The Reluctant Critic

Iphone 909We live in an age where 140 characters allow everyone to have an opinion. This barrage of criticism is offered instantly and it’s available on every device and platform to those of us still connected to the 21st Century. Like “fake news” it is often difficult to know who to trust as these terabytes of information are processed and occasionally informed by a genuine understanding of the facts or issues opposed to ideological presumption or narrow beliefs that offer even narrower views of the world and the issues that come with them.

Alfred Kazin offered over half a century ago in The Function of Criticism Today, that more people are indifferent to literature and art and he was certain that it had little or nothing to say about the age we live in.  He seemed struck that there were so many people who profess an interest in the arts and know very little about them and that they couldn’t make their minds up about them. At the same time he noted that so many people were in deep despair over the future of society and our world who rely on art to soften their way.

As a reluctant critic on a path to understanding the role of criticism, a few questions seem obvious — such as what influence does art and culture have on society and how we look at ourselves, each other and the world around us as a result of these “works”. The other and more immediate question at the moment is perhaps, what should the role of criticism play in our daily interaction and who should we believe? Kazin offered, “that the critic who has the equipment to be a force, the critic who can set up standards for his age, must be a partisan of one kind of art and a bitter critic of another.” T.S. Eliot, when asked by Paul Elmer More why his poetry and criticism were written in such different tones, replied, “that poetry deals with the world as it is, criticism with the world as it ought to be.”

As an infrequent patron of the arts, assuming that blues bands and bars don’t count, I am pleased to have stumbled into Peter Dickinson’s Long Division on its final performance. I found it a wonderfully moving play that stirred many personal emotions and memories that allowed a brief interlude from everyday life as I looked at the world from other perspectives. Colin Thomas wrote of the play, “that there should be laws—similar to child labour laws—that prevent the overworking of metaphors.” Or, “that the problem is with the well-intentioned but self-conscious script”. Then there is Jerry Wasserman’s review, that exclaimed that, “Long Division is a smart, fascinating mess”. Had I read either critique prior, I may not have gone to the play thinking the professional critics must know better.

Sonya Sontag writes about “the erotics of art” and the “sensuously involved critique”. In a note to Peter Dickinson, Ziyian Kwan writes about the play and “the silky cocoon of existential inquiry” and, “the help the play offered in connecting with humanity”. A lovely heartfelt emotional response that sparks curiosity and invites participation.

So, what then is the role of criticism? The Oxford Dictionary suggests that it is the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work.  Haida artist Michael Yahgulanaas believes, “that there is no primary horizon in art”. Therefore does this mean then that there is no judgement, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? That there is no right or wrong, good or bad and therefore this perspective renders criticism irrelevant allowing us to smell, taste, hear and feel the work in our heart without someone else to influence us?

I wonder…

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One thought on “The Reluctant Critic

  1. I think there is definitely a distinction to be made between good art and bad art, but I think the real questions are: Who decides which is which? What criteria are used to make the determination? Can any of the criteria be objective or are they always subjective? (One might argue that technique could be assessed objectively, for instance.) We come from a pretty elitist tradition in the West of Arnoldian critics holding themselves up as the arbiters of taste and developing a canon as a standard to measure all things against. In GLS, we’ve noticed certain weaknesses to the canon – its lack of representation for one, which devalues alternative voices and perspectives. The democratization of criticism may counteract some of this, but how do we encourage a culture where everyone approaches art thoughtfully, and enters into constructive dialogue with others about our analyses and perspectives?

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