Sunday, December 29, 2002

I recently checked one of Pauline Kael's books out of the library (When the Lights Go Down), and in the course of dipping into this book I've been considering critics and the critical process.

On the face of it, a critic's job is to examine some work of art – a movie, a book, a piece of music, an exhibition at an art gallery – and then to write about it, assessing its strengths and weaknesses, placing it in some kind of context with regard to the history of whichever form of art it is, and make a value judgment about the degree to which the work in question is successful. This is a bit more complex than the more popular concept of a critic's job, in which we assume that a critic exists merely to tell us what is good and what is bad; the critic's assessments are typically more complex than this, if the critic is of the thoughtful variety. We try to condense critical opinions, though, and to quantify them; when a new movie comes out, we turn to the critics not for an appraisal of its strengths as a film but for a simple answer to the question of whether or not we should see it. Thus we have things like star-rating systems, which give a quick idea of a critic's assessment, or in some cases we reduce it even further, to a binary rating: thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

But star ratings are not always adequate. Consider two Roger Ebert reviews: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and My Cousin Vinny. The difference in the star ratings is a mere half a star, with the former film getting two stars and the latter earning two-and-a-half. But reading the actual reviews, one senses that Ebert's estimations of the films are farther apart than that; one gets the distinct impression that he enjoyed the latter while he did not enjoy the former.

The reviews in the Kael book do not carry star ratings; I don't know if she ever employed them. She wrote primarily for The New Yorker, a more "high-brow" publication, and her reviews are written in a voice that suggests that she knows that people are reading her reviews as writing pieces in themselves, at least moreso than Ebert, who as a newspaper critic presumably has a readership that is more concerned with what to go see at the local matinee. (Not that Ebert is not a good writer, mind you; in fact, Ebert is my favorite critic because of his writing style, which is squarely in the Chicago liberal journalism tradition whose favorite son was the wonderful Mike Royko.) Ebert has always maintained that his role as a critic is to convey, as precisely as he can, the actual aesthetic experience that he had when watching the film. This is also my approach when I write reviews of whatever books, films or music I encounter in this space.

I confess to being bemused by critics who take Kael's tone. She writes using something like the "Royal 'We'", as in, "The film never engages our emotions" or "We never believe the heroine's plight" and the like. Setting aside the fact that I've always found the Royal 'We' a bit creepy – I can't help but envision the speaker referring to multiple personalities within her cranium – the implication of such a tone seems to convey a certain belief in the factual status of the critic’s opinion. This is something that bothers me about just about every critic I've ever encountered: the apparent belief that the critic isn’t saying "I, myself, think this movie is bad" but "This movie IS bad". I am deeply suspicious of the critic-as-arbiter-of-quality, for a number of reasons. I tend to get defensive and occasionally resentful when someone sagely informs me that something I like is lousy, or that something I think is lousy is actually great, as if to say that I have somehow missed the boat entirely. My critical skepticism is also aroused almost immediately whenever someone, anyone, uses the word "objective" in any appraisal of any work of art. What critics so often take as "objectivity" is, in my experience, simply the application of a lifetime's worth of subjective criteria and opinions combined with the actual emotional response the critic experienced in perusing a new work. I have also noticed that the claim of "objectivity" is almost exclusively made by people taking a negative view of something. I have read all manner of commentary on, say, The Phantom Menace that will include a sentence like this: "I'm not a Star Wars fan, so I can view the film objectively and describe its flaws". This is rhetorical nonsense, designed only to put the critic's views on some kind of a priori high ground compared with that of the other person. To dislike something is an opinion, precisely as much as it is to like it. Being able to qualify exactly why one dislikes something is certainly valuable, but it’s not "objective". The height of Mount Everest can be determined objectively. The quality of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 cannot.

By far, though, the main reason I distrust critics as actual arbiters of artistic value is that they are, quite simply, often wrong. This is the inescapable conclusion I drew from a wonderful book, A Lexicon of Musical Invective. This book has a very simple structure and purpose: it is a collection of negative quotes from classical music critics about musical works that have long since entered the standard repertoire and become classics – works like Wagner's operas, Brahms's symphonies, Debussy's preludes, Strauss's tone poems, et cetera. The quotes in the book are from the leading music critics of the times in which the works were originally performed, at a time when classical music critics were far, far more important than they are today. Back then, nearly every major newspaper and many minor ones had full-time music critics, whereas these days relatively few major papers employ full-time critics, or even part-time ones. These were the "arbiters-of-quality", the "objective voices", the persons whose job it was to pass judgment on new works and inform the public as to whether or not they were good. And in so many cases, they got it wrong. The ultimate measure of quality seems to be the oft-cited "test of time", but if that is the case, then the critic's job becomes absurd, because it is quite impossible to decide what is going to last and what is going to fall by the wayside. It is also impossible to judge which works are going to immediately fade away but become more and more prominent with time, as the music of Bach did.

So what is a critic for, if not to tell us what is good and bad? Simply, in my view, to tell us what the critic thinks is good and bad. Ultimately, though, the rest is up to us. This does not absolve us of the responsibility of educating ourselves, if we are interested in something deeper than mere enjoyment of something. If the fourteen-year-old kid next door tells me that the new movie out is a masterpiece, then this doesn't hold as much weight as if Roger Ebert, with his lifetime of study and encyclopedic knowledge of film, tells me that the same movie is a masterpiece; however, this only applies to the probability that I will like the film. What ultimately matters is not the critic's experience at the film or the fourteen-year-old kid's experience. What matters is my experience. A critic, then, is only useful inasmuch as he or she reports objectively on the experience they had, without mistaking that for objectively reporting on the thing itself. Critics who acknowledge the actual emotional experience a given work of art provoked within them are far more credible to me than critics who seem to be ticking off a set of "required elements", as if they are Olympic figure-skating judges. My question for critics of the latter type is this: If you know, to such a high degree of precision, what it is that constitutes a great work of art, then why aren't you putting that knowledge to better use than this by actually creating great works of art instead of endlessly carping about works that fall short so massively obviously?

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