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Criticism and ethics

When reviewing a film, art exhibition, theater performance or book, there are many things to consider before I start writing. Who am I writing for? What do I want to achieve? Is my role as a reviewer to share my experiences?

Should I share my opinions and act as a taste advisor to readers? What is my position as a writer? Am I the one in the middle of it all or do I stand outside and observe from a distance? Should I write what I feel, think and believe based entirely on my personal opinions, or should I be sensitive to what others think? Freelance critics in particular can be in a precarious position that requires them to consider many interests, Tomas Anderberg writes in Everyone is a Critic( Alla är vi kritiker).

I sometimes find it difficult to determine which opinions are my own and which I have picked up from others. Especially on occasions when I neither hate nor love what is being reviewed. When my personal opinions vary. Some things were good, others not so good. Which angle should I choose? Is it best to focus on what was good or what can be done better? Should I look at the audience and describe their reactions? Should I address what other reviewers missed?

Or am I missing the point, not having enough experience with ancient theater to review Oedipus, for example? We are influenced by what others think. No matter how independent in my opinions I consider myself to be, I should be aware that as a critic I am influenced by and relate to others in the same field. We are social beings who adapt to fit into the group. Taking a position that goes against what others think can be lonely.

We live in a time when everyone is a critic in social settings and on the internet. We tell each other about things we like and warn each other about things we don’t like. When I read reviews in a newspaper, I also want to know why a theater production or book is being praised or denigrated. I expect more from a professional reviewer than from my friends when they praise or criticize an aesthetic work. 

This brings us to the next ethical dilemma. What is the role of the critic? Should the critic argue for what the audience should think? Whether the writer is trying to get the audience to agree or not, the opinions should be substantiated. The critic must find support for what they say. 

In the debate article Humanisterna måste våga skriva böcker, DN 2017-11-24, Anders Bergman argues that researchers must become better at writing prose. Throughout the text, he presents examples and arguments that support his thesis. He ends the text with a rhetorical question: “Who will write our history in 25 years, and how?”.

Another thing Bergman does when criticizing researchers’ writing skills is to point out where he thinks the fault lies and how the situation can be improved. Bergman knows what he is talking about and can therefore give clear examples of what can be done better. 

I find it easier to review art or literature than theater. The reson why is that I have a deeper knowledge of and have always been interested in art and literature. Theater is interesting but I have not attended half as many theater performances as art exhibitions.

And then there is the question of how well you know the person being reviewed. In the cultural world, journalists, artists, actors and writers often recognize each other. They may have met at interviews, exhibitions or previous events. As a former student of Aase Berg, should I entrust the review of her poetry collection to someone else? Probably. Even before I read the collection, I have an opinion about Berg and her previous works. What if I don’t like her latest collection? What if I think it’s fantastic? What if I have been unconsciously colored by my personal relationship with the author? A conflict of loyalties arises.

Anders Mildner tells (in The Limits of Cultural Journalism) about an art exhibition that he reviewed in a local newspaper. The artist called him after reading the review and was upset. Mildner first said that the artist should not care about what he had written, but the artist replied that he could not do that. What the artist had fought for so long was destroyed, he didn’t even want to go to his own opening. This made Mildner reflect on his own role as a critic. What the artist found worst was that Mildner felt nothing for his art. If he was going to be seen, he wanted it to be by someone who actually cared.

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