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I have posted here many times about critics and what they are – or should be – up to. None of the best critics I’ve read – John Berger, Rebecca Solnit, David Levi Strauss, Dave Hickey – have taken the advice Jones offers – of publishing ‘hatchet jobs.’ Commenting some years ago on what made John Szarkowski so perceptive and influential a critic, Robert Adams wrote:

“Szarkoski’s writing made him envied, but the irony is that his competitors seem to miss some of the most obvious keys to his success. Among these is that he writes only about what he likes. It is a practice that cuts down competition from the start; to be clear about how and why something is difficult, whereas just to turn one’s animosity loose on something weak is both fun and safe (who can accuse you of being sentimental). No wonder the affirmative essays stand out, and, assuming they are about respectable work, last longer. Weak pictures drop away of their own weight, as does discussion of them, but the puzzle of stronger work remains: we are always grateful to the person who can see it better.”

(Notes on) Politics, Theory & Photography: Against Hatchet Jobs

I don’t think crapping all over something that’s bad is intrinsically valuable. However, I think that talking about why and_how_ we dislike things is every bit as valuable as talking about why and how we like things, provided it’s done well. That’s not the same thing as a hatchet job, of course.

One aspect of the art world that can be supremely alienating to outsiders is that it can be totally unclear whether it’s okay to dislike a work, why some people may like it and others may not, and how to articulate dislikes. This is doubly true in online communities where all discussion is at least potentially to everyone’s face, providing a strong disincentive to being honest about dislikes.

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