Essay: In Defense Of Criticism, Well Meaning Or Otherwise

David Evans contributes essays and cultural criticism to WARR

“If I don’t like it, I don’t like it, it doesn’t mean that I’m hating”- Common, The 6th Sense

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Credit: DNAInfo Creator of Showtime series “The Chi,” Lena Waithe (center) stands with “The Chi” actor and producer, Common (right) and fellow cast member Sonja Sohn (right).

Criticism — constructive or depleting, requested or allusive or otherwise — is a daily part of most people’s lives.

We receive it at work, from (mostly) well-meaning family as well as our significant others, we often feel compelled to give it ourselves when watching, listening or reading the actions of our neighbors, local sports stars and political representatives among others.

No holds are barred in the giving and taking of most criticism, however, when consuming “art,” be it through the medium of television or movies or other pop culture, giving a dissenting opinion can be considered treasonous by those who support said project, especially if said artistic work is believed to be representative of a previously unheard or misunderstood segment of society.

Dissenters of any well-intentioned art can be quickly labeled with the title of “hater,” a term mostly used by the part of the population identified as millennials.

As a derivative term, “hater” became popular in the past two decades, propagated mostly in the music industry, a term that popular music artists began to use to deflect criticism from critics who said that their music lacked substance or style.

Fans of the artists themselves caught on and its household use became just another way of life in the 21st century, as much of a badge of honor than a cause to self-correct. To be “hated” or to preemptively identify “hating” has become a way to defend oneself from any criticism, no matter how on point that criticism is. In today’s world many people and entities falsely believe themselves or their products to be beyond reproach because of this thinking.

In a recent online discussion about the credibility of recently debuted Showtime drama “The Chi,” written and produced by Chicago natives Common and Lena Waithe, I myself was myself accused of being a “hater” by an online friend of an associate. Without my knowing this friend of a friend I was arguing with someone who was themselves associated with the show, an actor in fact with a supporting role, who took my measured takes on places where the show in its premiere episode could have seemed truer to the citizens of the city it claims to so preciously adhere to in a supposed groundbreaking portrayal. 

I’d readily admit I didn’t view the debut of “The Chi” as favorably as some, but I did not “hate” the show — I merely pointed out some of the glaring inaccuracies regarding geography, dialect, and the key one-dimensional “angry black woman” stereotypical characters scattered through the initial hour. In the informal arena where this discourse took place I may not have gotten across my thoughts as accurately as I’d like. A much better job of such criticism could be seen in this Vulture article written by Chicago native Jasmine Sanders, who has been tasked by the site to write re-caps of each episode so far. 

Unfortunately, given what I’d see on the screen from the bit player repping for “The Chi” in our brief back and forth, it didn’t seem that it mattered how measured and pensive my thoughts on the show it could have been, it doesn’t matter if the thoughts come from a writer as respectable as Sanders nor does it matter if it comes from a life-long Chicagoan.

Our discourse was initiated by my response to a comment the actor and self-appointed funny person made, stating that “typically, the people who are the most critical don’t talent at all.” She went on to question naysayers if they knew what it took to for a black woman to get a show on a premium cable network, especially a drama, and said that while thoughtful criticism is good and necessary, some are just out to hate on efforts that they couldn’t materialize themselves.

We’re at an important time in popular art in the black community. Where previously the most depth and diversity and outright representation existed in the music business where “hating” gained its latter-day definition, moreso earnest actors, writers and creators of boundary-breaking television and film are being given the room to breathe and thrive, creating around them the kind of cults of personality that previously rappers and singers only evoked.

To comment on a work by a Lena Waithe, Issa Rae, Donald Glover or otherwise today could be interpreted as an overall attack the artist’s talent, skill and even their worth to the black community. In no way should the established accomplishments of these multi-hyphenates be downplayed, they are among the most talented people in show business today and they are making things a lot better in the deepest senses for creators of all backgrounds, especially the ones they represent closely. 

These gifted artists are also benefiting from engrossing levels of groupthink, a phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome, especially as expressed in online discourse. This is troubling, considering that it limits the opportunity for artists or producers of art to make modifications to their products to improve their art, when dissenting opinions of critics, well-meaning or otherwise, are squashed by the artist’s fanbase upon any level of notice.

And the argument that critics lack talent is inaccurate, as it takes talent to analyze a piece of art, and identify areas that need improvement and to synthesize that critique in written form. To say that Roger Ebert lacked talent is stupid, that Greg Tate or Virginia Wolff or Harold Bloom have nothing to say beyond measuring up others talents is ill-informed to say the least.

This is compounded by the perception that many millennials are not too receptive to taking criticism, they don’t know much if anything about the works of the people I just mentioned or can identify any current work that is influenced or builds upon work they established in previous decades. Criticism for so many today is just another thing to be shouted down, another obstacle for social improvement to hurdle instead of the aligned weapon for progress that its been as long as there’s been anything in life to complain about. 

Criticism exists in all forms, it even exists in art itself. “The Chi” itself is nothing less than an ongoing piece of criticism, one aimed towards countering shallow and dangerous representations of Chicago propagated by conservative politicians and others who use the struggles of a city seen as a stronghold of both the Democratic Party and of black ingenuity and resistance as a place where the American Dream isn’t being realized and where militarization is a better answer against gun violence than empathy and funding for better schools and more jobs.

As art itself is criticism, artists should not be afraid of criticism in any form. Without criticism in art — fine or popular, representative and grounded or abstract and nebulous — there can be no growth in the creations that we’re using as touch-points to detail life as it is today. Hopefully the fans of shows like “The Chi” and believers in creators like Lena Waithe will see that at some point and not interpret suggestions as attacks and criticism as calls for cultural battles.

David Evans is a Chicago-based cultural critic and commentator. He is also a local real estate agent and investor. Follow him on Twitter at @davidevans9 and @davevansrealtor; Follow We Are Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under We Are Regal Radio

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One response to “Essay: In Defense Of Criticism, Well Meaning Or Otherwise

  1. Being a lifelong Chicagoan yourself I’m sure you understand the extreme segregation in Chicago so you may have just been unaware of what was going on in neighborhoods that dont look like yours coming from another lifelong Chicagoan

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