excellent thing to keep in mind when attempting criticism. It is not exactly prescriptive, however, and therefore does not qualify as advice (that is: "top tips on writing a review").

What's your "top tip," Maestro?

The biggest single piece of advice I would give to any young person interested in writing criticism is to base your writing entirely on how the art makes you feel.


That may be the single worst piece of advice I've ever read. And I read Altas Shrugged.

Feel? What happened to "knowledgeable, thoughtful, and reflective" here? Certainly the experience of (for example) going to a concert is not to be ignored; nor is the [perceived] emotional content or affect of art. But basing "your writing entirely [emphasis mine] on how the art makes you feel" seems like an awful idea. Especially, perhaps, for a novice.

If you have no prior experience or advance knowledge of music by, say, Stockhausen, or Cage, or Bach or Mozart for that matter, you might have expectations that are far different from what you'll experience at a concert. Relying solely and ultimately on how you "felt" about it is not useful to the reader, except, perhaps, in the way that it might be interesting to send an aeronautical engineer to judge a dog show.

Figure 5: The aerodynamics are all messed up, and it doesn't seem to have any wings whatsoever. I seriously doubt they'll ever get it off the ground.

What is the justification for this nugget of wisdom, Maestro?

The paper or website that hires you to write a review does so because they trust your judgment and your instincts; they don't want the received view.

That's fair, and actually helpful. But it doesn't justify entirely basing your review on how you feel.

Although, in a way, isn't part of the critic's function exactly to present, or at least shape, the "perceived view"? We wouldn't even have a "perceived view" at all.

But that's not really the point.

It's natural to want to move in packs, and you see little cabals of critics at some events, teaming up to base their opinion on what the others think. That's the worst thing to do.

Okay; I agree with this, too. And it's important to think for yourself, and think about art on one's own. The operative word, I think, is think.

Trust your own gut instincts; be open to the response a piece of work evokes in you, and then don't worry about what anyone else has said, before or after.

This, also, sounds good, even mediating or qualifying the advice given above.

Again: we should under no circumstances ignore our response to art on an emotional level.

Again: I realize we're talking about a Young Critic's Competition.

That's why it's so important to emphasize thoughtfulness and contemplation in addition to, perhaps even above, feeling. Advising a teenager to go with their feelings--above all else-- is like two pounds of puke in a one-pound sack.*

Figure 6: A teenager.
"That concert was stupid! My dad won't let me get my nose pierced! You're stupid! I hate you!"

*Thanks to my childhood next-door neighbor for this colorful, and apt, colloquialism.


Gustav said...

I'm very surprised to see a critic write that since part of the perceived authority of the critic comes from their relative expertise on that subject. But I suppose what Hazlewood is saying is that technical and analytical reviews don't connect with audience who may not share your expertise. And the most powerful points you can make will be your emotional reactions informed by that expertise. Or like you say, SA, "knowledgeable, thoughtful, and reflective".

And oh, Orange is anything but hope, it's a high threat of a terrorist attack.