The Design Observer Group

Posted 08.21.12

Alexandra Lange

Critics Critical Criticism

Illustration by Tom Gauld for the New York Times Magazine

Some meta-criticism over the weekend, courtesy book critic Dwight Garner in the New York Times Magazine. In his Riff essay, "A Critic's Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical," he suggests that respecting the effort that went into the creation of a work of art with generosity and silence will lead to the creation of a "zombie nation": "a place no thinking person above the age of 7 would want to spend an afternoon." I have to admit I found myself in the following description.
It’s a job that mostly suits my temperament. I like people — artists and civilians — who aren’t rude or censorious but who aren’t mush-mouthed either. Since childhood I’ve been a loather of America’s feel-good, everyone-on-tiptoes culture. Give me some straight talk. Give me a little humor. Give me something real. Above all, give me an argument.
Garner is talking about literary criticism, of course. It has always bothered me that the default definition of criticism is of books, and I realized while running the (now on hiatus) Let's Get Critical site that the number of book reviews dwarfs the critical production of all other fields. I suppose there just are more books, but it sometimes feels like the television people, with their recaps and live-blogs, are making a good run at catching up.

Garner's language, particularly that rallying cry, "Give me an argument" echoes a talk I gave on the usefulness of architectural criticism last year in Lisbon. Hard times for an industry require more thoughtful criticism, not less.
Why don’t people like criticism?

1. They are afraid of negativity. It’s rude. It may be counter-productive. It doesn’t win you many friends. People are thrilled by the endorphin hit of a take-down, they rubber-neck at the spectacle of a critic taking on a sacred cow, but the design sites they want to cuddle up with every day? All positive.

2. We don’t like having second thoughts. No one likes the feeling that we have done it wrong. That we’ve spent all this money on something Useless. That we have spent all this money at all. Architecture criticism sometimes offers nothing but buyer’s remorse. We are too late to change anything.

When the buildings are going up fast and furious, a hit or a miss doesn’t seem to matter as much if you are just reading about it. It is a different story for the city with the concert hall that leaks, or the tower that destroys the skyline.

But now construction has slowed down. That should mean we have time to consider our options. That should mean clients spend their money more wisely. And that should mean architecture and design projects have more value added: greater sustainability, greater public engagement. That makes them harder to criticize. Just as no one likes to trample the metaphorical daisies of those design blogs bursting with positivity, no one likes to be the naysayer to good works.

So why do I (or we) persist?

Criticism isn’t always negative. I prefer to think of it as writing with a purpose. Sometimes that purpose is the search for beauty, but it can also seek utility, sustainability, humanity, economy. Criticism has the most detail packed into the smallest package.
Garner's Riff was partly inspired by Jacob Silverman's recent suggestion, via the Slate Book Review, that a culture of niceness had been created by Twitter. I consider this suggestion apocryphal, but no harm ever came to a writer on Twitter by writing about Twitter. It was the niceness that got Garner's goat.

Silverman's anti-liking, plus a surprisingly nasty review of two books by Alix Ohlin in the New York Times Book Review, provoked yet another meta-critical response on Salon, this time by J. Robert Lennon. His essay, "How to write a bad review," finally advances the argument from observation to instruction, just in time for school. I could send the link around to the incoming class at DCrit, because his first point, "provide context," is key to the design criticism endeavor.

And context is precisely where design critics can have so much more fun than book critics. Humor, realness should just come naturally. Context, for us, is not a slog through all previous novels, or even biography. It can be a tour of all the architect's other buildings, searching for tics. It can be a stroll down the block, to see what's been cropped out of the photographs of that latest architectural marvel. It can be as easy as trying to buy a ticket at the swoopy box office, or as difficult as tracing the historical references. Students are often nervous about taking on the hard work and reputation that go into a building. But I always tell them, Tell us what you see. Explain why you think that. Details. Observation isn't personal (another point on Lennon's list). Even the most positive review requires a little pepper of negatives to be believable (he says, "be balanced"). That's not hating (he says, "don't be a dick," but for critics like me that's not an option).

And, thank god, it still isn't "liking."