By Ayan Omar
‘It’s 2019 and we are in the middle of a renaissance in black artistic production. And you are telling me the best people to evaluate that are the same ones who basically ignored black artists for decades?’ art critic Antwaun Sargent tweeted in a thread. He was talking about the dismissive reviews of the Whitney Biennial exhibition that year, but this could have been referring to reviews for film, tv, theatre, even music, and not just contemporary art. The sentiment is fitting for all.
A.O. Scott writes, “It is the mission of art to free our minds and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom.” Arts criticism is the process of immersing yourself in the arts to form an opinion, to educate, and inform the masses. Critics provide to us the service of helping us sift through the endless stream of entertainment.
We trust critics because they are knowledgeable, but when they are unable to grasp the grassroot meaning of the work, they splinter the connection they have to the work, and the artist. This lack of simple understanding of the foundation, the intellectual and artistic framework that inspire black artist’s work causes white reviewers to be dismissive, and black artist’s work to be less visible. In response to the reviews of Whitney Biennial exhibition, artist Simone Leigh whose work featured in the exhibition suggested reviewers could not detect radicalism in her work because they were unfamiliar with the art, artists, and themes she was seeking inspiration from.
People of color do review art, but when the film and art critic world is overwhelmingly white and male, it creates a narrative that the perceptions and opinions of people of color are not universal. Let’s look at some data. In the Critics’ Choice report, academics explored the gender and ethnicity of writers, of those whose reviews were on the Rotten Tomatoes for the top-grossing films in 2017. The report found that of the 19,559 film reviews, 77.8% were written by men and 22.2% by women. The report also uncovered that 82% of the writers were of white background whilst 18% were from an ethnic minority background.
In the ‘Top Critics’ section, white men dominated by contributing 67.3% of the reviews whilst women of color contributed only 2.5%, highlighting a shocking ratio of 27 to 1. The report further presented that women of color authored only 4.1% of all film reviews across the 100 top-grossing films of that year and 2.5% of all reviews as ‘Top Critics.’ Overall, the research revealed that women of color accounted for only 8.9% of all critics and 8.3% of Top Critics, a substantial difference to their white, male counterparts.
This is a shocking issue that is often being swept aside. It matters so much, in a time where culture is a battleground, inequality is rearing its ugly head everywhere and opinions being illuminated in museums, art, the stage and screens.
Yet the report highlights an industry where art produced for audiences are reviewed by primarily white men. Insightful criticism draws attention to important discussions, sometimes political and social and therefore good criticism extends beyond a simple review, even the art itself. Diversity in art criticism is necessary because it is a reflection of society’s cultural merits. Without diverse voices, society cannot partake in an informed dialogue.
As Toni Morrison once wrote: “I don’t like to find my books condemned as bad or praised as good, when that condemnation or that praise is based on criteria from other paradigms. I would much prefer that they were dismissed on or embraced on the success of their accomplishment within the culture out of which I write.”
Women, and people of colour are being excluded from conversations about art that they consume, and therefore they have less opportunity to influence how it is received. When certain books or films are cantered around ethnic minorities or women, a white, male critic’s interpretation will significantly differ and perhaps clash with the intended audience and vocal critic.
Actress Brie Larson at her Women in Film speech made the brave comment: that she didn’t need a ‘white dude to tell me what didn’t work for him about A Wrinkle in Time.’
There is a risk of the white male critic’s opinion appearing out of depth, or falling into cultural blindness, for example, reviews of films with female leads such as Captain Marvel appeared very dismissive and sexist almost. An example is David Edelstein’s review of Wonder Woman which began with: “The only grace note in the generally clunky Wonder Woman is its star, the five-foot-ten-inch Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot, who is somehow the perfect blend of superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness.” Edelstein’s review was wholly focused on the star’s body, and made continuous references to her sex appeal, missing the obvious leap in progress: that she is one of the very few female lead in a superhero action film. A missed opportunity that truly highlights the problem with the stagnant industry of white, male critics.
Progress can lead to works like Jamil Smith’s in-depth Times Essay, on Black Panther, a perfect analysis capturing what is possible when critics of color are given a platform and define the terms of the conversation
Critics have the power to shape discourse, but when some people are not granted the opportunity or are routinely shut out from engaging in the debate, it becomes a problem. For these communities, they become just spoken about, rather than being the authority of their own narrative. For decades, those who have been given the opportunity to interpret art and culture have been white men, segregating the rest from debating and critiquing the culture we all consume. Arts criticism needs to diversify, and critics need to ‘follow the culture where it flows and value the people it engages.’
“The problem is not that these critics lack some essential connection with the work of artists of color,” art critic Aruna D’Souza says in an interview. “It’s that many of them simply are not familiar with the intellectual, conceptual, and artistic ideas that underlie the work.”
Ayan Omar is a student of MA International Journalism at City, University of London. She is also a contributor to The Women’s Republic.
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