Friday, November 18, 2011

The Creators & The Critics

American critics are like American universities. They both have dull and half-dead faculties.
Edward Albee
One cannot review a bad book without showing off.
W. H. Auden
Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.
Winston Churchill

The Critic: As the Brooklyn Museum notes: "This figure has been identified as a particular individual—Andor Halasi, a literary critic Tihanyi knew well—yet the sitter’s sharply rendered features almost suggest a physical type for the profession, with a high, intellectual forehead, alert eyes, long nose, and pinched mouth. Tihanyi emphasizes the sitter’s pronounced bone structure with a subtle play of light and shadow indicating sharp protrusions and deep hollows. The angular wings of the subject’s starched collar and the knot of his tie further echo his pointed features."
Artist: Tihanyi Lajos (1885–1938); Painted in 1916. The painting is at The Brooklyn Museum.
Source: Wikipedia
In the world of art, and by art I am here referring to the whole range of artistic expression, there are the creators and the critics, which has always had an uneasy if not necessary relationship. The creator makes art, often a creative expression of his vision, whether that be a musical composition, a visual expression or a performance—and, today, often a combination, called mixed media. The audience might love it, the critics not. There have been many commercial successes without the blessing of the critics. Sometimes a work of art receives both critical and commercial acclaim.

Which begs the question of what value does a critic have in the world of art. Or, to put it more bluntly: Why do we need critics today in the age of social media and the Internet? Aren't we all critics, each forming our own opinion on what we like? If that's the case, why bother with critical reviews?

The short answer is because it's good to have a standard on which to base things, on which to judge against. Otherwise, it becomes one's individual tastes, and the tyranny of the masses. For an example of a world without professional critics, look no further than the comments sections, at least in online versions, of major newspapers, magazines and blogs. Each person's opinion is considered valid, notwithstanding whether it is based on facts; and the goal is to garner enough votes or "recommends" to make such views the majority one, and thus implying its validity.

Truly, all that shows is that people who think alike have bothered to post a comment, whether it is thoughtful or thoughtless. More to the point, a majority opinion on a news site is not necessarily true or valid. In many cases, it seems, it's quite the opposite, based on poor understanding on facts, ideas and the chief arguments put forth by the writer or journalist. In many cases, people bereft of arguments resort to ad hominem attacks, always a poor substitute for facts.

Well-intentioned critics can actually help inform a public on the merits of a play, book, film, painting and other art forms, and explain the reasons why he or she prefers it or does not recommend it. It's more than like or dislike an art form. The critic in this case is performing a public service, and the best critics are recognized for such. Some critics hold a lot of power. It was said that a bad review from The New York Times would be the death knell of a Broadway production (e.g., I am thinking of reviews from Brooks Atkinson & Frank Rich). I am not sure is this continues to be the case.

Another argument made, and it's also true, as some point out, is that critics don't create, and might be jealous of the persons who do create, the creators. Yet, I sense this is far more rare than some think. Bad books are published; horrible plays are staged; and boring operas are mounted. The critic has to suffer through reading, watching and viewing such artistic efforts, and report back to us why he recommends against it. In that regard, we need the critics. The creator and the critic, often an uneasy alliance, but necessary.

The role of the critic is a form of democracy in action, one that is often not appreciated.


  1. A work of art, by its nature, is a subject of conversation and analysis. Criticism, sometimes, closes this down. It is longer possible to say that many of Shakespeare's comedies are lousy plays and to be taken seriously. Criticism has limited our freedom of thought.

  2. Prof Jochnowitz.

    Some, perhaps many will agree with you. I don't. In totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, criticism is limited to what the state says is appropriate to criticize. Criticism has a rightful place in democracy, it a cousin of free speech and a free press. Although criticism can limit conversation, as you rightly point out, it is far better than the alternative: lack of criticism that dulls the mind to accept anything.


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