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.

7 comments

  • This kind of comforts me about my own reading tendencies. Not habits, mind you, but tendencies. The tendency to read one book slowly and to think about it for a time afterwards. To sit with a piece of work and to not touch another until you feel that it has changed you.
    That being said, there is that whole idea of encyclopedic knowledge that Italo Calvino has talked about and the studious/curiosity distinction drives at. My question about this encyclopedic knowledge is whether or not it can be achieved by reading epics and engaging with epics, which ought to contain within them encyclopedic knowledge—instead of reading and engaging with generally particular and self-existing artifacts that do not contain and present other values beyond the own value they claim to add.
    That’s convoluted, but what I mean is that certain movies only present to you one man, the writer or director, and not Man. A movie that seeks to be universal is a movie that seeks to be encyclopedic in part. Does that make sense?
    I am terrified of becoming this, of becoming only an expert of my own thoughts and not becoming an expert on the human and humans.
    In terms of the interior stance, the author ought to reach out and not reach inside—this is an esoteric mystery. But I feel it every time I go to sit down. That whole thing of the poet being one who is the finger in the puddle of water and the puddle of water is, for lack of a better term, what is known about the invisible world. But that means that when reaching out, the author is not trying to understand himself. He is trying to understand beyond himself, using himself as a mere vessel. But that process of reaching out is exceedingly difficult and fraught with not only the failures of depravity, but the failure of forgetting what it is we are doing.
    In a word, it is easy to get lost. And that’s why we write, to unlose ourselves. And that is why we read, to unlose ourselves, to find ourselves again, to get a sense that what was once known can be mapped out, however temporary that sense of comprehension is.
    It takes an insane amount of work directed towards the end of mapping out the unknowable. And the unknowable is what we once knew or ought to know, which is our place in the world and our relation to God. This conception is not fueled by old theories of human psychology, but fueled by the fundamental aspects of Creation. We sense eternity inside us and that eternity needs some room to stretch out and it stretches out from us in the form of feelings, thoughts, and desires that we are not able to understand, but which are all known to God and which we in our groans and our feeble words are desperately trying to communicate to Him. We are trying to communicate our praise, we are trying to communicate our devotion to the one who provided us with that eternity we feel demands comprehension. And by comprehension, I mean the struggle to come face to face and overcome and defeat and kill and move on.
    Which is perhaps why I do not believe that the novel or long-form story, at least, will ever die. Whether in oral or written traditions, I believe that the story, which is the mapping out of the invisible world by words that guide the faculty of imagination, is fundamental to our humanity. And as John Cheever said, a civilization without its literature is dead. Really dead. The idea we get from Will Self, that screens are replacing novels, is perhaps a fine and legitimate historical point. But that idea cannot be equated with what I do not think he is claiming—and perhaps I should do more research—but it cannot be equated with the idea that screens will supplant this function of storytelling. That function of storytelling will merely be processed with the new medias offered. What does that look like? I don’t know.
    What I also do not know is how Will Self’s real point, that the Gutenberg mind is dying, is related to this fundamental function of storytelling. I fear that someone, however, would equate the Gutenberg mind with the Storytelling Mind.
    And of course, his main point is one of media and not one of novels and stories or fiction in general. A media is passing away and, therefore, so is the way that media caused us to think about the world. But as the media of books passes away, what passes with it is the way we understand and conceptualize storytelling—not storytelling itself.
    Maybe I’ve overstated my point about this, but I hope you get what I am trying to say. What I am trying to say is that we need to read stories. People have said this before, but assuredly I shalt say it again—we must read and write stories and we always will read and write stories, solitude or no, screen or no. As the old media passes, nothing fundamental passes with it. It’s only a kind of clothing we wore that made us feel different about ourselves and for a moment caught, like a diamond turned, a different light inside us. We can always go back to that place by reading and engaging with books in solitude. The change that one story or simile well placed works in us is instant. And we can instantly retrieve the pleasure of solitude with a bit of solitude and a bit of moral words.
    In fact it might be time to take a more optimistic approach to this ascension of a new media. As you say in your post, this new media has quite a bit to do with screens and phones and film. For a moment, we can be optimistic about this new media only on the general level. If we got more specific, it would be hard to see the good in films and handheld computational computer computes.
    But on a general level, if it is true that a media we created (books) to disseminate and process the fundamentals of story (which is the fundamental of words guiding imagination) can affect us as a species so deeply, then we can also affirm that this new media we have created has the potential to do the same. This has so far in general been seen as a bad thing. But if books cut to one part of us, let’s say solitude, handheld computers will cut to another part of us. And perhaps this is a part of us we do not yet know much about. The part of us that is at its core social and global. A part of us that has lain dormant or only come out at certain points, let’s say in war, is now revealing itself every day. And every day, we learn more about what makes us human, good and bad.
    What I have in mind is that thing C.S. Lewis said about friends. Friend A loves when Friend C comes around, because it draws out a certain part of Friend B. With the passing of Friend D, that part of him is no longer accessed as easily. I think that different medias for storytelling do this.
    We do not lose a part of us. We simply lose the interest to readily access it. In the meantime, when a new friend comes along, we get to see a part of our friend we have never before seen.
    The blessing of history and generational memory is that we can always go back to what we have apparently lost. And we will never therefore lose the power of epic novels. Insert the need to read and engage the best of earlier generations here, especially in an age of a dominating myopic media.
    What we ought to lose across all medias is that sensation of obligation to drum up a kind of copiousness by gorging. Gorging is not copious. What is copious is having a handful of experiences that forever altered you with the desire to find more experiences which might do the same. And in speaking of these experiences, we ought to be careful and choosy and in the business of curation. We ought to be careful. Because as the book demonstrated to us and the handheld computer demonstrates to us now, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we shall be changed. It only takes one bad story believed fully to map out a darkness that ought to stay dark and map out worlds that ought never to have existed.

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    • One of the powers of epic is that it is a whole civilization in a single work. But the internet tends to favor small, abstracted bits of thought. How can the bits be connected in a way that fits the medium but also channels a greatness of spirit?

      I agree about copiousness.

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      • By writing longer posts that reach out beyond their topical locus which ought to be captured in a catchy title. When it comes to blogposts, anyway, attempt to make even the topical universal.
        For a good breathing exercise, breath in slowly and exhale.
        Do not eat too much chicken carbonara, or else you might feel ill.
        It is not a crime to wear women’s clothing.

        Matt, I’ll reply to you soon.

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  • Matthew Paul Michaelis

    I have this conception of the vague and silly term ‘tastemaker’ which might hit close to what you’re espousing. In my mind, it’s a name given to people with a primarily commercial bent, but it wouldn’t have to be that way. Perhaps you’re making/cultivating taste in your own self, and the natural goal of this, which is maturity, requires communal engagement. I mention it because I’ve found the idea intriguing, though also kind of disgusting, from the aspect of a more holistic way to communicate good aesthetic practices. For example, these boots, in and of themselves, may be great, but they’re part of a larger, intentional lifestyle that I want to share with you because I think it’s a valuable way of going about things. And again, that’s the commercial aspect, but I like the scope of it. Just needs to be broadened and refined. We don’t have to have opinions on everything, perhaps, but maybe we should have opinions on more things, as we broaden our (self) education. We’ll see why more things matter and probably (rightly) care about more things.

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    • Are you referring to the boots which are in and of themselves made for walking?
      Concerning wearing boots, whether they are or are not made for walking, I am not sure is a kind of sharing with other people. The communication that are clothes is less a kind of sharing and a more kind of teasing/flirtation. People cannot share with you the clothing, but they will certainly have a reaction or response, especially if your clothing is deliberately a statement.
      But if your clothing is deliberately a statement, then it is not likely part of an organic trend in your lifestyle and the way you dress.
      Anyway, I’m not being too clear here.
      What are you trying to say, Matt? That tastemakers, those who try to set trends, are fundamentally those who have a commercial, financial, consumerist angle? That might be true at a basic level—you need to buy something to participate in it—but that is a basic truth about art. Art is that which is purchased. Again, I’m in a rush here, so I’m probably being annoying.
      All that being said, I don’t think a tastemaker has to be a pawn of some commercial interest. Consider the down and out outsider artists. Let’s take Royal Robertson, whose artwork got onto Sufjan’s cover of Age of Adz. His art was a kind of tastemaking. It aided the aesthetic of Age of Adz beyond the commercial investment of Robertson selling paintings.

      Concerning communal engagement, I think that’s the most interesting bit and so I will ask you about it. In order to develop and influence people, say, about books, you must talk to people about it.

      Got to go.

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      • Matthew Paul Michaelis

        Forgive me for being unclear and, I think, making universal assumptions about experiences specific to me.
        What I was trying to say about the word ‘tastemaker,’ was that it’s a slightly vague term, but that generally, it stands for something unnoteworthy. BUT, it could be redefined as someone who’s making/cultivating taste within themselves. Which, part of that process is interacting with other people (and I think, inherently making recommendations).

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      • Matthew Paul Michaelis

        Stupid thing published before I was done.

        I specifically did not use the word ‘trendsetter’ because I think a tastemaker and a trendsetter are very different things. Typically, a tastemaker is striving towards good taste (albeit an advertisement), while a trendsetter is merely trying to be the coolest kid in the room (curiously, I think a trendsetter is less inclined to be a commercial endeavour than a tastemaker). I think a trendsetter is probably useless concept. The definitions of these words are pretty loose, so my distinctions aren’t probably useful in any sort of universal sense.

        As far as the boots go, I may choose to wear a specific pair of boots based on a larger aesthetic I adhere to, that I’ve built in my mind. Ideally, I’ve chosen this aesthetic to bring glory to God and to enjoy Him. Ideally, it’s an objectively good aesthetic. One that you’ve put time into cultivating, as you’ve been cultivating good taste. An evolving aesthetic. For something like clothing, it might be trickier to communicate these principles of taste, unless you’re something like what’s called a tastemaker who displays what he’s wearing. Ideally, he’d also display why (personally); in addition to what he’s reading, listening to, and other lifestyle-related things on his journey towards further faithfulness, etc… The broader the picture, perhaps the easier it is to understand/grasp the merit of the choices, particularly for things that may be harder to justify. That’s all I was trying to say about the boots. Though admittedly, there might be some things that are good things to wear, but you personally can’t pull them off. The goal is mindfulness and striving towards further artfulness.

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