C is for Critic

For me, an arts critic is someone with significant experience in both the critical process and the field that he or she writes about. Sometimes a critic's arguments persuade me to see or read something I might have passed by; occasionally, I've even changed my mind about my initial reaction to a movie or a play or a book when a review I read after-the-fact brought out facets or raised issues I'd overlooked. I enjoy good critics even when I don't agree with them.

Yes, democratization of the media is a good thing, and we're certainly all entitled to our opinion -- this is America, don'tcha know? If I'm considering buying a mini-tripod for my digital camera (as I have been recently), it's useful to learn from four people who bought a certain model that it tilts if it's used with a camera that doesn't have a central tripod attachment. And I'm ready to listen to why you did or didn't like The Bourne Ultimatum (I did). But I don't get my book recommendations from the reader reviews at Amazon.

In an article in the UK's The Guardian, R. McDonald writes that "the critic...as objective judge and expert...has yielded to the critic who shares personal reactions and subjective enthusiasms."

"The bloggers and reading groups often claim that they would rather get recommendations from someone they know, someone with similar tastes. One problem with this is that the public are relying on a reviewing system that confirms and assuages their prejudices rather than challenges them. An able and experienced critic...could once persuade readers to give unfamiliar work a second chance, to see things they did not see at first glance. In that respect, critics can be the harbingers of the new.

"...The conviction that educated taste is an elitist ruse, that one opinion is as good as another, and that we should take our lead for our cultural life solely from people like us might seem like an instance of "people power". Yet...If we only listen to those who already share our proclivities and interests, the supposed critical democracy will lead to a dangerous attenuation of taste and conservatism of judgment. Without critics of authority, the size and variety of contemporary criticism may ultimately serve the cause of cultural banality and uniformity."

This is not to say that anything that isn't written by a "critic" is immediately suspect. I've discovered, for example, that some book bloggers I read regularly have reading tastes similar to mine, so I'll probably enjoy the books they've read. There are others whose intelligent comments make me want to buy that book right now (not that I need to add even one more book to my TBR pile these days!). But I think it's important to distinguish between opinion and criticism, and to appreciate that by challenging our tastes and assumptions -- by making us think -- good criticism can be as "democratizing" as those Amazon reader reviews.

1 comment:

MadSilence said...

Modernism in art & literature has changed the critic's role. When art is defined by the artist, value judgments become subjective & common standards become meaningless.
Check out my five simple rules of criticism at: http://madsilence.wordpress.com/2007/06/04/so-you-want-to-be-a-critic/#comments