Long Live the Poison Pen

There are two kinds of critics: those who criticize, and those who don't

What's wrong with this picture?

Here is what I think. I think that too many critics share a dangerous belief, a belief that news is just one more form of soft entertainment. I believe there is an intelligent general readership out there that is ill-served by this trend, a readership that appreciates being provoked and thinking critically. I believe--in fact, I know--that it is easier to write a positive review than to pen a good, well-deserved and cogent savaging on a deadline.

And I believe that critics who do this are a dying breed.

We're a dying breed, they say.
We're a dying breed, they say.

In part, it is a matter of economics. Nearly half of the art critics responding to the Columbia survey are themselves visual artists who display their work in galleries, so there is a game of mutual back-scratching going on. Many critics also curate shows and write catalog introductions--a practice that is never, in my view, ethically acceptable.

Too many of us mistake pedantry for critical distance. Consider this description of the job from a critic at a midsize daily: "Unlike movie critics or drama critics, [art critics] regularly deal with esoteric and obscure art forms that the average newspaper reader might find baffling. The critic speaks the language, understands the motives behind the art. His job then is partly one of the translator, to explain 'difficult' art to the reader.

"Being able to interpret the mysteries bestows a certain importance on the critic, making him essential to the whole enterprise, an insider. It can be a seductive role. It can be very, very difficult, then, for a critic to step back and make a clear-headed, unbiased appraisal, especially if doing so means pronouncing something artistically worthless or nonsensical. He's too heavily invested."

Addison understood the problem. He was an insider, but he understood how important it was to keep his distance, even to be hated. For the critic's role is not to baby-sit, but to trust his readers' intelligence, and to pronounce. Addison was proud, and aloof, and haughty, and sometimes heartless. He had to be.

For pride may goeth before the fall, but it is also, in my experience, a condition precedent to doing good work. And we critics need to have some, or we will soon go the way of the dodo, replaced by flacks and the generic prose of praise. It's a lonely calling, but it's our job, and we need to do it.

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