“Everyone’s a critic now…”

There’s an interesting article here by Neal Gabler on, amongst other things, the authority of the critic, and of the shifting battle-lines between high culture and popular culture. There are far too many points there to be addressed in a single post of reasonable length, but two in particular seem to me to be worthy of comment. 

The first one is that due to the democratic nature of the internet, everyone’s opinion can now become equally valid, or, at least, equally prominent; and that, as a consequence, the opinion of the professional critic now carries less weight. 

If such is indeed the case, then, it seems to me, professional critics must carry at least some of the responsibility. For if criticism is to be worth anything at all, it must be more than mere opinion. The critic must present an argument. They must be able to argue, coherently and articulately, on the basis of the content of whatever it is they are criticising. Most criticisms I read by professional critics, whether of books or of films or of theatrical productions or of anything else, are innocent of argument: unargued statements of opinion are usually all they have to offer. (Those who have ever watched The Late Review – or The Review Show, or whatever name it goes under now – on Friday nights on BBC will know what I mean.) This being the case, there is no reason why the amateur opinion should be any less valid than the professional. The dividing line between what should carry weight and what shouldn’t is not the line between professional and amateur: the line is, rather, dependent upon whether or not what is passed off as criticism is well argued, or, indeed, argued at all. In most cases, professional and amateur, it isn’t. 

The second point from Mr Gabler’s article that strikes me as worthy of comment is this:

One might imagine there would be an enormous diversity among critics, tough-minded souls each expressing his or her own unique sensibility. And, as mentioned, there once was. But among American critics in the traditional media today, there is surprisingly little diversity. The “best” film lists or “best” television lists or “best” album lists or “best” book lists usually have the same titles, regardless of critic or publication. In short, critics continue to attempt to assert their control, only they do so by uniformity, coincidental or not.

There is, indeed, a wide consensus of what constitutes the best in any form; but that does not, it seems to me, indicate so much an attempt amongst critics to “assert control”, but rather that, contrary to fashionable and now seemingly unquestioned ideas regarding cultural relativity, objective standards of aesthetic merit do exist. That people of intelligence, taste and discernment have applauded and continue to applaud much the same works across generations, and often across centuries and across cultures, can but indicate that there exist objective standards of beauty that are not merely dependent upon the eye of the beholder. There are two alternatives to this: first, that those who claim to like that which is almost universally acclaimed are merely pretending to do so in response to social pressures; or second, as Mr Gabler asserts above without evidence, the consensus is a consequence of a vast conspiracy to assert or maintain control or power. The first option seems to me remarkably insulting, and the second remarkably paranoid; both are vague and ill-focussed. Neither option, it seems to me, is worth taking at all seriously.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting post. I have several reactions to it.
    My first thought about this is an anecdote. The other day, I explained to my six-year-old son what a critic was. I told him it was someone who watches a movie (his question was about cinema) and then writes an article to say if it is good or not. His reaction was: “It’s nonsense. Perhaps I will like this film anyway. The critic can’t know what I’ll think about it”. To him it was pretty clear that critics are useless.

    I agree with you on the argument point. I also think reviews lack of tangible arguments. So the amateur thinks “I can do it too”. After all, aren’t we doing it in our blogs too? I’m not a professional critic and my job has nothing to do with literature.

    I also agree with you that saying critics try to “assert their control” is too strong or paranoid. There is little diversity though. I think it comes from an unhealthy consanguinity among critics. They move in the same circles, come from the same schools. They are sometimes also writers themselves or friends with writers. It’s all the same with literary prizes. As a reader,I think they lack of objectivity.
    They are probably able to judge if a given work is well-crafted according to our present standards. Sure. The more you read, the more you can tell if a book is well-written or not. Enjoying it is matter of taste.
    But art critics missed Van Gogh in the 19th C because they looked at his work through the customs of their time. Are the 21st C critics able to walk out of the commonly admitted paths to discover the best artists of our time? I’m not sure. As their profiles are alike, who will be able to look at art works with a fresh eye and make it known?

    Reply

    • Hello,

      Your son seems quite a relativist! 🙂 But he’s right, of course: if all the critic is offering is an opinion, it is reasonable to ask why that opinion should be of interest to me, or, indeed, to anyone. The critic can assert his or her authority by displaying an ability to analyse well; but if there is no analysis, then it’s all down to unargued opinion, and, at that level, one unargued opinion is as good as another.

      And yes, I agree, critics often can and do get things wrong: they’re certainly not infallible. But if one generation of critics was wrong about Van Gogh, say, later generations of critics weren’t. And the best criticism helps us see things in new ways: it enhances our understanding, and, hence, our appreciation. For instance, among the books I am reading now is Prefaces to Shakespeare by the late Tony Tanner. This book is a series of essays on each of the Shakespeare plays, exploring the content, style, and cultural background of each of these works in turn. A couple of years ago ago, I myself read through the Shakespeare plays in order of composition (so far as that order may be determined), and tried to write down my own thoughts on each of these plays (they’re all up on this blog); and, while I like to think I did as good a job on them as I could, my analyses don’t begin to match what Tony Tanner achieves. This is not so much because he was a professional whereas I am an amateur: it is because his readings have a depth of insight and a level of perception that far exceed mine. He isn’t merely giving us opinions: anyone could do that! He is arguing his case. This is what makes him so fine a critic: reading his essays makes me want to return to the plays and look out for all those elements that I had missed.

      (Of course, I don’t necessarily need to agree with Tanner, but even thinking about where and why I disagree helps enhance my understanding.)

      And there’s no reasons why amateurs like myself shouldn’t have a go as well at criticism. A friend of mine is an amateur pianist: he may not be a Maurizio Pollini or a Martha Argerich, but that’s no reason why he shouldn’t try as best he can at his own level. I myself have not studied literature formally since I left school some 35 years ago (I studied physics and operational research at university), but given how much I love the books I read, I naturally want to share my enthusiasm with like-minded enthusiasts. The pursuit of literature can become a very lonely activity otherwise.

      The question of consensus is an interesting one. Of course, personal tastes vary: I can see why Jane Austen, for instance, is rated so highly, but for all that, I personally find it difficult to enjoy her novels. But what is remarkable despite all the differences in personal tastes is the level of consensus that emerges. If we were to do a thought experiment in which, say, an erudite person of a hundred years ago were to list what they think are the greatest works of Western literature; and if, say, a similarly erudite person of today were to make a similar list; then, excepting for obvious reasons writers who had flourished in the last hundred years, the two lists would be remarkably similar. Sure, there’ll be a few differences: the list-maker of 100 years ago may well have included Scott, who has since fallen out of fashion; and the modern list-maker would be likely to include Donne, who was little known about a hundred years ago. But on the whole, the congruences would far exceed the incongruities. Both lists would, most likely, include Homer, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Euripides, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Chaucer, Dante, Petrarch, Ronsard, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Molière, Goethe, Austen, etc. etc. And it is worth asking ourselves how so remarkable a consensus can arise across so long a period if everything were – as is often alleged – “merely a matter of opinion”. I find it hard to accept that this canonical list has been kept going merely to assert or to maintain maintain power. I find myself asking: “What power?” “Whose power?” Even if we were to conjecture some shady cabal whose grasp on power depends upon them convincing the world that Homer, Shakespeare & co are actually pretty good, how do they manage to influence so wide a range of knowledgeable and intelligent opinion?

      It seems to me that the most obvious answer to the question of why there is so remarkable a consensus on artistic merit across centuries is that there do exist standards of merit that are independent of the vagaries of individual taste. I personally may not like Austen, but the consensus of the cognoscenti across generations is that she was one of the finest of all novelists. And in the end, this “consensus of the cognoscenti” is the only reliable guide we have to merit – whether we personally agree with this consensus or not.

      And as to the question of what it is about these works that makes them so good – well, that is the job of critics. Good critics, mind you, who are perceptive and who can argue their cases!

      Reply

      • I didn’t think my son as a ‘relativist’. I was mostly proud – I’m his mother after all – that his first reflex was not to swallow someone else’s opinion as truth. And I think that’s good for him if he’s built that way.

        Of course, I agree with you that some essays give us explanations that we couldn’t have found ourselves and help us understand – and appreciate – works.

        “the congruences would far exceed the incongruities”
        You’re probably right that the lists would be alike. But these critics (like us)have been taught that these books are good. So when they open one of them, they already think it’s a masterpiece. None of them reads these books with a “blank” mind,as they might do for a book written nowadays. Plus, nothing proves that some fantastic books aren’t unknown due to the lack of good “critics” in their time and thus the lack of will to copy them. Some may have been censored by churches and then not copied. (Am I clear ? It’s pretty hard for me to argue my case in English)And of course,they would only include Western works, because that’s what they studied.

        However, I think that what these works have in common is that they touch the universal chore of humanbeings. That’s why they cross the boundaries of time and customs. We can identify or learn something about human relationships. And everything that can help us understand our human condition is welcome.

      • Oh, of course you should be proud of your son! The ability to question is one of the key defining features of intelligence! (I wasn’t being entirely serious with my “relativist” comment.) I’d say I was proud of my own children too, but I won’t as they read this blog from time to time, and I wouldn’t want them to get big-headed!

        I hadn’t actually realised until you mentioned it in a recent comment (on the post on libraries) that you were from France. One wouldn’t have guessed it from your English: I certainly didn’t. My wife is from France as well (from Toulouse), and I do feel embarrassed at times that while her English is perfect, my French is so poor that I am too embarrassed even to try to communicate in it. Some day, I really am going to learn French well enough to read Flaubert, but that will probably have to wait till my retirement.

        You’re right that no-one comes to any book with a completely blank mind, and so, inevitably, reputations of works become, up to a point at least, self-perpetuating. And I have no doubt there have been many masterpieces that do not have a reputation as they haven’t been noticed.

        But there is a congruence, all the same. Most people, for instance, with agree without having to be told that the Taj Mahal is a beautiful building; that a colourful sunset is a beautiful sight; that the Badd Pitts and Anjenia Jolies of this world are beautiful people; and so on. There is, no doubt, an element of social conditioning to account for this, but I do find it very hard to believe that it’s [i]all[/i] down to social conditioning, or to influence of critics, or whatever There do exist certain qualities in us – admittedly mysterious, and admittedly with exceptions – that elicit a wide commonality of response.

        It is interesting also that when people are exposed to a culture they haven’t studied, and to which they are not accustomed, they tend to admire the same works as those admired by people who have grown up in that culture. Thus, Indian scholars, when they come into contact with Western culture, admire Homer & Shakespeare; Western scholars, when they come into contact with Persian culture, admire Ferdowsi; when they come into contact with Indian culture, they admire Kalidasa; and so on. Of course, they need to get to know that culture first, but once they do, we see once again evidence of an overall commonality of response which cannot entirely, I think, be put down merely to social engineering or to submission to received wisdom. As you say, works such as these cross all boundaries of time and of customs, and help us understand who we are

        Sorry to go on at such length, but I never did master the art of expressing myself in a few words! And I do find myself disagreeing with those who say – as a great many do – that everything is merely “a matter of opinion”, and that’s all. I don’t think anyone would deny that subjective opinion plays a major part in our appraisals; and I take your point also of other external factors that help lead to a consensus. But if everything were merely a matter of subjective opinion and no more, then the very concept of quality in the arts would become meaningless, and no work would be able to cross any border at all, or help us understand who we are. And I do feel that much postmodernist theory has landed us in just such a corner, so we no longer have the confidence to assert that that certain products of mankind are of intrinsic value, regardless of personal opinion, and are therefore worth preserving. As the current situation of British libraries indicates (and one could extend that argument to the state of British education too, I’m sorry to say), this has rather serious consequences.

  2. Posted by alan on February 5, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    It has been said that the lack of criticism leads to the death of art. I would agree with that. Somehow, though, I think that the past will survive nicely without you – I don’t see any impending Fahrenheit 451. It is criticism of the present that needs more focus so as to improve quality.
    Of course, one could argue that precisely because something is past that we can think more clearly and argue more coherently about it, because we can now be conscious of those things that were just transitory and fashionable about a period. That kind of consciousness is much more difficult with regard to the present. Unfortunately, what has survived of the past defines what is good so inevitably doesn’t seem transitory or fashionable.
    Still, as Carl Sagan said with respect to radical scientific claims: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So, if someone claims that something from the past is trash, or some new work of literature is good, then they had better put in some extraordinary effort to substantiate that claim.

    Reply

    • Somehow, though, I think that the past will survive nicely without you …

      This is gratuitous: it has no bearing at all on the points I made in the post, which, to reiterate, are:

      (1) Criticism, either of works of the past or of the present, is worthless if it consists merely of unsupported statement of opinion;

      and (2) The consensus that emerges of what constitutes the “best” suggests that there exist standards of merit that are not purely subjective.

      Why you infer from this that I am setting myself up as a Guardian of the Past I cannot imagine.

      Unfortunately, what has survived of the past defines what is good …

      I don’t see why this should be unfortunate. Isn’t the test of time the surest test there is of merit? But despite what you say, there is much that attains greatness because it marks a break with the past – because it does things in a new and different way. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Joyce’s Ulysses, etc., all come under this category. Of course, when viewed in retrospect, we can see, as well as their innovative qualities, the continuities these works have with earlier works; and in turn, these works which appeared to break all the rules themselves create a new set of rules for future works. In short, even the most revolutionary works become absorbed into tradition. And that’s probably as it should be.

      So, if someone claims that something from the past is trash, or some new work of literature is good, then they had better put in some extraordinary effort to substantiate that claim.

      Indeed. But instead of “that extraordinary effort to substantiate that claim”, all we usually get is unsupported statement of opinion. Which is where I came in.

      Reply

  3. That’s very kind of you to say you hadn’t noticed I’m Francophone.The more I blog in English, the more I meet Anglophones who speak French. That’s why I type quotes in French and in English in my posts when I read French books.

    Toulouse is a nice city, by the way.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on February 21, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    I do believe the role and effectiveness of the critic has altered out of recognition in the internet age. Creativity requires individualism and freedom of expression, but just as importantly it requires definition. It is the latter which has suffered the most from the demise of the critic.
    To an extent, criticism has always been something of a rag trade. Criticism of works have appeared in prominent publications because of influence and backing and this has always been the way. But the critic acquired the status they had in the past because we read them as mose than mere indicators, which is what we mostly do now. We looked for arguement, yes, considered opinion, yeas. But to be convinced they were worth adherence we looked for style and breadth of knowledge on the subject at hand.

    That is something essential that has simply dissipated.

    Reply

    • Yes, I think you’re right: there is a general hostility amongst the public to the very idea of the “expert”. This is why something such as the Late Review on BBC – BBC’s flagship arts review programme – will get people on to review a new production of Twelfth Night who will admit without the slightest embarrassment that they did not understand a single word. And it never occurs to them that they are not qualified to talk on this.

      Reply

  5. Posted by Hadrian on February 23, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    Hi – I see what you’re saying about the consensus of educated taste down the ages, & I agree, but the original article is getting at something different: the tendency of critics to rate CONTEMPORARY works according to criteria of their own deliberately designed to exclude the “popular”. Now obviously much that is popular is unadulterated shite – I recently came across a ridiculous list in an American magazine of the “100 Greatest Writers of All Time” in which being American, largely unread, & alive some time in the last 100 years seemed to be the main routes to success (with homosexuality, real or rumoured, a major boost), & found myself sinking into something like despair to see so many comments bewailing the absence of Tolkien & Stephen King -, but Gabler nonetheless has a point, & it ties in with yours about argument. It’s much HARDER to justify your existence as a critic if you are largely endorsing popular taste; then you really DO need to come up with some new elucidation of merits in a work to enhance the already existing appreciation of it; but if you are simply opposing popular taste, your work is done merely stating your choice.

    Reply

    • Hello Hadrian, good to see you finding your way here!

      Yes, I do take your point: I was, I admit, using Gabler’s article as a sort of springboard to get on to my hobbyhorses. (And if that isn’t a mixed metaphor, I don’t know what is.)

      But I would have thought argument is required even if the critic were to swim against the consensual current. Merely stating one’s preference, irrespective of whether or not that preference is in accord with the consensus, is not in itself particularly useful, I’d have thought, and hardly requires any specialist skill.

      As for those lists, I find it difficult to take any of them at all seriously. The best thing to do when disagreeing with a list, of course, is to make up one of one’s own. (I’ve got posts somewhere in this blog on my ten favourite composers, and the 100 books I couldn’t live without: both were written in reaction to lists that had appeared in the media; and, more importantly, both were very easy posts to write, and saved me the considerable trouble of engaging my mind on anything too serious.) But yes, it is depressing when a list comes out of the 100 Greatest Writers, and names that would (or should) be obvious to any reasonably educated person are missing, and people start demanding why Stephen King et al are absent.

      Reply

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