Monday, March 21, 2016

What is the Point of Criticism?

The Observer on Sunday recently published a lengthy article on criticism and culture. Or that is what it purported  to be. The title of the main piece, by the New York Times film critic, A O Scott, is "What is the Point of Critics?" That title places the debate with personalities rather than purpose. This thrust became apparent when the debate was widened to the views of The Observer's main Art Critics: each critic explained their personal approach to the matter of criticism-- not all would concede that criticism is an art. 



The questions that came to mind on finding the article staring over toast and Sunday morning coffee was "Why now"? and the "Why the views of a New York film critic rather than Kermode, the resident Observer film critic?" The answer was simple: time to flog Scott's new book, Better Living Through Criticism-- to be released in paperback in a few days time. The book was released in hardback a month ago, did not cause many waves then, but with the paperback imminent and future sales, time to publicise: which speaks louder in the background of this debate, cultural values or making money? None of the major UK papers reviewed the hardback, in fact, the only main review was in the New York Times, Scott's own newspaper, 

The published excerpt reads like a rather bad and over-lengthy film trailer and nowhere as cogent as Ronan McDonald's Death of the Critic (2007) which is a concise and lucidly written analysis of the connection between criticism and critic and the resultant ideologies. The title of Scott's book indicates a significant link between criticism and life skills, almost mimicking the title of some dreadful DIY self-motivation book. Perhaps, that is all done with intended irony. Until the book is available it is hard to judge--critically, and fairly--its worth. It should be noted at this point, however, that Scott  puts faith in "the rigor of scientific method", an approach that has sent modern criticism down many dubious alleyways...into its present cul-de-sac. So, the title might be meant without any tongue-in-cheek smirk as science offers support to much of the mumbo-jumbo that comes out in the plague of self-help books that peddle mental health revolutions as dubious as diet fads.


Certainly, the debate in The Observer via the pens of its resident critics did not amount to much. Scott's piece tackled the usual attack on critics: they are failed artists. Moore was willing to concede that his architectural writings were better than his design submissions. Johnston accepted that her work was enthusiastic but often wrong about pop music and she playfully debunked the idea that criticism was done to make lasting, accurate judgements; a reasonable tone for online pop music. Maddocks wrote with seriousness about the difficulty of making final judgements at classical music concerts and Brennan stressed the importance of context in criticising theatre. The earnestness fitted the genres. But one aspect that did strike oddly was that Brennan felt the need to give a sense of the moment for those who were not there and Maddocks insisted that strove to give a sense of what the experience was like for the reader of her reviews. Is that what criticism does? Recount the event for the absent, for those not lucky enough to get to the event? Such seems a bit like disclosing all the fun of the party for the sad individual who could not make it. Cooke, explaining book criticism, went above her methodology into what she saw as wrong with book criticism in general: a lack of honesty and over-praise for mediocre work and a tendency to offer paraphrase as a successful book review. 

Scott rightly pointed out that the digital age has made much of criticism redundant. But then, criticism was dying before the birth of the www and its "extending of democracy" into the belief that life is all about opinions and not much else. The Observer dumbed itself down before the internet, disposing of its adherence to higher cultural values. It once employed serious poetry critics such as Adam Mars-Jones, now it reviews poetry rarely and when it does-- inadequately. It's not accidental that most critical space in The Observer is given to film criticism. Nor is it accidental that a film critic, such as Scott, should be asked to lead a debate on cultural issues and criticism. Clearly, the assumption is that film is what most people like so film critics are best to tread the hallowed ground of criticism and popularise criticism (or the critic) once more. Better Living Through Criticism will be an interesting test case for that belief. 

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