What killed criticism?

Arts criticism — whether we’re talking about the film and book reviewing you read online or in newspapers or essays in a more academic form —  is going through a period I would describe as worse than a bit of a rough stretch. My own opinion is that it is a genre of writing (separate and independent) that is dying, and it won’t be coming back anytime soon. Since I’ve spent the last twenty years being a critic I’ve had to do some thinking about what has happened. Here are a few of the things I’ve come up with.

(1) Irrelevance: beginning a couple of decades ago we started hearing about certain blockbuster films and books that were “critic proof.” What this meant is that they were going to be successful regardless of what any reviewer thought of them. Since then, this is a phenomenon that has only advanced. Near universal critical condemnation of the Transformers film franchise or the Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight novels has been laughed at, when not met with outright hostility, by “poptimists” (those who believe that commercial success is the only criterion for artistic merit).

(2) Information overload: I remember a book editor once telling me that back in the early 1980s it was possible to read every new Canadian work of fiction that came out. I don’t know if that was really true, but it’s the kind of thing that might be taken as expressing his sense of a now-lost, more innocent, less crowded, time. The fact is, there is no way to keep up with the avalanche of material that comes out of the publishing and film industry today. Especially if you want to do a responsible job. I mean by this that it’s still possible to go out and see every movie that’s worth seeing, but then there’s the background work you have to do. You can watch Psycho and Citizen Kane, but you can’t read everything that’s been written about these classics. And this is a situation that is metastasizing without remission. I love listening to DVD commentaries, but films like Fight Club and Hostel have four each. Then you have to make at least some attempt to familiarize yourself with what’s been written about these movies online. One person can’t keep up. Which leads to . . .

(3) The rise of the hive mind: in order to deal with information and opinion overload various review aggregators bring together as many reviews as they can find and condense them down to a simple score. Think of Rotten Tomatoes, MetaCritic, GoodReads, or Amazon reviews. These sources can be helpful, but they have two unfortunate results: (a) they erase individual voices in a giant whole-population melting pot (no single voice, however expert in its judgment, is worth very much); and (b) they tend to flatten out extremes so that most books, films, and songs end up with scores or rankings in the mushy middle.

(4) The end of evaluative criticism: is this book/film/painting/song any good? For years, answering this basic question has provided reviewing’s reason for being. But starting about a quarter-century ago the universities – the basic training ground for most professional critics – gave up on trying to answer it. “Good for what?” they asked. Everything was relative. Critical attention drifted elsewhere, in particular into the field of identity politics and what Robert Hughes dubbed the “culture of complaint” or victimology. As a result, the principle role of the critic was abandoned. Left without any function or purpose, not to mention audience, critics withdrew further into irrelevance.

(5) The economy: just how many professional critics are there today in Canada? In North America? Not many. It’s another job that has become part of the freelance or gig economy. Decent-paying, even semi-permanent positions have dried up and disappeared along with review sections and book pages. Hard times for journalists and the news media in general is, of course, going to mean hard times for movie and book reviewers. We’re not high on the masthead.

(6) Public indifference: this is either included in or an effect of much of what I’ve already said. For all of the reasons I’ve mentioned, and no doubt others as well, people really don’t care about what critics think, or do, any more. And a lot of the time I can’t blame them. Too many critics have resigned themselves to being little more than writers of ad copy for the system, leading to a massive loss of public trust. Reviewers have, in turn, met this increased public indifference with professional cynicism, leading to a downward death spiral.

Well, should we care? I’m sure most of us don’t, but should we?

I realize times are changing, but I do think something is being lost. I think it’s important that we try to think critically about everything, all the time, and arts criticism is a great way to exercise our critical muscles and to show how it’s done by way of practical, public demonstrations of the critical mind in action. And I don’t think it’s being at all alarmist to point out that it’s a slippery slope that leads from giving up on criticism of the arts to giving up on criticism of just about anything else you can think of. This leaves the field open for anyone with something to sell – whether it be a book, a car, or a political platform – to operate free of annoying counter-voices.

Critics are not expendable or superfluous parts of some bigger machine. Criticism has a function that it should perform with an integrity all its own, as much as some people don’t like to hear that. We need nay-sayers now perhaps more than ever. We need critics, even if we don’t want them. This is why I am concerned about their current endangered status. It’s the weakest of predictions to make, but nevertheless I’ll prophesy that we’re going to miss critics dearly when they’re gone.

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