Jessica Helfand | Essays

I'm Not Ready to Make Nice

It's a tough time to be a critic. Everyone's got an opinion they're all-too-eager to deliver, and in today's wiki-esque maelstrom of information sharing, we're all supposed to be equal. In the best case scenario, knowledge aggregation is a good thing: we're all part of a dynamic system of checks and balances, mutually governed by the pursuit of truth. Worst case scenario? The pursuit of truth is a pretty subjective enterprise. Consider the sad, stoic tale of Judith Miller (or for that matter, the even sadder, perverse tale of Judith Regan); the amplified criticism of reality show TV; the abusive cross-fire between celebrities; between politicians; the finger-pointing aimed at writers exposed as frauds.

If you're an artist, criticism is even more complex. Freedom of expression may be a given, but it doesn't feel so free when you're the victim of a negative public outcry. Maybe this is why the Dixie Chicks five-award sweep at the Grammy Awards last night feels like more than a triumph. It's a vindication.

Let me be the first to say that country music is not everyone's cup of tea. (It's been said that one of the stranger torture techniques at the Abu Ghraib prison was a heavy dose of country music: apparently, heavy metal and ten-minute drum solos scarcely made a dent, while intense exposure to country music brought prisoners to their knees.) Still, it's hard not to be impressed with this trio of young women who write most of their own music and aren't afraid to speak their minds. (They're also working parents: even more impressive.) Mostly, though, they're strong women with even stronger points of view, artists whose public opposition to the Bush administration beginning four years ago resulted in concert cancellations, album burnings, even death threats. Still, they persevered.

Is it perseverance in the face of adversity that the critics sought to recognize last night? Or is it just that their music is good? And what qualifies as good, anyway? That it represents innovation? Diversity? Vision? Beauty?

Such considerations — not easy to quantify on any level — frame similar discussions in the design disciplines: from graduate school admissions to industry-wide competitions, these early winter months frame the season of design reviews and judgings. Having spent three out of the last seven days engaged in precisely this kind of criticism, I feel somewhat qualified to make these pronouncements. (No doubt others will disagree and debate me on these points: after all, what is a blog if not a public space for debate and critique?) Curiously, though, because competition judging takes place behind closed doors, a rather different atmosphere is created: rather than a public free-for-all, this is the rarified domain of peer review. Among peers, what happens is that criticism is self-contained but no less vociferous. It's channeled and purposeful, like a pressure cooker where no unnecessary steam is released. It's protected and focused, and as a process in search of a goal, I would argue, it's highly successful as a result.

This past week, I experienced what may have been an ideal constellation of forces. I spent two days in a room with 25 designers from all over the globe, a group of people who, in spite of their differences, were united in two things: one, they were without exception lovely human beings, and two, they were unequivocally tough on the work they were being asked to judge.

Tough on the work —not on each other. Tough in the sense that the work was held up to scrutiny, and our discussions were led by our collective pursuit of excellence. Was it timeliness we were after? Appropriateness? Novelty? Might we recognize the manifestation of pure, even extraordinary skill? Could a piece be praised simply for being sublime? And how to define that, exactly? None of them were easy questions, but how gratifying to be seeking answers with qualified, like-minded individuals.

It's often been said that if you put Bill Clinton in a room with 100 people, 99 of whom adored him, he would spend all his time trying to win over the lone naysayer. Let me be the first to admit that I am firmly in this camp: personally, I prefer to engage in any argument in which I know my opponents are similarly predisposed. (The Dixie Chicks have one another to turn to for support, too.) Conversely, the life of a critic is rather isolating, because the point isn't to get people to agree with you: it's to get them to think, to consider something differently, to see something in a new way. Such positioning requires a kind of ruthless focus, a strong internal sense of self, and the courage of your convictions. It's about being opinionated, but not nasty; passionate, but not dismissive; brave, but not pompous. In an era that's likely to be remembered for its love of the communal, raising the bar, like raising your voice, is likely to result in epic dissent. And why not? After all, everyone's a critic.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Music , Theory + Criticism

Comments [30]

The Duhks got shafted for Best Country Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal.

In regards to the first part of your essay about the recent adventures of the Dixie Chicks, I too found them to be brave for standing by their convictions and refusing to apologize. It would have quieted the angry shouts, but it would have been a lie and, after all, they must live with themselves long after the music is over. Although not a fan of Country music, I purchased the album in support of their stance. I don't know if the Grammys were their vindication or if it's the proper venue to give such affirmation, but they should be applauded nonetheless.

As for the second part, critiques and/or group discussions are always interesting. The dynamics often change dependant upon who is in attendance, personal agendas, and common goals. Such discourse can be very enjoyable between like-minded and diverse individuals alike as long as there is a solid respect for every person in the room. Conversely, if there is an inherent mistrust between individuals, it is often difficult, although not impossible, to still have a valuable discourse. It comes down to respect for the other person. You get what you give... usually.

That said, it seems that a lot of us tend to gather within the confines of our respective groups, sub-groups, and super-cliques. I suppose its human nature, but personally have found that getting out there where I don't feel the slightest bit comfortable can sometimes be the most rewarding. I do not always have the most informed or researched opinions and such discussions can inform, solidify, or clarify them. At the very least, such conversations drive me to research my opinions, which, I believe, is a good thing.
James D. Nesbitt

Suggesting that bolted behind closed doors discussing others' work is the realm of peer review, seems similar to a room filled with Vladimir Putin and the money-grabbing oligarchs of modern Russia. ...don't worry, we know what's best for you... Thanks for the offer, but I imagine a large group of designers don't bother to gain the acceptance of a rarified few. Most times it's about making clients happy so we can design another day. If you like the Dixie Chicks' music, buy it and enjoy it. One doesn't have to wait for an award show to gain acceptance. Life is much simpler than that.
David C. Green

Interesting post.

Progress does not exist without experts and experts can't be experts if they don't listen to the majority. Every one should be allowed to speak, and those whose words are most reasoned will be listened to most.

Problems arise when a: elite's start thinking they are superior beings and can decide what's best for everybody without asking them; and b: when the non-expert assumes that something is far simpler than it is (and thus, won't accept help).

There is no real vindication or triumph for the Dixie Chicks.

Even though I do not like the Dixie Chicks I am trying to look at this subjectively. A group of people who obviously share similar idealogy vindicated someone with the same idealogy? Thats like having your mom agree with you while she is cooking dinner.


Their album was sub par country... Their fan base is still alienated. True vindication would be if the red states started buying their CD again and country stations played their music.

In terms of critics, I to like conversation about everything. I like being devil's advocate when there are none in the room... even if I do not even agree with the subject. To create conversation and dialogue about a subject is not bad... but at some point your opinion must be educated based on reason and face... and not about what you feel. If the Dixie Chicks feel vindicated.. then let them... they received an award to make a statement from people who had a platform.


The Chixie Dicks are just another in a long line of entertainers who allow popularity to inflate their sense of self importance. Entertainers wrongly assume that their fame, money, and influence arise from broad knowledge rather than natural talent, looks, or mastery of a narrow skill.

"I too found them to be brave for standing by their convictions and refusing to apologize." I think this applies to anyone who backs President Bush. Doing what's right isn't always popular. Especially when the media and pop culture are against it. "STAND BEFORE THE PEOPLE YOU FEAR AND SPEAK YOUR MIND - EVEN IF YOUR VOICE SHAKES" also applies to Conservatives and Republicans.

"Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views". - William F. Buckley

Spending all ones time trying to "win over the lone naysayer" is a sickness, not a virtue. It reveals a deep underlying extreme need to be liked. Someone suffering from this would tend to do what's popular despite whether it's right or not.
Fashion Critic

It seems to me that critics only have a value where people feel a need for someone else to tell them what to think. Which generally means in areas which aren't well understood, but where there is a cachet or a pressure to have 'the right opinions'.

One of my first bosses once told me that a famous designer (he wouldn't name him) had asked him to recommend the 'right kind of music'. Not because he wanted to enjoy it, but because he wanted to be seen to be listening to the music that enhanced his status. That, to me, has always seemed like the very definition of phoneyness, shallowness and vanity.

But, really, that's the business critics are in. Telling people what is 'good' and 'bad', so that their opinions can be passed on - apparently knoweldgeably, and certainly as if they were our own - to others. And really, when you consider it, criticism depends as much upon withholding information - making it 'exclusive' and inaccessible - as it does on making it available. No doubt that is why magazines of 'informed criticism', in whatever field, are so damned expensive. And why critics seem to disdain writing on the web, where their opinions could be shared with everyone.

If you understand something, it may be interesting to know what someone else thinks, but their opinions carry no more weight than anyone else's. Part of the role of the critic, therefore, is to 'raise the bar' not of the standard of the work reviewed but to entry into the debate. Certainly design criticism, in recent years, has implied that there are sophisticated concepts involved in judging design which - if you don't understand them - disqualify you from being able to assess it.

In graphic design, this is an absurdity bar none. The whole intention of graphic design is to communicate - and if one can't decide whether it is communicating with you effectively or not without having had a deep immersion in Post-modern Philosophy or Critical Theory, it almost certainly is not fulfilling its function. Good graphic design speaks to everyone - it attracts our attention, enables us to understand and retain what it is saying, and invites us to feel more warmly towards the message (and the author) than we did previously. That's what makes it good. It's the simplest thing on earth - it doesn't require any critics or judges.
James Souttar

The Dixie Chicks won because a bunch of liberal artists voted for them to win. Not necessarily because the music was good or really good.

Maybe they thought they were sticking it to the man. Take that W, the Dixie Chicks just won a grammy.

What qualifies something as good depends on many things, one being context. But I don't think controversy is a good qualifer.

I too am a critic, as if you can't tell by the nature of my post.
Nathan Philpot

I never understood why the Dixie Chicks felt that they had not only the right to speak their minds, but also to dictate the response. If you demand the right to say, "Give me liberty or give me death", you might get death. Before someone freaks out and suggests I'm saying that they deserve death, it was just an extreme example. But they said something inflammatory, and they simply met with even more freedom of thought and speech in the form of the horrendous backlash they received. People have the right to the Dixie Chicks to shut up and sing. I wish they'd quit singing, as well, but that's just 'cause I hate country music.
Michael Worrell

Joe Moran

After all, everyone's a critic.

Jessica, this is as true today as it was centuries ago. Only now, we have many voices speaking through a wide range of media. How do we decide who to listen to? Who's the authoritative tongue? What becomes noise?

It seems to me that critics only have a value where people feel a need for someone else to tell them what to think.

I'm greatly enjoying the involuted irony of a critical attack on criticism that concludes with the statement that criticism is irrelevant. To put it simply, James, your arguing of your point defeats your stated premise.
Kenneth FitzGerald

How do we decide who to listen to? Who's the authoritative tongue? What becomes noise?

Master Tselentis,

I think in the end we, as cognitive beings, go with our "gut." We gravitate toward the opinion that most closely resembles our own. It is one thing to engage each other in respectful, energetic discourse, but another thing entirely to truly listen. Personally, the only time I am open to the possibility of being swayed is when I have great respect for the other person and my conviction is not rock solid.
James D. Nesbitt

The whole intention of graphic design is to communicate - and if one can't decide whether it is communicating with you effectively or not without having had a deep immersion in Post-modern Philosophy or Critical Theory, it almost certainly is not fulfilling its function. Good graphic design speaks to everyone - it attracts our attention, enables us to understand and retain what it is saying, and invites us to feel more warmly towards the message (and the author) than we did previously. That's what makes it good. It's the simplest thing on earth - it doesn't require any critics or judges.

Graphic design doesn't speak to everyone, this is one of those professional myths designers like to tell each other to make their language feel more universal than it is. Graphic design certainly doesn't explain the significance of itself on its own. There's the work and the message of that work which is one thing, and then there is the greater context for evaluating and appreciating (or not) that work, which is one job of criticism.

Jessica: I would argue that everyone has an opinion, but that opinion is not necessarily criticism.
Andrew Blauvelt

Graphic design doesn't speak to everyone, this is one of those professional myths designers like to tell each other to make their language feel more universal than it is.

I often wish more designers believed that design's intent is not to make the content "warmer" (or bolder or more seductive or more legible), but to frame and provide context to facilitate and add meaning.
Ahrum Hong

Not so tough on each other? Having just watched, "This Film is Not Yet Rated" I am inspired to argue that this is a time when naming names is useful. Who are these shrinking violets who find conviviality preferential to critical engagement? Let us wallow in the puerile realities of logrolling at the highest level of, um, design glory. Or something. We probably wouldn't even recognize all the names. Christ, design is a hall of masturbatory mirrors.

But don't worry, we still think y'all are important. Barring that, there will always be another generation of skateboarders who want to found the next Alife and will populate upscale design programs. Make you feel important for a couple more years. But be wary, those candy-colored folks might steal some thunder, since we know designers would rather make lists than actually read anything.
miss representation

Well, I know the Dixie Chicks are considered under the larger umbrella of country music (which I don't particularly like unless it's the classic stuff, like Patsy or Hank) but I've always considered them much more bluegrass-y and not so easy to categorize. Kind of like Neko Case....country, but something much more.

Conversely, the life of a critic is rather isolating, because the point isn't to get people to agree with you: it's to get them to think, to consider something differently, to see something in a new way.

The design critic, the TDC and the AIGA play an important role in the ethical culture of design. They free us from isolation and allow us to design something new.

By the way, recent work by Number Seventeen includes the titles for a documentary about the Dixie Chicks called Shut Up and Sing. .
Carl W. Smith

I know this isn't exactly on target, but about a month ago, I tried to give "constructive" criticism to design*sponge, the popular design and housewares blog girl. You can read the comment string [https://www2.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=8051781&postID=116882061683666532&isPopup=true], I'm "MP". I told her that her podcasts were a big unprofessional sounding and that she needed to work on her interviewing style and voice. Then some lady named "sheila m." [sheilasdecorating.com] started going on about leave Grace alone and it went really downhill from there. Why can't people own up to their weaknesses and just take it and use it? Why do people get so irrationally defensive? I just can't understand. I take it every day and I turn around and turn it into something better. GEEZ.
margo Pearson

A graphic designer handing out kudos to politically left causes and concerns? Wow, that's so...so...completely unremarkable.


Please let me know when real diversity of thought and opinon is encouraged and sustained in our profession.

By all means speak, and -- more importantly -- act naturally.

Hee haw!

Joe Moran

It is difficult to not become angry every time I hear or read someone whine about the brave Dixie Chicks being denied their freedom of speech. It's such a load of sh%t. They were free to say whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, wherever they wanted. What they wanted was freedom from the consequences.

A large portion of their market, didn't like what they had to say. They expressed that displeasure by not buying their records or tickets to their concerts. That was their right.

And the Dixie Chicks could still say whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, wherever they wanted - there were just fewer people willing to pay yo listen.
Stephen Macklin

From Time magazine to Amazon Fishbowl:
"There are a lot of blue people in red states."
Check out the Dixie Chicks performance and interview with Bill Maher.
Carl W. Smith

Maligned? Brave? Come on. From the minute the controversy erupted, the Chics worked it. A cover on EW with naked torsos and tattoos, songs like "Not Ready to Make Nice", bolting to L.A. to work with a celebrated rock producer... II have to agree with an earlier poster here; among artists, the only 'brave' ones are those who might voice support for Bush. Otherwise it is an insultingly herd-like mentality.

That rant made, your blig is excellent.
Joseph martin

I think it is interesting to note the voting criteria for the Grammy's.

From the Grammy website:

Recording Academy members and record companies enter recordings and music videos released during the eligibility year which they consider worthy of recognition in the GRAMMY Awards process

Reviewing sessions by more than 150 experts in various fields are held to ensure that entered recordings meet specific qualifications and have been placed in appropriate fields such as Rock, R&B, Jazz, Country, Gospel, New Age, Rap, Classical and Latin, among others. The purpose of screenings is not to make artistic or technical judgments about the recordings, but rather to make sure that each entry is eligible and placed in its proper category.

First-round ballots with lists of eligible recordings in all fields, except those voted on by special nominating committees, are sent to voting members who return their ballots to the independent accounting firm of Deloitte for tabulation. To help ensure the quality of the voting, members are directed to vote only in their fields of expertise; they may nominate in the four general categories (Record Of The Year, Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best New Artist) and in no more than nine out of 31 fields on their ballots.

Special Nominating Committees
In craft and other specialized categories, final nominations are determined by national nomination review committees comprised of voting members from all of The Academy's Chapter cities.

Final Voting
Lists of the finalists are sent to voting members with their second round ballots. The finalists determined by the special nominating committees are also included on these lists. In this final round, Recording Academy members may vote in the four general categories and in no more than eight of the 31 fields. Ballots again are tabulated in secrecy by the independent accounting firm, Deloitte.

Results of members' voting are not known until the GRAMMY Awards presentation ceremony when names of the winners are delivered by Deloitte in sealed envelopes. GRAMMY Award winners are revealed during the GRAMMY Awards telecast.

While everyone can vote in the major categories and apparently voted most often for the Chicks, Dixie Chicks did also win best country album and best performance by a duo or group for country suggesting that their peers as well as all the supposed lefties in Hollywood thought highly of their efforts.

Notwithstandng this democratidbit which suggests that the Chicks are being recognized by a variety of different interest groups, not just blue staters, it is also fair to point out that the Grammy's are hardly known for being elitist, suggesting a mood swing, if nothing more, in the country (and not just country music). From my perspective, I am very happy if the Chicks symbolize through their music a collective critique of a foriegn policy that is at best based upon pure ideology (agree with it or not - I prefer not to be led by the uncritical) and at worst lies.

Thank you Jessica for your defense of criticism, even if it is popular criticism, and here's for more of it. Our very lives and future as a nation and culture may depend upon it.
John Kaliski

Though I may agree with the dixie chicks political stance, does that really make their album worthy of five grammys? I haven't studied music ever, and I am not a fan of country music, but I listened to the album and was unimpressed. The Grammys should be about awarding musicians for their music, not their political statements.

JRO, you obvioulsy did not read Mr. Kaliski's previous post or you just do not believe that the Grammys represent musicians voting for musicians and in the case of the Dixie Chicks, most likely and more often than not country musicians voting for country musicians. Your statement The Grammys should be about awarding musicians for their music, not their political statements is from a logic point of view if not oxymoronic than at least problematic.
Bernard Pez

1. Gosh Jessica, I hate to bring this up, but:

Don't the Grammies just... well, kinda suck? Aren't they really nothing more than a back-slapping flaunt-fest for (almost exclusively) major labels?

Personally I'd propose that they don't gauge the critical or artistic merit of anything. If they did, this year Neko Case would've won for "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood" over the Dixie Chicks. (Give one listen to "That Teenage Feeling" and tell me I'm wrong.)

2. The only Grammy I give any passing attention to is Best Recording Package (formerly Best Album Cover).

Click down the list of winners. Aside from a few excellent choices -- e.g., Wilco's "A Ghost Is Born," Sagmeister's work on Talking Heads' "Once In A Lifetime" -- the majority of designs are pretty... uh... so-so (given that it's a national award and all, and given how many truly wonderful examples of music graphics are released each year).

When Madonna's "Music" came out, did anyone think: "My god, this is the greatest, most inpiring album cover of 2001"? Well, apparently Grammy people did.

So I have little doubt, Jessica, that your panel judging pow-wow was FAR superior and worthy in terms of assessing artistic value (of any kind) than the Grammy Awards have ever been!

3. Personally, I never thought the Chicks' comments were all that bad.

(In full disclosure: I've long thought Bush to be an arrogant, reckless, pig-headed, irresponsible, secretive, militaristic, deceptive, incompetent jerk who, among many other gaffes, has greatly worsened and endangered America's standing in the world -- which is precisely how he'll be remembered by history. So, in fairness, maybe I'm a little desensitized to criticism against him.)

People on the right wing said pretty much the same thing about Clinton throughout the '90s -- that they were ashamed to have him as a president -- which was a completely valid and understandable statement. (Hell, I felt that way too.)

Nobody cried bloody murder in response back then -- and Clinton wasn't waging a faltering, unilateral, highly questionable war that's killed thousands, as Bush has (among many, many other lapses, transgressions and violations by this administration).

It is worth noting that the Chick's viewpoint is currently shared, according to present approval ratings of the commander-in-chief, by about 70 percent of American, to some degree.

Thus the only problem was that the Chicks were ahead of the curve in stating their disapproval, and that their fan base generally didn't approve. Still, the outcry against them seemed disproportionately hostile to the sentiment they expressed.

But as stated before on the Design Observer comments page, I think anyone who speaks to power in a constructive, sincere, truthful and civil manner is always committing a heroic and patriotic act -- regardless of who's in power, regardless of the opinion.

3. The only 'brave' ones are those who might voice support for Bush...

Hoo boy, Joseph... in all due respect, I strongly, strongly disagree.

There's little bravery in standing behind anyone so entrenched in authority as George W. Bush -- much less someone who's made the blatant and egregious abuses of power that Bush has.

From my standpoint, publicly speaking out against any presidential administration as obsessed with control and consolidation of power as this one -- much less one as willing to, say, torture untried individuals (despite that pesky "cruel and unusual punishment" clause the Founding Fathers inserted) -- is still awfully courageous in my book.

I'm not a Dixie Chicks fan per se, but they did lose fans, money and goodwill in their industry, and gained death threats, enemies, isolation and tour cancellations -- all for a 5-second statement on a radio interview. To say they "worked it" seems a pretty shallow analysis of their response to the controversy.

Personally, I think Mr. Bush is deserving of far, far more criticism for his unconscionable actions than the Dixie Chicks were for their honest sentiments.

4. People have the right to (tell) the Dixie Chicks to shut up and sing...

Sure they have that right. That's a given.

But personally, I dislike this strident "Shut Up and Sing" rhetoric even more than I dislike celebrities in general.

We all hate hearing half-assed, self-inflated, empty-headed prattling from celebrities about real issues. In fact, I sometimes wonder if celebrity involvement in a cause hurts more than it helps. (It absolutely kills me when an issue I truly believe in is hobbled by the endorsement of somebody like Barbara Streisand or Ben Affleck.)

But the alternative -- i.e., enforced silence by antagonism -- seems a hell of a lot worse, regardless of whether I agree with what they're saying or not.

An artist's job is to push ideas, to step over the line, to express the unspoken, to make us nervous through their talents and expressiveness and voice. Not "shutting up" is what artists are here for. Creating unease is their stock and trade -- as well as taking the consequences for what they say. Right?

If we're to categorize the Chicks as "artists" -- as opposed to "entertainers," whose job is purely to perform for public enjoyment -- then they indeed were being darn good artists in speaking their minds publicly.

5. So... the logical extension of this question for Design Obersever's purposes:

Should designers -- particularly those versed in the specifics of political/social/ethical subjects, and who care about them greatly -- should we too just "shut up and design"?

Since much of the world considers us as nothing more than "hired guns," have we no place in the public discussion of issues? Should we not speak our minds, or get active in issues we feel strongly about, or debate and defend our views in a broader public forum?

Should we just quietly get back to hunching over our layouts and Pantone books and kerning, happy to have jobs that we generally like, and quit trying to be good citizens participating in the democracy to which we belong?

There are, unfortunately, some people who think so. They're called totalitarians.
Jon Resh

Jon, given your passion and your sense of outrage (and justifiable outrage it is) thank God the Dixie Chicks won the Grammy. I guess those awards that suck got this one right.
Bernard Pez

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