Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The critic, the artist and the ego

I love the Guardian extract, concerning critics and prizes, from Stephen Sondheim's forthcoming book, Look I Made a Hat. He's pretty much on about the artists's ego, which might seem self-centred,  but it's a serious point that artists and writers need buoyant egos to go on working. Here are the bits I really like:

On critics:
A good critic is someone who recognises and acknowledges the artist's intentions and the work's aspirations, and judges the work by them, not by what his own objectives would have been.
On prizes:
What sours my grapes is the principle of reducing artists to contestants. Competitive awards boost the egos of the winners (until they lose) and damage the egos of the losers (until they win), while feeding the egos of the voters (all the time). Just as there are people who claim to be immune to public criticism, so there are those who claim to be unaffected by being passed over for an award from their supposed peers. But, as in the case of the critic-immune, I've not met any who have convinced me. It isn't so much that you want to be deemed the best; it's more that you don't want to be deemed second best. No matter who the voters are, and whether you accept them as worthy of judging you, winning means they like you more than your competitors.
In conclusion:
...the only meaningful recognition is recognition by your peers or, more accurately, people you consider your peers, and peer recognition is a very personal matter. An artist's peers are other artists, not necessarily in the same field – ie, musicians for musicians, painters for painters – but people who understand what you're trying to do simply because they're trying to do a similar thing.
On the first point, I'd add that a favourable review that nevertheless entirely misses the point of your work can be almost as bad as an unfavourable review - or, well, pretty dismaying. On the second, I'd add that the pernicious thing about prizes is that the also-rans become second-best in the eyes of the public as well as the judges.
On the last, I'd heartily agree, as far as an artist's ego goes, but then we have the matter, don't we, of sales...?
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