“It stinks!” – Jay Sherman
I’ve been thinking a lot about criticism lately; art, music, movie, literary, theatre – the litany of demesne for the modern critic. Now, it is fair to say that criticism has been a deeply contemplated field since not long after someone developed the written word. I’m sure there were raucous debates about the epics of Homer in the meeting places of ancient Greece. But of late, there has been a renewed interest in the place of the critic in art.
I have noticed two fronts of debate but they are both centered on what the purpose of the critic is. The first, and perhaps most vociferously argued about, is about the critic as taste maker. There is a long history of this. Indeed, the critic as taste maker is the primary cause of the slow uptake in popular culture of new forms of art. It seems now that the thought that the critic should not be an arbiter of taste is, rightly in my opinion, being strongly pushed back against. Taste is a highly individual thing and I don’t feel it is the place of the critic to impose their taste upon their readers.
The second front of this debate then focuses on what the critic should be doing, namely whether criticism is about interpretation and contextualization, or whether criticism is really about giving an evaluation about artistic achievement. That is, is the importance of the thing about how we read the work in question, or is it really about how well the the work is made/performed/written/executed. You can probably guess where I fall in this argument.
If criticism is about interpretation and contextualization, I’m afraid that we return to the place of critic as taste maker, with the even more pernicious undertone of the critic being the only true arbiter of meaning for art, a stance I feel is patently silly. Jay Lake often said, “The story belongs to the reader.” The same sentiment can really be expanded to all art. The painting/film/television show belongs to the viewer. The music belongs to the listener. While the creator of work can intend to infuse meaning into art, they can not control what meaning the consumer takes away. Sure, there are many techniques that any artist, any producer of art, can use to guide the consumer to their desired interpretive objective, but every consumer will necessarily bring his own experiences to that experience. Those unique experiences color how the consumer views the world around them, and thus color the way the consumer inevitably views the work.
Thus we have to look not to interpretation and context as the primary role of the critic, but rather, to a reasoned evaluation of the quality of the making of that thing being reviewed. With a little training, and a fair bit of experience, most of us can learn to discern the quality of something upon close examination. I’ll grant you, it is more complicated as works include more elements to examine. In fact, what makes most critics stumble, in my honest opinion, is that they leave out one more elements of the work in their evaluation, leading them to a foreshortened view of the quality of the work. Perhaps that film is not artistically successful because the camera angle is distracting. But maybe, it’s distracting because the critic didn’t process the story as he was processing the rest of the film. Maybe the camera angle is utterly necessary in service to the story. And we won’t know if the person doing the criticism doesn’t tell us.
Let’s face, being a really good critic is hard. Even good critics miss things that they should be evaluating. And, the reality is that there aren’t a lot of good critics anymore. It’s a thankless job for the people who aren’t critics because they want to be taste makers. It’s especially thankless for those people when they are accused of only wanting to be taste makers (an accusation that is constantly thrown about, usually be people who have had their work evaluated to be less good that they themselves think it to be). What’s worse, the readers of critics tend to cling to those critics whose perceived tastes match their own, whether consciously or not, and that will limit their exposure to art they may challenge them, that may open their horizons. Not that art has to have such grand aspirations, but even humbler art may have a broadening effect. And people who get into the field to simply be taste makers are, in my experience, not very good critics. Rather they are simply cheerleaders for their own form of taste, strongly reinforced by the echo chamber they surround themselves with.
So, you might ask, where does that leave us. Well, my answer is that I don’t much look for critics anymore. Rather, I turn to reviewers. Now, in truth, most reviewers think of themselves as critics, but I don’t believe they are. Their purpose isn’t really to evaluate the artistry of what they’re reviewing. Their purpose is to evaluate the entertainment value. It takes us back to that elusive matter of taste again, but it’s simpler then because you aren’t trying to find the quality of the work, but simply whether you might enjoy it or not. And, it perfectly fine to regularly read reviewers whose perceived taste mirrors your own, because, after all, you are trying to find things that you are likely to enjoy, not things that are artistically meaningful. You will have to decide for yourself what is artistically meaningful.