Monday, 1 December 2014

An apology of criticism

Critical thinking is a mental and emotional function in which someone - based on his/her knowledge and information available – decides what to think or do in relation to a specific situation. The result is a substantiated opinion. It is subjective. It may be positive or negative. It must be intellectually honest.

There is a tendency to associate solely negative aspects to the word ‘criticism’ and to see it as an attack. That´s why many times a critique provokes reactions such as “criticising is easy…”; or a hasty clarification by the ‘attacker’, such as “please, don´t take this as a criticism”; or even the need to declare that the ‘attacker’ has nothing personal against his/her ‘target’.

A couple of weeks ago, I reacted – critically - to the interview of a national museum director and, specifically, to a statement regarding an issue that is of extreme importance to me in our profession. This means that, based on my knowledge and the information available, I decided what to think of that statement and I shared that thought. Other people reacted to my criticism, agreeing or disagreeing or adding other aspects to the process of critical thinking. At a certain point, though, a colleague intervened to say: “One shouldn´t speak ill of colleagues on Facebook”. This intervention has kept my mind busy since.

I see a distinct difference between speaking ill and criticising. Speaking ill can only be negative and there is something too personal in it, something too sentimental, something that ends up neutralizing the strength of arguments and severely affects the credibility of the critic. Speaking ill is not constructive, it might be temporarily ‘therapeutic’ for the speaker, but it is ineffective.

Criticism is something different. Criticism is the wish to be aware, to put one’s knowledge in good use, to contribute for something better (through positive or negative appreciations) and also to assume responsibility. Thus, criticism is not easy.

Very little critical thinking is shared in public, with the exception, perhaps, of whatever relates to the governement and politicians in general – which makes me think that maybe we don´t feel as responsible for this country´s political life, thus, criticising (or speaking ill) becomes easy... In what concerns everything else, and considering specifically the cultural sector, public criticism and debate regarding decisions, positions, projects is rather limited. The professionals of the field might be feeling that all this is beyond their control and this feeling of impotence makes any intervention seem hopeless. Others might not like the exposure public criticism brings along, wary about personal/professional relationships that tend to get mixed up on these occasions. Others still might not like to take the responsibility of criticising publicly. Thus, as criticism is actually seen as something negative, as an attack, it is better kept behind closed doors, ‘in the family’, or, better still, untold. For some people, it shouldn´t be happening on social media. (I can´t help thinking that, when a couple of years ago I wrote positevely about an interview of the same national museum director, nobody told me I shouldn´t be doing it on Facebook; I suppose it was not considered criticism).

I envy cultural bloggers in (mainly) the US and the UK, who contribute to the open debate and criticism of all important matters, keeping the dialogue alive, their voice heard and the interested public informed. They are too intelligent to fall into the trap of ill speaking. This is an act of responsibility. This should be an expected act in a democracy. All important, major, things must be discussed openly, positive and negative things must be largely debated, responsibility must be assumed. The direction of all public cultural institutions concerns us all, starting from the professionals of the field.

Which brings me to another point: criticism is associated to accountability. When Nina Simon completed her first year as director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, she wrote the post Year one as a museum director... Survived!. Both accountability and criticism stem from a deep sense of responsibility and Nina´s text is the perfect example of what I would like to see happening here.  But it´s not happening. In a country where those holding public positions are not expected to be accountable – that is, to openly define their objectives and to regularly explain what it is that they do, how, why and how successful they are in it - criticism might actually make less sense and we enter a vicious circle. A circle where few substantiated opinions are heard publicly, having no impact whatsoever, and where things happen anyway, no matter what, and success is declared... no matter what. We even consider normal that someone with a public position might be defending the indefensible, might not be giving an honest opinion, out of duty to his/her superiors. A vicious circle, a game, where we sacrifice our intellectual honesty. What´s the gain? And at what cost?

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