A Critique of Criticism
The problem with criticism in the arts is that it often performs the opposite of its intended purpose. There are many ways that this can happen. Most brazen are the outlets which exist only to sell albums and assure consumers that their mediocre choices are worthwhile. This is why we are told again and again that dreadful albums receive “generally favorable reviews from music critics.” This is how Marvel movies never fail to get a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Criticism then becomes an extension of advertising.
But there is also a problem for any critic, however principled: if you label something mediocre, you are still giving a mediocre work your attention and calling others’ attention to it. But if you don’t address it and judge its flaws, will the masses not proceed to feel pleased about consuming schlock? Unconscionable! The critic’s most noble task is to encourage readers to take up great works and to teach them how to interpret. The corollary to this is discouraging them from wasting their time on the vacuous. This task is more important than ever when our leisure time is so vast and constant that any individual can devote hours and hours every day to passive consumption of media, especially film, television, and music. You used to have to go to a specific place to watch a film. You used to have to go to a concert to hear music! Yet we have music and films and pornography in our pockets at every waking moment. What will choose to do with all of this time on our hands?
I would hope a small portion of that otium could be spent attending to the murmurs of critics, because criticism is the only thing that keeps culture descending into pornography. A little leaven leavens the whole loaf, as it were. (Of course when the Apostle Paul says this in Galatians and Corinthians, he refers to false teaching; let us hope that we referring instead to the kind of leaven Jesus calls the kingdom.) But by the murmurs of critics, I mean not just the words of professional advertisers disguised as critics or even highbrow tastemakers but the murmurs of everyone in their critical aspect.
Truly criticism is the job not just of an elite few in New York, but of the masses. Word of mouth is a kind of curation, and so everyone is their own curator, and a curator for their friends and family. You find out about the best works of art because of who you are friends with and who you listen to. Within this there can be specially appointed representatives who have the most insightful opinions, and we might even pay them for it. Now someone who we pay for their opinion is simply a teacher, or a counselor. Imagine yourself a god-king of old, with sages kneeling at your throne! (But no, rather, we are all counselors in the court of the great king, the consumer, who is at once each of us and none of us.) One specialization of the counselor is a critic. A critic is there to announce to the world: pay attention to me, because I can recommend the best music, films, literature, and I can show you how to interpret and enjoy them.
All well and good. But how can you write reviews of the mediocre without inadvertantly drawing attention to works that should be shunned? The best thing to do would be to just ignore it entirely, it seems. But then you would never be read by those who need to hear what you have to say the most. At its worst this would result in an elitist enclave where wealthy white people pontificate on the carefully arranged thoughts of elegantly dressed singer/songwriters who go on cruises and write memoirs. The material in question may or may not be valuable, but the community built around it is one deeply insulated from the real community, the pulse of the times, and more interested in cultivating an aesthetic of thoughtfulness than actually being thoughtful. It’s a tricky thing to advocate for canonical works and excoriate the mundane without becoming an appendage of this subculture of simulated refinement. Isn’t that what the highbrow critics are for, anyway? As an auxiliary to the wealthy class which needs to pose as dignified and wise? Perhaps.
The conundrum is that now the middle class has the leisure time which in the past only the aristocracy had. Just as the upper class is insulated and isolated from the toil and struggle of survival within nature by their wealth, the middle class now is just as disconnected from the front lines of domination over nature. It’s taken for granted. But trampling down nature makes the path that much faster. So we end up having all the time and opportunity in the world, but because we generally lack the inheritance of generations of good education and best practices when it comes to cultural navigation, we proceed in a much more dowdy way. Middle class people don’t have to eat and dress and consume media in the lazy way that they do; it simply doesn’t occur to them to do otherwise. But those are the kinds of advice that I am trying to seek and then pass on as best I can. Things can be shared now that could never before. All the classic works of art and literature are on the internet now. There’s nothing stopping a diligent person from accessing true treasure. This is a great gift. But they need someone to convince them that it’s worthwhile and help them along. Are we going to take true advantage of the opportunities that our generation has to study more deeply and widely than past generations, or are we going to spend every night in the stream? I need garbage so that I can unwind, says the lazy consumer. If you continue down that path you may wake up one day to find yourself a raccoon.
I say this not to try and foist elitism on people. I am concerned with actual dignity and actual wisdom, and the artifacts we integrate into our lives form our sense of dignity and wisdom in many ways. In ways that might be overstated sometimes, to be sure, but more often understated, I believe. It is fair to say that the words and images of our cultural artifacts are deep tributaries into the subconscious as well as our common sense. I want others to dream well. I want the common sense of the whole world to be better. I want my neighbors to be more inspired. I want members to be more informed about the great body of society that they constitute. I want buzz and word of mouth to be about events and works that are truly edifying instead of indulgent and vapid. There are artifacts which are evil, which make you less informed, more confused, more complacent. But individuals will not change their habits without someone to convince them otherwise. Wise judgment of texts requires teaching, and teaching requires a community. Therefore a critic ought to be someone willing to teach, and subject themselves to the standards of teaching. As a critic yourself I invite you to join me.
Although many works are evil and wasteful to engage, that’s not to say that a critic needs to like everything he reviews. But everything he reviews should be worth reviewing. Whether I like Hemingway’s prose style or not, he is still worth scrutiny. Many things are not worth scrutiny at all, and I am still unsure of how best to convince others of this.
You see, the critic ought to be convincing his audience not to watch a bad movie, or read a worthless book. But to do that in the form of a negative review, he has to have seen it himself. Does this make him a hypocrite? Not necessarily… but not necessarily not.
The critic can be seen as a sort of scapegoat, taking on our entertainment burdens and suffering for the rest of us. But I feel that most times, when dealing with a subject receiving popular attention, we know what we are getting ourselves into. Books can be judged by their covers, and movies by their trailers, and albums by their reputation… sometimes. Sometimes – and perhaps this is getting rarer and rarer – we truly can be surprised by treasure hidden within a seemingly mediocre shell. It is in this nebula of uncertainty that the critic must exercise prudence. We are all critics and curators for ourselves and for one another, and so we must all learn prejudice wisely. Truly, truly I say to you: every kind of food comes with its nutrition label.
When Jesus returns and judges the world, it is hard to imagine he will place a high priority on our films and records. But our deeds in general do matter and we must judge and criticize them ourselves lest we find ourselves without excuse before the celestial tribunal. So many of our deeds these days seem to take place not out in the fields or on the streets but before a screen. I want all of the deeds of my fellow man relating to his own entertainment to be righteous ones, for his own benefit as well as mine.
One righteous deed that immediately comes to mind is that we all ought to be consuming less art. So much more could be gained from more active hobbies! Somehow we can’t stop making new movies and watching them. But let us assume we are all disciplined and healthy already. Still we will find ourselves reading or listening to something and recommending it to others. Wanting to be a professional critic is a dangerous thing. You are saying ‘I ought to be paid to spend all day on my ass, and then give my opinion about it.’ Yet the critic ought to be (and they never are) an advocate and practitioner of moderation in media consumption.
How can this be possible? In order to keep up, it seems they must be reading, watching, listening constantly, gorging themselves. It is their job after all. It makes one wonder what it would be like if we could see the mental self of the average critic. They might be thin and neat in their appearance, yet their mind is bloated with the wreckage of artworks that have never fully digested during their decades long buffet inside the imagination of others. Good and bad, they have tasted of every dish. The opinions they offer might be crisp and rhythmic but deep in their soul they waddle around petulantly, looking for more interesting nonsense to sate their brain. This isn’t the kind of person you want to learn from. But I need to gorge myself for my job, they say. And yet here we all are, unpaid critics.