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The Art of Critique Writing Part One: Why We Need Critics
Artists need our help. Their work is inherently collaborative, because it requires an audience to consume it and search for its meaning. Some art is compelling, but often a work resonates loudest once critique writers like us interpret the virtues of its artistic expression. The words we write can encourage others to engage, and through our craft we help amplify an artwork’s strengths and illuminate its merit. Therefore writing art criticism is an invaluable service we writers must perform for art, artists, and art aficionados alike.
It’s understandable that a novice writer may resist placing a value on art. But that logic misunderstands the role of the critic. Such misguided objections are based upon the belief that a person cannot judge another’s artistic expression without being unnecessarily negative. The truth is that all art is not equal, and through our evaluations we writers can help others to recognize lesser works’ value. Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is infinitely superior to its 2015 sequel, Go Set a Watchman. The former novel grew out of flashbacks from the discarded Watchman to depict themes of race, judgment, justice, and compassion in one of the best novels America has ever produced. Alternatively, Watchman, which was rightfully withheld from readers since the mid-1950s, depicts older versions of the same beloved characters’ bigotry, bitterness, and inaction. Critic Tina Jordan writes that the character flaws contained in the newly published novel “will forever tarnish your memories of one of the most treasured books in American literature.” Yet Jordan also notes that it’s fitting that a 50-year-old book depicting a closeted Ku Klux Klan member is first being published at a time when America’s struggle with the racism embedded within “Confederate flags and police violence” is again making headlines. Jordan explains the second book’s “clunky” flaws, dismisses its unsavory characters, and ponders how this unearthed literary time capsule reveals the sad truth of how little America’s bigotry has changed in a half century.
Another mistaken belief emerging critics must confront is that the artist is the alpha and omega of his or her work. This resistance to critique is rooted in the practice of celebrating an artist’s vision above all else—and while artists may relish being afforded the luxury that intent supersedes all else, that is an indulgence that we don’t grant other professions. If a home builder constructs a house that collapses, we wouldn’t suspend our judgment if he or she told us the intent was to build a sound structure. The same should be true of flaws in an artwork.
A case in point, Drew Hayden Taylor’s (Ojibway) God and the Indian is a powerful play that I teach, highly recommend, and still find imperfect. It’s a story about an aging residential school survivor who accuses an Anglican assistant bishop of sexually abusing her while under his care decades before. Taylor says he dutifully took on the serious topic in part because, “You cannot be a Native person in Canada and travel in the communities without meeting residential school survivors and witnessing and experiencing the repercussions of several generations of abuse that came from that institution.” Taylor has great talent and masterfully exposes the despicable reality of the abuse throughout the play, and Mark Robins rightfully writes that it is “a reminder of one of our country’s darkest secrets. More importantly though…it is also a path forward.” Still, the play’s execution has a troublesome flaw, and Martin Morrow astutely notes that it “culminates in a weak O. Henry–style ending. It’s an unsatisfactory conclusion to what is otherwise a gripping play.” Although we all might not instantly agree with Morrow’s assessment of the play’s conclusion, I find that when challenged, most of my students were able to reimagine an ending that they came to see as more fitting.
Another struggle for developing writers is the ability to step back from their keyboard and evaluate an artwork’s significance to art and society as a whole. When N. Scott Momaday’s (Kiowa) novel House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, it kicked off the Native Literary Renaissance, initiating an era where publishers seek out novels written by Native authors. Similarly, the formation of the Native American Theater Ensemble in 1972 led to a wealth of plays that were written and produced by and for Native people. More recently, the success of 1998’s film Smoke Signals heralded in an age where Native filmmakers became the driving force behind films about Indigenous people. Although even a seemingly omniscient critic may not be able to recognize the full significance of these hallmarks of art in their debut, we each owe it to the art to try.
Many people love the subject matter depicted in Pawnee/Yakama artist Bunky Echo-Hawk’s paintings. But it’s through critique that we can begin to discuss the social ramifications of his work. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Echo-Hawk’s art blends traditional Native imagery with a variety of Americana to produce humorous hybrid representations. Some of my favorite pieces include one that places a headdress on Star Wars’ Yoda; another illustrates a Native storyteller and his family on a strip of grass in front of a Wal-Mart; another offers a version of Disney’s Monsters University set at a tribal college. While it’s easy to see why his work is celebrated, critics like Sonja Rothfischer help us vocalize the truth that “Echo-Hawk uses Hollywood characters and, by adding unexpected elements to their portrayal, manages to shake, if not deconstruct, the Hollywood Indian stereotypes. This way creates a new and visible place for real, modern Native Americans in the common mindset.” Or, to put it another way, Echo-Hawk satirically indigenizes the American over-culture’s institutions and artistic expressions.
A strong critique should create a meeting place for discussion. In that regard, we art critics are like educators who motivate others to think both within and beyond the mediums we’re evaluating. It’s awesome to realize that we writers can become a beacon for art, artists, and art aficionados alike. With little more than our attuned eyes and our keyboards, we can encourage more people to explore the world’s multitude of galleries.
Alexie, S., & Eyre, C. (1998). Smoke Signals. United States: Miramax.
Geiogamah, H. (1999). The New American Indian Theater. In H. Geiogamah & J. Darby (Eds.), Seventh Generation: An Anthology of Native American Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
Jordan, T. (2015, July 24). Review of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.ew.com/article/2015/07/14/go-set-watchman-harper-lee-ew-review
Lederman, M. (2013, April 12). Drew Hayden Taylor’s Latest Play Is No Laughing Matter. The Globe and the Mail. Retrieved July 2015 from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/drew-hayden-taylors-latest-play-is-no-laughing-matter/article11141177/
Lee, H. (2015). Go Set a Watchman. New York: Harper Collins.
Lee, H. (1960). To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Momaday, N.S. (1968). House Made of Dawn. New York: Harper & Row.
Morrow, M. (2015, May 11). Native Earth Stages a Confrontation with God and the Indian. The Torontoist. Retrieved July 2015 from: http://torontoist.com/2015/05/native-earth-stages-a-confrontation-with-god-and-the-indian/#more-350838
Nawa! (2015). The Official Blog of Bunky Echo-Hawk. Retrieved from http://bunkyechohawk.com/
Robins, M. (2015, May 25). Theatre Review: God and the Indian is Vital Canadian Theatre. Vancouver Presents! Retrieved July 2015 from: http://vancouverpresents.com/theatre/theatre-review-god-and-the-indian-is-vital-canadian-theatre/#sthash.JYVSQqj0.UXscStuD.dpuf
Rothfischer, S. (n.d.) Translating “Indians” into Modernity: The Art of Bunky Echo Hawk. Images in the Contact Zone. Retrieved July 2015 from: https://imagesincontactzone.wordpress.com/about/repositioning-native-bodies/sonja/
Taylor, D.H. (2014). God and the Indian. Vancouver: Talon.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.