The MIND of a CRITIC

To judge, ed­u­cate or en­ter­tain? In his fi­nal col­umn for Re­view , Se­bas­tian Smee re­flects on the qual­i­ties and plea­sures of good crit­i­cism

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

PRO­FES­SIONAL crit­ics per­form a role that, in most as­pects, is im­pos­si­ble to de­fend. Where does one start? With the ar­ro­gance of set­ting one­self up as a pub­lic judge of other peo­ple’s creative en­deav­ours? With the in­evitable su­per­fi­cial­ity of one’s re­sponses, as one lurches from one sub­ject to the next? Or with one’s re­peated fail­ure to get the tone right, to find the right com­bi­na­tion of sym­pa­thy and dis­crim­i­na­tion, en­thu­si­asm and in­tol­er­ance?

The psy­cho­dy­nam­ics of crit­i­cism are easy enough to nail down. Just as chil­dren at­tracted to the po­lice force are, nat­u­rally, weak­lings des­per­ate to wield power and ex­act re­venge, crit­ics are book­ish nerds with bul­ly­ing in­stincts.

‘‘ Just do­ing the job,’’ we tell our­selves as we pon­tif­i­cate from the safety of small, book­lined stud­ies in the sub­urbs where no one can dis­turb us, let alone take is­sue with us.

And, of course, we’re hob­bled by jeal­ousy. Don’t doubt it for a sec­ond: crit­ics envy artists. Inside ev­ery critic is a painter, pho­tog­ra­pher or sculp­tor fan­ta­sis­ing about the open­ing of their own sell- out show.

In light of this, no one should be sur­prised that crit­ics are ru­moured to be los­ing their clout. En­ter­tain­ment has ousted se­ri­ous writ­ing about the arts in all but a hand­ful of news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. Crit­i­cism has given way to pro­files, in­ter­views and all the va­pid para­pher­na­lia of pub­lic­ity.

Mar­ket­ing and PR, says the pre­vail­ing wis­dom, have eclipsed the in­flu­ence crit­ics once had over the re­cep­tion of books, films and ex­hi­bi­tions. And re­view­ing on television — the only medium that can hope to com­pete with the spin ma­chine — has been re­duced to ‘‘ I liked it’’, ‘‘ I didn’t’’, with star rat­ings at­tached. Mean­while, blogs are sup­pos­edly di­lut­ing the power that well- known crit­ics once had.

If all this is re­ally hap­pen­ing, what is the loss to our cul­ture? What use, re­ally, is crit­i­cism?

The great Bri­tish theatre critic Ken­neth Ty­nan once de­scribed the critic as ‘‘ a man who

knows the way but can’t drive the car’’. It’s a neat and typ­i­cally bril­liant for­mu­la­tion, but to my mind a lit­tle gen­er­ous. Of­ten crit­ics don’t even know the way.

But per­haps this mat­ters less than peo­ple think. There are two as­sump­tions about crit­ics I think we need to jet­ti­son if the good name of crit­i­cism ( and I use the phrase with irony) is to be sal­vaged.

One is the as­sump­tion that crit­ics need, as of­ten as pos­si­ble, to be right. ‘‘ To be right,’’ the painter Franz Kline once said, ‘‘ is the most ter­rific per­sonal state that no one is in­ter­ested in.’’ The other is that they need to ed­u­cate and ed­ify their read­ers.

Of course, re­ject­ing the first as­sump­tion — the im­por­tance of be­ing right — is dan­ger­ous, be­cause it sounds sus­pi­ciously close to in­sist­ing that crit­ics don’t need to make judg­ments. But that’s pre­pos­ter­ous: of course we do. It’s part of our con­tract with the reader. Mak­ing a neg­a­tive or pos­i­tive judg­ment may not be the most in­ter­est­ing thing a good re­view does. But it re­mains fun­da­men­tal. From it, most of the truly in­ter­est­ing and fun as­pects of crit­i­cism arise.

Many crit­ics — per­haps out of po­lite­ness or timid­ity — don’t seem to want to ad­mit this. A study con­ducted by the na­tional arts jour­nal­ism

At the heart of ev­ery creative act are a zil­lion tiny de­ci­sions – con­scious and un­con­scious – about what to do, what not to do, and what sim­ply won’t do

pro­gram at Columbia Univer­sity in New York a few years ago came up with some sober­ing facts. It asked how much crit­ics earn ( most make less than $ US25,000 a year from crit­i­cal writ­ing), who they are ( most are over 45 and white, and about half are fe­male), how many are also prac­tis­ing artists ( 44 per cent), and who their favourite artists are.

Most as­ton­ish­ing of all was that only 27 per cent of those sur­veyed said they placed an em­pha­sis on form­ing and ex­press­ing judg­ments. Of the five as­pects of re­view­ing queried in the sur­vey, mak­ing judg­ments ranked last.

So what ex­actly do crit­ics think their job en­tails, if not crit­i­cism ( which, in case you sud­denly doubted it, is the judg­ing of mer­its, faults, value and truth)? The an­swer is ed­u­ca­tion. Art crit­ics be­lieve their job is pri­mar­ily to ed­u­cate their read­ers about art. An ex­tra­or­di­nary 91 per cent of those sur­veyed by the Columbia pro­gram said their role was not just to in­form their read­ers but ed­u­cate them.

‘‘ The goal sounds be­nign,’’ as Christo­pher Knight noted in the Los An­ge­les Times at the time, ‘‘ but its courtly ar­ro­gance is ac­tu­ally as­tound­ing. When a writer be­gins with the pre­sump­tion that the reader is un­e­d­u­cated about the sub­ject — or at least not as well ed­u­cated as he — be pre­pared to be bored silly by what is writ­ten. Worse, a creep­ing tone of su­per­cil­ious­ness is al­most im­pos­si­ble to es­cape.’’

Those who are made ner­vous by the busi­ness of ex­press­ing judg­ments of­ten ex­press the be­lief that crit­i­cism should be about con­tex­tu­al­is­ing. In other words, rather than merely telling read­ers whether Dirty Sexy Money is worth watch­ing, crit­ics should be ex­plain­ing what the show means, what it says about our cul­ture right now.

Again, this sort of thing is fine in the­ory. But in my opin­ion wis­dom of the where- we’re- all- at kind is over­rated and usu­ally un­re­li­able. Teenagers and mer­chant bankers are more savvy about what’s re­ally go­ing on in so­ci­ety than peo­ple who read books and go to art gal­leries. They have to be; for them, it’s a ques­tion of sur­vival.

I’m not sug­gest­ing that crit­ics should of­fer opin­ions and noth­ing else. Facts, too, are im­por­tant. It’s fun to find out what Ti­tian’s friends thought of him, or what Damien Hirst gets up to in the com­mer­cial sphere, or that Mogul artists ob­tained yel­low from the urine of cows fed on man­goes.

But crit­ics need to po­lice their tone when im­part­ing facts. If they af­fect the tone of a pro­fes­sional lec­turer — or, just as bad, a streets­mart stylist — they are ask­ing for trou­ble.

The best crit­i­cism, as Adam Gop­nik wrote in an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the poet and critic Ran­dall Jar­rell, should be ‘‘ not a slot ma­chine of judg­ment but a tone of voice, a style, the prom­ise of a whole view of life in a few preg­nant sen­tences’’.

And peo­ple who worry about the present state of crit­i­cism tend to fall into the trap of re­gard­ing it as a pub­lic ser­vice. The health of the arts, they say, de­pends on a ro­bust and vig­or­ous cul­ture of crit­i­cism. I sym­pa­thise with the view and oc­ca­sion­ally feel flat­tered by it. But I think it in­flates the role of crit­ics. As Robert Hughes once said, prac­tis­ing crit­i­cism is ‘‘ like be­ing the pi­ano player in a whore­house; you don’t have any con­trol over the ac­tion go­ing on up­stairs’’.

In place of pub­lic ed­i­fi­ca­tion, I be­lieve crit­i­cism is bet­ter seen as a ( po­ten­tial) pub­lic plea­sure. It sounds ob­vi­ous, but a piece of crit­i­cism, in the first in­stance, has to be worth read­ing. A good col­umn might be a leisurely, soft- ped­alled es­say hing­ing on sub­tle dis­crim­i­na­tions, an ec­static love let­ter to some new dis­cov­ery, or a fum­ing snort of dis­gust. What mat­ters is that it is writ­ten with con­vic­tion, and that it opens the reader’s eyes to things about its sub­ject that they may not have con­sid­ered in quite those terms be­fore.

‘‘ Art de­serves to be met with more than si­lence,’’ says The Guardian ’ s critic Adrian Searle. Art­works, he con­tin­ues, ‘‘ ac­crue mean­ings and read­ings through the ways they are in­ter­preted and dis­cussed and com­pared with one an­other’’. It’s in this process that the real stim­u­la­tions of crit­i­cism are to be found.

In the end, let’s face it, crit­i­cism is an in­dul­gence: one that mat­ters a great deal to those who have had their worlds changed and am­pli­fied by read­ing great ex­am­ples of it, but hardly at all to many oth­ers.

Con­trary to those who be­lieve jour­nal­is­tic crit­i­cism will strug­gle to sur­vive in the in­ter­net age, how­ever, I think peo­ple are ac­tu­ally go­ing to want more and more of it. If you step back and sur­vey the sit­u­a­tion, it seems sim­ple. In af­flu­ent so­ci­eties, of which there are more in the world than ever be­fore, the arts rise in stature, and as they do, peo­ple nat­u­rally want to dis­cuss them.

Noth­ing has hap­pened in the dig­i­tal age to fun­da­men­tally af­fect this, ex­cept that peo­ple in­creas­ingly feel them­selves to be drown­ing in ar­bi­trary in­for­ma­tion and ill- in­formed pun­ditry. So, will they re­act by switch­ing off en­tirely? Or will they rather seek out, with in­creas­ing ap­petite, the writ­ing that seems best and most en­joy­able to read? I think the lat­ter.

Crit­ics re­hearse in pub­lic what we all do all the time: we make judg­ments. It’s com­mon th­ese days to hear peo­ple say, ‘‘ I’m not be­ing judg­men­tal’’ or ‘‘ Who are you to judge me?’’ But mak­ing judg­ments is how we ne­go­ti­ate our way through the world, how we or­gan­ise and sharpen our plea­sures and carve out our iden­ti­ties.

One could even say that crit­ics try to do, in a breezier and less com­mit­ted way, what artists do by na­ture ( and with­out the need to apol­o­gise). For at the heart of ev­ery creative act are a zil­lion tiny de­ci­sions — con­scious and un­con­scious — about what to do, what not to do, and what sim­ply won’t do. All are forms of crit­i­cism: ‘‘ tak­ing the knife of crit­i­cism to God’s care­fully con­sid­ered hand­i­work’’, as John Updike put it. That’s why, when you ask good artists about their con­tem­po­raries, they will ei­ther choose not to com­ment or say things that make even the most sav­age critic look be­nign.

Good crit­i­cism ( and I mean this as an ex­pres­sion of an ideal) should be risky, chal­leng­ing, can­did and vul­ner­a­ble. It should be ur­bane one mo­ment, gauchely heart­felt the next. It should kick against cant wher­ever it sees it, and cher­ish and ap­plaud not only art but the im­pulse to make art, for that im­pulse, which comes out of life as it is lived, is the real mys­tery, and the source of ev­ery­thing that makes it won­der­ful.

April 26 - 27, 2008

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