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In defence of criticism: Critics are not rabid dogs…

By Michael Kolawole

Mangaaka (Kongo power figure)Kongo power figure (Mangaaka), wood, paint, metal, resin, ceramic, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or from Angola, second half of the 19th century; in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Photograph by Katie Chao. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, Drs. Daniel and Marian Malcolm, Laura G. and James J. Ross, Jeffrey B. Soref, The Robert T. Wall Family, Dr. and Mrs. Sidney G. Clyman, and Steven Kossak Gifts, 2008 (2008.30)

“Rap critics that say he’s Money, Cash, [and] Hoes… I’m like, fuck critics; you can kiss my whole asshole. If you don’t like my lyrics, you can press forward.”
Jay Z— 99 Problems

Too many people believe that critics are rabid dogs or spoilsports who roam about aimlessly, seeking flaws where there are no flaws. That’s not true. Critics are the conscience of the culture, the lone, quiet voices in the wilderness on a mission to straighten the crooked path of the culture.

Being a critic in this era of mass fury against criticism is tough. Artists’ gods-like statuses and fantitlement from their minions make criticism a daunting task. Critics have become villains, whose jobs and lives are threatened by thin-skinned people who can’t swallow criticism. But critics are not villains. They are lovers of the art form they criticize—yes they are, they buy your crafts, attend your shows, take time to engage and dissect the crafts and shows, and present their opinions, albeit soothing or grumpy. Critics are passionate advocates for good taste in arts. They are never satisfied with mediocrity. Where fans will fawn and worship artists for producing inferior projects, critics will tell the truth, regardless of the outcome.

The conflict between outraged artists and critics is a long, deep-rooted one. A furiously-styled telegram written by the playwright John Osborne, complaining that a reviewer did not understand creation, warns that: “FROM NOW ON IT’S AN OPEN WAR ALL THE WAY”. Though the telegram was written many years ago, the war against critics is raging more than before. The advent of social media offers angry artists opportunities to vent their anger against critics. Following an unflattering review of her Grammy-winning album Cuz I Love You, the American singer Lizzo took to social media to declare that “critics who don’t themselves make music SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED”. In May 2012, New York Times film critic AO Scott was back-lashed by the actor Samuel L Jackson, for his review of the movie Avengers Assemble. Samuel L Jackson, who played Nick Fury in the movie, posted a furious message on Twitter, assembling #avengersfans to avenge his course on AO Scott for his pleasing but blunt review of their favourite movie. “AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can actually do!” Jackson wrote on Twitter. With the rage of angry birds, Jackson tweeps swooped on AO Scott, demanding that his editors fire him. A couple of Jackson’s legion of fans retweeted Jackson’s grievance, adding their own anti critical stance “that the critic had no capacity for joy; that he wanted to ruin everyone else’s fun; that he was a hater, a square, and a snob.”

Nollywood, or the Nigerian Film Industry—if you prefer, harbour loads of bitterness for critics. On social media, the battleground between critics and naysayers, critics are always harassed by schlocky filmmakers while the filmmakers’ legion of fans rain curses and threats on critics.

The art of criticism is not a slander. It’s an act of love for a piece of art. Say that to a Nigerian filmmaker, whose average or mediocre film is being panned by critics and receive the greatest insult of your life. Some time last year, the critic Molara Wood was subjected to a barrage of insult on Twitter for criticizing a film that was overhyped and considered extraordinary by the people. “Overdramatic, ham-it-up performances are what are celebrated as great acting, often, in Nigeria,” she wrote in her thread of argument on Twitter. “Films without vision, deeper message or underlying meditative thought, are ‘masterpieces.'” Feeling insulted the filmmaker, Niyi Akinmolayan and a few of his colleagues went ballistic on Twitter. “Dear filmmaker, if anyone talks destructive, mindless shit about your work. Ask them what they do. Then remind them how shitty their profession is… cos 90 percent of [the] time, you will be corrected,” Akinmolayan tweeted, admonishing Nigerian filmmakers to neglect criticism of their films. He would later deliver the sentimental fallacy that people who are terrible at their jobs are (the ones) calling themselves critics.

Critical engagement in films can never be neglected, there lies discussions about aesthetic merits and other kernels of filmmaking. Where the audiences look for fun or emotion in a movie, critics look for nuance in the story structure, dialogues, cinematography, and soundtracks. But sadly many Nollywood filmmakers prefer bland, vacuous reviews of their works to critical, engaging reviews. Filmmakers should learn how to embrace carefully considered, sharp and piercing reviews to hasty, shallow, trivial pronouncements of their crafts. Good reviews are quality control: they are unbiased, informed, well-written, and critically astute. Discovering that a movie is not good enough is an urgent and noble task that only critics, unbiased and detached, can embark on. Any review that doesn’t reveal the flaws in a movie (music or book) is not a review but a promotion piece. (But what if a movie has no flaws? There can never be a perfect production in art. A movie will always have a flaw one way or the other. And critics are not advocating for perfection in filmmaking. All they are requesting is that filmmakers should minimize the flaws in their crafts. Is that too much to ask?)

The impolitic attack on critics is not limited to Nollywood and their fans. The Nigerian music industry also has loads of bile for critics. A few days ago the poet and critic Dami Ajayi fell under a series of backlash from Brymo and his devotees for his review of the musician’s latest album, Yellow. Dami’s review, or, as he called it, annotation, was unflattering but-far-from-grumpy. As though acting from the same script, Brymo reenacted Akinmolayan’s role, though with less vigour. Brymo reaction to the not-too-gushing review was sour (“shitty,” was how he described it). He felt belittled by the review, hence his tweet castigating the critic and reaffirming the greatness of the album. According to a note published on thelagosreview, the publication Dami writes for, a horde of Brymo’s devotees descended on the critic as well as his editor with shocking insults, wild insinuations and ridiculous innuendos. Though, unlike Samuel L Jackson, Brymo might not urge his fans to attack the critic and the publication he writes for, his acerbic response to the review egged his fans to hurl insults at the critic and his editor. That’s bad.

(I chatted with Brymo’s A&R and Manager, Lanre Lawal, a few minutes the review was posted on Twitter and people were attacking the critic. He told me that he and his artist held no grudge against the review and that he doesn’t comment on reviews and attacks, though he’d love to correct some notion about the album. He further explained that the beauty of art is the ability for it to mean different things to different people. Though he feared the review could ruin an artist who hasn’t released any body of work before. He also explained that he has a friend who doesn’t like Brymo’s music. “Like, he said he doesn’t know what people enjoy in the music… and I’m still his friend.” I told him we all mustn’t love the same thing and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be friends. Diversity is what makes the world beautiful.)

The very essence of criticism “is not about distinguishing good from bad; it is about distinguishing good from great.” That’s what Dami did on his review of Yellow. And it’s obvious Dami didn’t write his review to stir a feud with Brymo—in fact, many critics never write reviews to stir up a feud with any artist. A quick search on the internet will reveal a handful of doting and pleasing reviews and profile of Brymo written by Dami Ajayi. Now that he thought Yellow wasn’t that great compared to a couple of Brymo’s earlier offerings shouldn’t brew bad blood. The publication also ran a handful of soothing reviews of the album. I have written a lot of charming, beautiful pieces about Brymo’s music. Now that his response to an unflattering but far-from-grumpy review threatens a critic, I need to call him out.

The impression of art for art’s sake is bogus. Art and criticism are bound together by the same course. They draw strength and identity from a single source. And in most cases, their relationship and mutual dependency are often threatened by their difference in tastes, styles, aesthetics, and judgments. Their relationship is often ruined by their equivocal sentiments. There is no shortage of terrible, mediocre art, and the true task of critics is to filter and separate the great from the good; mediocre from ordinary. Real and true critics’ works are to curtail the culture and call on the phoney and schlocky artists and filmmakers to put their crafts in order. No bad blood. No malice. It’s pure love for the culture.

Critics don’t blindly review arts to smear artists’ reputation. Many critics have one or two knowledge about the art form they are reviewing. They are only reviewing for the benefit of an audience who mostly have little or no education on the art form in discourse. I understand that criticism, especially acerbic, grumpy ones, is bitter pill to swallow and artists or filmmakers are entitled to defend their crafts and disagree with critics. But artists and filmmakers should note that the language used in reaction to criticism is of great importance. Artists should desist from instigating their minions on critics. They should also try to avoid getting into heated arguments with critics but instead engage critics in productive and progressive discussions about the problem of inferiority in art. Artists and filmmakers should understand that every review or profile of their crafts mustn’t end in praise and worship. Harsh reviews are also part of the culture. They should learn how to embrace it as much as they embrace the positive ones. Nigerian creatives—artists, filmmakers, and writers, need to understand that critics are not part of their PR machinery. Critics’ services are to the audience, not the musician or filmmaker or writer. And love it or hate it, critics are also creators, and their works must be taken seriously.

With the look of things, however, I’m not sure the acrimony is going to end anytime soon, I’m not sure critics are ever going to be admired by creatives and their legion of fans. But no matter how much critics are hated, they won’t cower. They will continue to dish out their hated-but-candid opinions about art. For now, the argument continues… it’s not going to end—no, not soon. Just as John Osborne wrote, “… IT’S AN OPEN WAR ALL THE WAY.

Michael Kolawole is a screenwriter, poet, and critic.

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