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Topic ClosedGuidelines for a Helpful Art Review

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FloydWright View Drop Down
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Direct Link To This Post Topic: Guidelines for a Helpful Art Review
    Posted: March 13 2006 at 00:21
Sorry for going so long without a post or a review, but since I'm on spring break for this week, I decided to leave you guys with this.



Guidelines for a Helpful Art Review


I have seen too many inappropriate, un-useful reviews of art, literature, music, and movies on various forums I frequent that I felt the need to write up a set of guidelines on how to do the a good review. Apologies in advance to those of you who will be seeing this on more than one forum; if you've seen it already, there's no need to read it again unless you're interested.

When you are writing a review, if you are like most reviewers, you want your words to have an influence on others thinking about paying for or viewing that work. In some special situations, you may want your review to carry some weight with the actual artist. In order to accomplish your goals, you therefore need to come off as insightful, credible, and respectful; otherwise, you're likely to be blown off (and rightfully so).

I've come up with an easy acronym to remember, in order to make your reviews stand out among a crowd and maybe even have an influence on your target audience:

S: Substantive
A: Appropriate
F: Forthright
E: Even-Handed
R: Referenced

Now I'll discuss what each of these criteria is, and what they mean for the way you write a review and how it will be received.


SUBSTANTIVE: This means writing a review that has some "meat" to it--that is, more than "OMG it pwnz/sux0rz." A review that isn't substantive does not help anybody in making a decision about the work in question. Nor does it reflect very well upon the author; readers will assume the author was a) lazy, b) disinterested, c) shallow, d) unintelligent or e) any combination of the above. Even if these assumptions are unwarranted, readers have little reason to question them if a review doesn't have much to offer. They will end up skimming or ignoring your review in order not to waste time.

To make sure your review is substantive, I suggest stating at least three reasons that you like or dislike something, and then explaining these reasons so that the reader can follow your train of thought. Or if not three reasons, make sure to explain the two or one in that much greater detail so people understand what is SO earthshattering about it. Basically, the fewer reasons you have, the more detailed you should be, and vice versa. This way, the reader can understand how you arrived at your conclusions and whether or not that fits with their own preferences. Even if you're writing a positive review, this is important because not everybody shares the same views and preferences.


APPROPRIATE: This means writing a review that is reasonably professional. The most frequent lack of appropriateness is flaming. Flaming includes making personal attacks and threats against the artist OR his or her fans OR non-fans, because of their opinions about a work. However, there's another breach of appropriateness that unfortunately is more and more common. Statements like, "OMG I wanna have his baby" and the like are also disrespectful, inappropriate, and contribute nothing to your review--in fact, it's one of the key ways to damage one's credibility.

In order to make sure you write an appropriate review, the most important piece of advice I have is to get your emotions in check before setting pen to paper. This doesn't mean you can't be excited or disgusted by what you're reviewing. However, it is CRITICAL that you not allow these emotions to lead you into making disrespectful comments that you would not want said about yourself or something that you care about and think highly of. Even if you do not think highly of that person or thing, you are much more likely to be taken seriously if you can state your reasons as objectively as possible and not write an emotionally-charged, time-wasting rant (again, either positive or negative). Opinions should be disclaimed as opinions, and the best way to state one without being inappropriate is to make them "I" statements--not "you" or "he/she" statements. It is better to say, "I don't care for that style" than to say, "You suck and so does everyone else who thinks your work is any good." The first is an opinion--the latter is a personal attack. Along similar lines, I suggest re-reading the entire thing at least once before posting as a final guard against inappropriate remarks.


FORTHRIGHT: The reviewer needs to, up-front, declare any personal biases that may prejudice his or her opinion about the work. For instance, in visual art, a person with a preference for impressionistic works and a dislike for photograph-like drawings should declare this tactfully at the beginning. In music, a person who prefers prog to more straightforward music should declare this preference if it will affect the content of the review. Another bias can include being on friendly (or unfriendly) terms with the artist. Anything that can be seen as potentially compromising the reviewer's objectivity (or otherwise introducing a bias) needs to be declared. This has multiple effects. First, it lets other readers (which may include the artist) understand how well your review will coincide with their objectives in creating, purchasing, or viewing art. This increases the usefulness of your review--not only will those with similar preferences to yours be more likely to accept your review, but even those whose objectives do not line up with yours will be able to get more use out of your review. For instance, if you're writing a book review and you happen to enjoy long, visually descriptive passages, a person who does not enjoy those passages can "reverse-score" your review, so to speak, and use it to decide their time would be better-spent on something else. Even if that person has not made the choice you would have, you have still provided something helpful and credible.


EVEN-HANDED: Reviews that dwell solely on the negative or positive aspects of a work tend to lack in usefulness and credibility except in the absolute most extreme cases (and I mean VERY extreme). Failure to state what is positive about a work you don't like can make you appear as if your sole purpose in writing the review is to trash that person, their work, and their fans. On the other hand, failure to state what is negative about a work you DO like can make you look like a "fanboy/girl" who is too busy pandering (or trying to get inside the artist's pants!) to be taken seriously.

An even-handed review has several benefits. First, it makes you appear more credible because you have spent the time to get past your initial gut reaction and search for things that may not have been your first inclination. Second, your review becomes more useful because others may not place the same weights on certain characteristics as you do. What may seem like a glaring flaw to you may be only a minor scratch to someone else. Third, your review becomes more useful to the artist--even a review that's more negative than positive. If the artist wants to use your critique for improvement, he or she now also has a list of good things NOT to waste time and energy on in addition to the areas for improvement (and this is the terminology I recommend using on a negative item--NOT "this blows" or "they f'ed up big time"). If the artist does not agree with your assessment, an even-handed review does two things: a) it may soften the blow of a negative review because taking the time to state the positives makes your post look less like a flame or personal attack and b) it may help the artist to spot universally-liked features upon which he or she can capitalize.

To make sure that your review is even-handed, a good rule of thumb is to try to find at least one positive aspect for every negative aspect, and vice versa. This won't always be possible, of course, but the search is likely to be of benefit to your review. In extreme cases where you aren't finding ANY negative/positive reasons, as the case may be, I STRONGLY advise setting the work down, waiting for at least a few days and looking at other art in the meantime, and only then going back to that work to see if something else becomes apparent on the next go-around. Only if you fail to find an opposite reason on that attempt should you then post the extreme review.


REFERENCED: This is critical for maintaining credibility as a reviewer. Doing research on statements (both fact and opinion) that are not public knowledge EVERYONE has access to and is likely to know, and citing those sources, is critical. Remember that some of your readers will be new to the subject and your duty is to be honest to them. Remember also that some of your readers will be extremely familiar with the subject and will see your lack of diligence as a reason to dismiss what you're saying--even if you've made some good points. In the case of an opinion, researching any facts involved will help others to decide whether the facts "add up" to the same conclusion you say they do. Your effort to detail your reasoning will increase your standing in the eyes of your audience.

Appropriate citation of sources is especially critical when you attempt to state anything as an UNARGUABLE FACT and not an opinion. It is important to understand, first of all, what qualifies as an UNARGUABLE FACT and what does not. Personal preferences, prejudices, and feelings do not count as facts. Other people's opinions do not count as facts. Suppositions about the artist's motives that he or she has not explicitly stated do not count as facts. In art especially this is an important distinction many people trample on--frankly, the only things you can state as facts are known items about the artist's history, the original subject he or she is depicting, or technical measures such as beats per second (in the case of a drummer) or number of grammatical errors (in the case of a writer). If you get any such data, it is important to cite your source so that people can evaluate the validity of that material. It is also critical in avoiding suspicion of plagiarism (illegal or unethical use of someone else's intellectual property).


If you follow these guidelines, you'll likely be on your way to success in writing reviews!
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: March 11 2007 at 10:45
Thanks for the advice.  It's really difficult to write a good review.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: March 11 2007 at 12:03
An interesting and useful blog which all reviewers would benefit from reading.
 
I'd suggest though that you take from it what you find too be useful. At the end of the day reviewers should write reviews in the way they feel most comfortable. We would not want to end up with reviews which all followed the same template.
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