When I review a book or exhibition I am giving my opinion about it. My reviews are not synopses or press releases, nor do they short-change my ‘truth’ to protect the feelings of an author or artist. My job is to convey an entertaining yet informative subjective response about the experience of reading or viewing a work. But the subjective response should always be tempered by an objective analysis of the success of the work as a whole in acknowledgement of its target audience and whether it has achieved its intentions and realised its premise.
Of course all artists/authors want positive reviews, but they need to understand that successful reviews are part subjective response and part objective analysis. No reviewer can globally damn a work, and if they attempt to do that, they are only speaking for and about themselves.
But we all have biases, how can we not? A wholly objective review, if it were possible, would be as dry as a bone in the desert sun. Taste contributes a great deal to the readability of literature and art. Time and place and other points of view such as political bent do too. But a well-written review will provide sound reasons for the claims made by the reviewer.
In relation to the idea of hurt feelings or pride, it is undesirable for anyone to become upset by a review, but it is inevitable for that to happen. It is also inevitable that while one person might think a review is positive another might not.
As a reviewer, I have wrestled with the question of duty to the author/artist, and I do believe I could have done a better job in a few situations where I allowed the balance of my creative writing versus my technical appraisal to become skewed, making the review reveal too much about me. It might be entertaining to review like this, but it can give the review an unclear purpose. There needs to be balance. But balance does not mean that the personal opinion and preference of the reviewer needs to be invisible. And balance does not mean that a review must be a litany of pros and cons…
Reviewers will go off on flights of ego at times, because art and literature cannot help but incite emotional responses and identification. Emotion is a significant driver behind the existence of art, and reviewers are not immune. And it is not completely irrelevant for this to happen (if balance is redressed), because by describing visceral responses, a reviewer may be able to convey the experience of being with the work in a more compelling way than if they spoke only in technical terms, and appeared not to have been moved one way or the other.
The process of reviewing tends to do three things in particular and not necessarily all three each time: 1. It informs a potential audience about the work via a critical analysis. 2. It creates debate with those who have seen or will see the work. 3. It interprets a work to a new, naïve, semi or under-informed audience in instances such as which might occur with obscure, experimental, or conceptual art or writing.
And so the review has the opportunity to become a type of postscript artwork in itself, carrying as it does, the ‘burden’ of further interpretation that may even extend the art/literary work beyond its esoteric limitations and help it reach a new audience. The review is an interpretation free of responsibility to artist or author, which allows it to add the perspective of the consumer into the mix.
You can’t believe everything you read, but you can react to what you read and spring off from it into something new.