Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Failure of Contemporary Criticism

Criticism of the arts is in a dire place right now. Never mind the penury that threatens to befall anyone who wants to do it for a living, or its cultural irrelevance when everyone with an internet connection has become a de facto critic. The truth is that a lot of film/book/music criticism is awful.

It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, in might never have been this way until recently. Criticism used to be a vital, important part of the culture. Think of Pauline Kael and the Cahiers guys before they started the French New Wave. Think of Lester Bangs and Rolling Stone. Think of Kazin and Fiedler and John Leonard.

There was a time when critics had great influence. A front page review in the NYT Book Review could launch a book to bestseller status. Now a glowing front page review of a future National Book Award winner doesn’t even power it to 40,000 copies (see The Good Lord Bird), and sometimes doesn’t even get a book over 13,000 copies (see Beautiful Children by Charles Bock). Awful.

I can’t help thinking this goes back to the main point: the criticism being written these days just isn’t very good. Why is this? Well, movie criticism has shot itself in its own foot in ways I’ve talked about before, mainly due to the cloistered and elitist film critic community. (Plus the way they insist on writing reviews within 12 hours of seeing a movie for the first time.) Music has perhaps become simultaneously a more communal and a more personal medium and is prone to an extreme subjectivity that ceases to be useful to other people. Book criticism, probably the healthiest of the three, suffers from general lack of interest.

But why should it be any surprise that contemporary criticism sucks? Ponder this: Who would become a critic these days anyway? Again, it’s more than just the bleak financial prospects of the enterprise. (Though that should be enough to dissuade anyone with any sense.) It’s also that the means to create the art they are critiquing have been completely democratized; it is easier than ever to make movies, publish books, release albums. Therefore, anyone with any real talent is making art instead of critiquing it. Consider: the most important criterion for being a good critic is being a good writer. But if you’re a good writer, if you have great insight and amazing verbal ability, why would you write criticism?

I respect the field of criticism. I think it deserves better. The same problem afflicts comic books and video games. The best writing talent is, perhaps sensibly, going elsewhere. I don’t see this trend being reversed any time soon.

Critics have to get better if they hope to do honor to their august profession. Here’s a dirty little secret: the criticism is supposed to be better than the art it critiques. This used to be true, but no longer. Think of all the shitty movies Pauline Kael reviewed and the awful bands Lester Bangs wrote about. And yet, even though bad art is forgotten, the good criticism of it lives on because the critics themselves were making art.

So an appeal to all critics: it’s not enough just to give your opinion about something. You have to make art, too. Only then will your profession become relevant in a culture dominated by real artists.

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