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
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