You Think You’re So Smart: Critical Failure
“I never met anybody,” Richard Pryor once pointed out, “who said when they were a kid: I wanna grow up and be a critic.” Did he ever meet anyone who said ‘I wanna grow up and watch movies and listen to music and read books all day’? That will remain forever unanswered, but it probably serves as another in the endless series of proofs that the answer you get depends on the question you ask.
Criticism, despite the resistance to it by its subjects (and its amateur practitioners), is valuable. It’s probably not invaluable, or even ‘necessary’, whatever that means. One can certainly appreciate a great work of art without ever encountering a critic’s opinion of it, just as one can eat a great meal without salt. But at its best, it is a lively, dynamic art form of its own, a thing that can be appreciated on its own merits as well as help us understand, appreciate and contextualize other art forms. It is, simply, the art of thinking about art.
As currently constituted, though, criticism is in a bit of a slump. (I’ll reserve ‘crisis’ for things that have a bit more practical weight. Criticism in America today is in flux; criticism in Stalin’s Russia was in crisis.) While there is more criticism than ever — and media such as video games, comic books and episodic television, previously not thought worthy enough of serious discussion, are the subjects of regular review — the level of genuine, worthwhile criticism is lower than ever. The number of critical opinions on any given creative work is forever on the increase, but the percentage of those that are worth rereading or reprinting, those that shed some genuine insight onto the subject, those that fulfill the most important role of criticism — to relate, as Anatole France put it, the adventures of a soul among masterpieces — are increasingly scarce.
The reasons are many. (And, of course, I am certainly guilty of contributing to them, both here and in my career as a professional critic. I do not pretend that I am an exception to anything I say here, and I accept that my own sins will render many people unwilling to pay any attention to the points I’m trying to make. I have no one to blame for that but myself.) Our good friend the Internet, trite as it has become to say this, is probably the main offender; not only has it allowed people to be published who lack once-necessary qualities of intelligence and competence, but it gives people for free what they once had to pay for. This has been a disaster for criticism as a profession, and curiously, it hasn’t even had some of the predicted benefits. The internet removes the necessity of timeliness and brevity from written criticism, but rare is the online critic who writes at length. And, as the internet is a hi-tech medium, it’s led to the development of a mathematical approach to an artistic endeavor; so-called ‘aggregators’ like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic present us with the percentage of reviewers who liked a movie as if that meant anything whatsoever.
Nastiness in criticism, once an enjoyable deviation reserved for the worst artistic botches, is now commonplace; whether it’s to establish a critical persona, to engage in a sort of high-wire act (a la Armond White), or simply to reflect the author as a joy-hating shit, it’s become as commonplace and predictable a character as the prop comic. Criticism can and should sometimes be a painful thing, in the same way that pain calls attention to something amiss in the body. But it should never be about robbing people of the joy of art. The role of the critic is to examine art closely, to see what it’s made of whether wondrous, fraudulent, or nothing at all. Critics should never judge people by how they react to art. The only fool greater than someone who uses criticism as a tool to beat happiness out of others is someone who allows a critic to beat the happiness out of him. Revealing through deep reading what is hidden in art can be a transcendent human experience; calling someone a fool because a song makes her smile is the most wasteful activity imaginable.
Of course, what is wanted is not necessarily the opposite. While it’s good for art, especially underpublicized art, to have a champion among critics, the most enthusiastic boosters have become people like the Ain’t It Cool News crew, whose critical stance is so positive that it can no longer be described as critical. There’s also the trait, common to dabblers but endemic in the critical personality, of not wanting to be taken advantage of, of not wanting to be played for a chump, which translates into one review after another of bet-hedging cosi-cosa criticism. Some critics are so reluctant to give anything either a rave review or a complete pan that it makes me wonder if anything suits them at all. Why bother being a critic at all if everything falls in the mushball middle? Finally, the consumer-advocate approach towards criticism is both useful and admirable (and is, these days, the only way of putting money in the pocket of a serious critic). But it is problematic in two ways: first, it eats away at the critic’s time and attention by requiring him, as George Orwell pointed out over a half-century ago, to have an opinion about things that barely deserve one. Second, while it’s valuable as a journalistic tool, it’s next to worthless as an artistic endeavor; the criticism of consumer advocacy reaches the level of true art about as often as do commercials.
Criticism is one of the most vital of the arts. The critic is to the artist what the artist is to the world. We can always use better art; but we especially need better criticism. Indeed, the more and better art we have, the more we need criticism.