University Club

How to be a critic? Just do it

A critic’s voice is not the voice of God. It is human, and fallible, and individual. It will sometimes please you, sometimes amuse you, sometimes infuriate you.

I told a friend the other day that I was working on a talk to be titled “How To Be a Critic,” and when she asked me how it was going I said, “Well, I hope I figure out the answer before Tuesday night.”

Truth is, there are about as many ways to be a critic as there are critics. If you’re looking for a decoder ring, that’s kind of annoying. Nevertheless, it’s true. Critics are writers, and writing is more art than science. It has rules, but they’re bendable. And all critics will bend them in their own peculiar ways.

A critic’s voice is not the voice of God. It is human, and fallible, and individual. It will sometimes please you, sometimes amuse you, sometimes infuriate you. Always, it should engage you. You should find critics who speak to you, one way or another, and stick with them as long as the conversation stays interesting. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t disagree or argue with them. Most critics argue with themselves quite a bit, and are plagued by second thoughts.

A critic ought to stimulate you, and get you to thinking in fresh ways, and open new windows for you to look into or out of. A good critic helps frame a conversation. She opens sometimes unexpected views to the subject at hand. She helps you see things in different ways. Good criticism is informed, but it’s also open and curious. It’s an exploration. It’s quite possible that the critic’s got to where she’s leading you just a couple of steps before you. I once ran across a description of the beast that I haven’t been able to track down since: “A critic is someone whose education takes place in public.”    

This essay was delivered on Sept. 17, 2019, as a speech for the Artalk! series at the University Club of Portland. Sections of it are adapted from “Three Hands of Art,” a December 2014 speech delivered to the art-book publisher Pomegranate Communications.

Working artists, as you can imagine, often have different definitions. Picasso framed the difference between critic and artist as the difference between theory and practice. “When art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning,” he said. “When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.”

The actor Eli Wallach was a little more pointed: “Having the critics praise you is like having the hangman say you’ve got a pretty neck.”

Or the poet Robert Burns, in rhyme: “Critics! Appalled I ventured on the name. Those cutthroat bandits in the paths of fame.”

Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, saw something of a collaboration, if not quite an equal one: “The critic has to educate the public,” he wrote; “the artist has to educate the critic.” I like this, and find it true. I’ve learned about art through the grace and good will of many artists who have introduced me to their work, shown me how they do it and talked about why, trusted me enough to take the chance that if they open up to me I’ll get it right, or mostly right, and pass along what I’ve learned. Sometimes, I imagine, they find it vexing that I skew the view toward my own.

I have informal guidelines to how a critic should or shouldn’t go about the task. I’ll get to those later. And as an aside, I’d like to say that I don’t really much care for the word “critic.” I’m not overly fond of the word “art,” either. Both are reductive and limiting, and prone to serious misinterpretation, but we use them because they’re quick and handy. I think of myself as a writer first, but the phrase “writer who is writing today about the theater” doesn’t fit very well in a byline. The pieces I write, as a cultural journalist, I like to think of as engagements in a continuing conversation. I once mentioned to Libby Appel, when she was artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, that I didn’t think of myself as a critic. She rolled her eyes. “Oh YOU’RE a critic, all right,” she said. We liked each other, but on that point she was firm: I was an inevitability.


Honoré Daumier, Walk-through of an influential critic, from ‘Sketches from the Salon,’ published in ‘Le Charivari,’ June 24, 1865. Lithograph on newsprint, second state; image: 9 7/16 x 8 9/16 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1922.

CRITICISM, OF COURSE, CAN’T EXIST WITHOUT ART. A good critic should never forget this. However creative your process may be, what you practice as a critic is a secondary art form. And you can’t – or at least, I can’t – talk about art without also talking about its social context. So let me observe that our culture is schizophrenic on the subject.