It once bothered me that so many fellow bloggers didn’t post negative reviews, particularly in the fragrance world. If we all love everything, aren’t we just creating free marketing and advertising for the fragrance companies? How are we credible if we write glowingly about every sample (or indeed, every full-size bottle) we are sent?
I’m reminded of something the art critic Jerry Saltz wrote about five years ago. What he says about his goals in art criticism could just as well be a guide for a critic of any medium:
My only position is to let the reader in on my feelings; try to write in straightforward, jargon-free language; not oversimplify or dumb down my responses; aim to have an idea, a judgment or a description in every sentence; not take too much for granted; explain how artists might be original or derivative and how they use techniques and materials; observe whether they’re developing or standing still; provide context; and make judgments that hopefully amount to something more than just my opinion. To do this requires more than a position or a theory. It requires something else. This something else is what art, and criticism, are all about.
Saltz went on to describe an unpleasant interaction he had with the owner of an art gallery who got after him for negative reviews.
“You mean all reviews should be positive?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied unreservedly. “If you don’t like the work, don’t write about it.” I know there’s a lot at stake when a dealer shows an artist, but basically the art world was a micro-society to this gallerist — a country club or a pleasure cruise where everyone was to observe certain rules and just be nice. A review is now little more than spin control or a marketing device to tweak sales. As criticism is directly tied to shopping, anything that erodes brand identity is frowned upon. While the gallerist continued, I realized that she saw herself as something of an evangelist: someone who sells art, nurtures artists, and spreads the word. I wanted to be what Peter Plagens calls a “goalie,” someone who in essence says, “It’s going to have to be pretty good to get by me.” Finally, I blurted, “Praising everything an artist does reduces everything to drivel.” At which point she removed her arm from around my shoulder and I fled.
So shouldn’t we call out bad art? Shouldn’t we criticize marketing that’s off base or dubious? Shout down derivative products that claim to be original?
Any form of criticism is both parasitic and subjective. And when enthusiasts, and not impartial professionals are involved, it gets even stickier. I know, and I’ll readily admit that I am not an expert on fragrance, spirits, or cocktails. I love them all and I know more about each than the average person. I have a larger home bar and more colognes on my dresser than most of my friends. I’ve made or sampled more cocktails than your typical casual drinker. But I’m still, basically, a dilettante. So what qualifies me to hold forth on any of these topics?
To me, writing about fragrances and spirits is part of my education. It’s an outlet for me that connects me to more spirits and fragrances, their makers, and to fellow enthusiasts.
We amateur critics should follow some basic rules. Never make a personal attack on someone’s abilities or experience. If we must write something bad, we should be constructive and find the good as well. If we merely dislike something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a failure as a product or as a piece of art. We need to ask ourselves why we’re writing, and to whom we’re writing for: are they fellow enthusiasts or the general public? Are we making so-called buying guides, or are we writing critical reviews? And do we have the depth of experience and knowledge to make the judgments we’re publishing?
If we’re completely up front about our motives and our background, we’re on much safer ground as critics.