16 Jun, 2009

Stars in your eyes

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The judges offer their advice for all budding arts critics

Grayson Perry, artist
Judge in the visual art category

The worst review I have ever had was by the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones, before I won the Turner prize. It was headlined: “If I had a hammer …” It felt as if he’d really got all his negative juices flowing. I was pretty vulnerable then. Now I just skim-read my reviews. A good critic is like a good therapist: they are very aware of the effect that art has on them. I want to read a critic’s personal response – what excites them about an exhibition. I don’t want them showing off about their knowledge of art history.

Critics don’t go into the job for the money. They go into it because it’s an opportunity to earn a living doing what they love. You have to be passionate. See as much as you can; read as much criticism as you can; look at the audience you’re writing for. The hardest thing is to avoid being negative for the sake of it – because bad reviews are so much more pleasurable to read than good ones. The vocabulary of praise, especially in Britain, is a lot more limited and less juicy than the vocabulary of bile. It’s easy to review a show you really love, or really hate. The middle ground is difficult – where a show is nuanced, both good and bad. A good critic is one who can find something interesting to say about an exhibition like that.

Vicky Featherstone, director
Judge in the theatre category

A theatre critic has to be passionate about theatre. It sounds like such an obvious thing, but you really need to take an almost childlike delight in it. When you read some reviews, you can tell the critic is tired of the medium they’re writing about. That, for me, is unforgivable.

Critics are incredibly important for theatre, especially small companies. They help build up a potential audience, even if the reviews are bad. If you’re looking to write about theatre, try not to emulate the style of the people you admire. Find your own, original voice. We want young people to come through with a really fresh approach. Don’t try to be Michael Billington, with all his knowledge of theatre history. Write about a work in terms of why it’s important to you, today. Work out what it makes you feel passionate about, and then communicate that to the reader.

Rupert Grint, actor
Judge in the film category

Film critics should stick to critiquing an actor’s performance: some of them are far too obsessed with the superficial – with people’s appearance – and there’s nothing worse than a critic being bitchy. Some can be really unkind, and it’s just not fun to read, especially if it’s you they’re writing about. Even if you have 10 really good reviews, it’s the one bad one that sticks in your mind.

A critic really has to know their stuff. If you’re writing about film, see as many movies as you can. Making comparisons with other films helps the reader build a mental picture of what this new film is like. Have an open, varied taste, and be receptive to new creative ideas.

Charles Hazlewood, conductor
Judge in the classical music category

Critics sometimes forget that they wield immense power. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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.

Miquita Oliver, TV presenter
Judge in the TV category

I think brutality in criticism is great – it’s refreshingly honest. If, as a critic, you’re always thinking about how your review would make the artist feel, then you’re going to end up with a very warped view of things. We need critics to be fearless, not trying to make everyone happy.

You can’t just wing it: you need to know what you’re talking about. Even if you’re writing about television, you also need to read about art and theatre and music. You need to know what’s out there. And try to get as much humour into your review as you can – it keeps a reader engaged. I haven’t had any bad reviews so far, but I’d pay attention if I did. If my mum says, “You’re talking too much over your guests”, I take that on board. If someone wrote that in the Guardian, I would definitely take heed.

Estelle, singer
Judge in the pop category

Everyone wants to know whether an album or a gig is good or not, but a critic needs to give a balanced view. A good review tells you about the good and the bad parts, and then lets people judge for themselves.

I go through everything that’s written about me – the good and the bad. I’ve had a lot of both. I look at the bad reviews from the point of view of trying to make myself better, to see if there’s anything I can improve on. When you’re reviewing music, it helps to listen beyond any one area, so that you have a good idea of what you’re analysing. So, if you’re reviewing R&B, listen to different kinds of rap, and to soul. Every artist has someone they follow: nothing is brand new. Try to have a balanced point of view, and be 100% honest. And avoid personal attacks. If you want to go off on one about something, do it on a blog instead – or become a songwriter.

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