There may have been a time, now lost in the mists, when the critic’s job was akin to that of a philosopher aesthete, when their work was intended to expand upon, refresh and continue an ages-old (but supposedly ever-fresh!) conversation regarding the contours and the purposes of art. The names Aristotle, Arnold, Pater, Wilde, even maybe Schopenhauer, Breton come to mind.
Thankfully, though, those people are all dead and need trouble us with their incomprehensible thoughts no more! They are buried with their pretensions and their ostentatious and lice-ridden powdered wigs (if they didn’t wear them, I’m sure they wanted to, and may have simply collected them for sport. I prefer the more subtle and noble toupee). Their work sits, happily neglected, in the ever-shrinking, dimly lit “Literary Criticism” aisle of a defunct Borders warehouse somewhere in New Jersey or Bosnia. These days, a critic is no longer a dandy-prat aesthete, but a firm, hardened, no-nonsense, well-muscled, tightly (though tastefully) uniformed, mirrored-glasses-wearing police patrolman of culture and thought (who shaves frequently, but whose manliness is such that he has a perpetual five o’clock shadow which is both strangely alluring and decidedly intimidating). It is this patrolman’s job to clearly and forcefully articulate what is right and what is wrong. That is all! But what a job!
Which is why the conversation in the comments section here between Messrs. Thielman and Zinoman (critics both), confused me greatly. It prompted me to respond. Here was my response:
Dear Messrs. Thielman and Zinoman,
Some of what you write makes the business of being a critic out to be part of a larger cultural dialogue, which is very confusing to me. Surely this is incorrect! Surely the business of the critic is about the power to shape culture? Surely it is the critic’s job not to engage in conversation, not to offer an opinion, but to state, without reservation or remorse (and with the imprimatur of a major cultural resource, such as a newspaper, so much the better…) whether or not something is worthy or unworthy, good or bad, and to do so in the starkest terms possible? All evidence, gentlemen, suggests this is indeed the case!
A critic who voices dissent from an otherwise clear consensus is surely not creating or participating in a dialogue, but is using whatever leverage he has (such as that of the institution he represents) in order to better establish the true way to perceive a work of art…and the more leverage/power, the better, as the more seriously will the dissent be taken! After all, everyone has an opinion–it is a tragedy of our age that so many feel entitled to express them. But a critic is an opinion with power! Whose pen is a sword! Whose computer is a weapons depot, full of zingers! A critic without power offers an opinion, is one voice among many. A critic with power is a taste-maker, a career destroyer, a living breathing canon of cultural rightness. (And let us not forget that it is far more entertaining to see something eviscerated before our eyes than it is to see it praised. It is even less entertaining to see something, particularly something detestable, become the object of a respectful dissent. And less entertaining still when a critic feels it necessary to enumerate the causes of that dissent. Yawn yawn yawn. The critic’s cry should always be: “Now could I drink hot blood!”)
Surely the critic who loves the art and wishes to see it thrive will never be content to “suffer in silence,” but will naturally strike out with wit and verve and brutal media force (if necessary, and when is it not?) against the cause of their suffering…all for the good of the art! Whose art is it, anyway? The creators or the critics? I will tell you: the critics!! When the artist offers his or her bleeding heart on a plate to be devoured whole, surely the critic’s job is to zing it, not attempt a conversation with it (hearts are, after all, messy and difficult conversation partners). He is certainly under no obligation to “understand” it, let alone “engage” with it! (Let it be known that I detest organ meat.)
Perhaps one or both of you may be kind enough to express what you believe the/a critic’s job actually is? I would much appreciate it as I like very much to know where people stand: it puts me in a much better position to judge them. (Though to be honest, I form my judgments very quickly and am loath to alter them as it requires far too much cognitive effort.)
I hope you agree!