The crisis in criticism.2

So can anyone be a critic?

When I was on the board of the Canada Council for the Arts, the country’s chief arts grant-giving agency, close to two decades ago, it was occasionally suggested that we should put “an ordinary member of the public” on each of the peer juries that had the job of saying who should or shouldn’t get grants.

It was an idea with the smell of democracy about it—the general public, after all, was theoretically the intended audience for the work that was under adjudication. Wouldn’t it be useful to hear the voice of the potential consumer? Wouldn’t that help to balance out the special interests and the artsy theorists more interested in experiment and new directions than box-office success?

What was often lost in that debate was the fact that “an ordinary member of the public”, even if he or she were a regular member of the arts audience, would be unlikely to bring to the table the broader vision and understanding of cultural development that lay at the heart of the council’s function. Asking your neighbour which artists should get funding and which shouldn’t would be like asking your Uber driver why your tongue has spots on it.

That sounds, to be sure, like an elitist position—it is an elitist position—but in a world of entertainment in which mass appeal to the lowest common denominator was rapidly becoming the desired norm, it seemed an important position to take. Perhaps it is even more so now. We let ignorance thrive on the oxygen of our attention at our peril.

Still, in such a time of change and challenge, the implicit questions are worth asking. As  the role of the critic is being challenged by the democratization of the internet, do we have to reassess the traditional assumptions about the tools a critic should bring to the job?

I said in the first part of this pair of essays that, for all the apparent antagonism, artists and critics are all fighting on the same side, or should be. And I might best support that by trying to define what a critic is, starting with some of the things a critic is not, despite what you might have heard or assumed to the contrary.

Some of the things a critic is not:

  1. A consumer reporter. The use of the critic as a taste guide is perhaps lessening now, but the general public in contemporary North America, being in its usual frantic hurry, has always been for the most part quite content to have its mind made up about art by someone else, in effect delegating the privilege of personal entertainment choice to someone they don’t know.

Out of this came the myth that critics were power-crazy individuals intoxicated by the thumbs-up/thumbs-down selling power of the reviewer’s written word. In fact, most critics I know are quite diffident folk, and those who gloated about their power were usually crummy critics, and petty to boot. Today’s internet is such a clamour of contradictory voices that if you’re looking for consumer advice the best you can hope to do is find someone who thinks like you. The days when an individual critic could boast about holding the power of life or death over a work of art are long behind us, thank goodness.

  1. A seller of tickets. The critic is not in the job of pulling in the punters, whatever the desperate concert promoter or gallery owner might wish. Sharing enthusiasms is not at all the same thing as doing public relations for a product, yet I lost count of the number of times I was asked to do “a little something” to help ticket sales. A benign endorsement simply for the sake of helping out attendance figures is as misjudged as a review that excuses bad art with a half-hearted pat on the back. You’re doing no one—least of all the artform—any favours.
  2. A judge. That’s not what critics are for, either. No critic of integrity should she set herself up as an arbiter of public taste or acceptability, though if you read them consistently they will usually reveal the framework of thinking and principle they work from. You can then accept and agree with their conclusions to the degree you think fit.
  3. A teacher. Despite their distrust and antagonism, artists sometimes look to reviews as ways to learn, as if the critic has a responsibility to instruct them in their art. That’s not the critic’s function either. Nor is it her job to teach the reader—though in both cases if she is doing the job properly, knows the field to the depth that he should, and is being passionate about applying her own standards of understanding and interpretation to what is on offer, maybe some crumbs of helpful insight can fall free.

So what is a critic and where lies her responsibility?

I’ve always seen the critic’s role as that of an interface, and I don’t think the new technologies change that—if anything, they make it more important than ever. Involvement with art is a way of explaining the world to ourselves, and a way of engaging ourselves with the world in an imaginative way. The basic responsibility of the critic is to the reader—to provide a form of mediation between the artist/artwork and the audience, and to map a path to understanding through an ever-more-complex cultural  landscape.

Many of those readers probably won’t experience the event but still want a sense of what happened and what its comparative strengths, weaknesses and points of interest were: context and analysis, in other words. When I was writing daily criticism, I always assumed I was writing for the hundreds of thousands of people who bought the paper, even though the show I was discussing maybe only drew an audience of a few hundred.

In that light, the task of the critic intensifies and becomes more interesting:

  • to evoke the impact and implication of a work of art in the mind of someone who hasn’t experienced it;
  • to prolong and amplify the perceptions and feelings of someone who has;
  • to share enthusiasms, and to set those enthusiasms, and the work that provokes them, in context;
  • to perceive carefully, to respond openly, and to express those perceptions and responses clearly;
  • to push readers beyond their comfort zone by using clear and vigorous language about the arts to inspire us to aspire .

Ideally, an intelligent reader learns from a critic not what to think about a work of art but how to think about it. Debate is stimulated, impressions are recorded, experiences are evoked; but the reader is the one who reaches the conclusions. And if this presupposes a commitment to involvement on the part of the reader, it also makes wide demands on the critic, demands that go much deeper than a cursory thumbs-up/thumbs-down approval system.

What are those demands?

Enthusiasm is a basic requirement for a serious critic: a lasting, even irrational love of the chosen artform, a willingness to see it grow and let it have its say, a willingness to be in some way changed by it. Creative works provoke emotional and intellectual reactions in those who encounter them. That is why they are created in the first place: as an act of communication. Setting aside the question of entertainment, we go to the theatre or the art gallery to have an experience that will in some way modify the way we think or see the world. The most interesting work is often the work that challenges our preconceptions, makes us realise that the world contains possibilities beyond our current mindset, makes us broader, more accepting, more understanding individuals.

So writing about these experiences also becomes a matter of verbalizing our own growth and change, a process that one writer called “the most civilized form of autobiography,” and in that regard you have to be brave enough to open up entirely to the experience: to be a virgin every night, ready to be ravished, ready for the consummation, going to the theatre in the hope of having something new and wonderful and ecstatic done to you. Presuppose disappointment and it will fall heavily on you—although we need to care enough to be upset if what we experience falls short of its potential. We find ourselves having, if you like, an ongoing lover’s quarrel with art, wanting it to be the best it can be.

Involvement, then, is crucial. Only a masochist or a chronic unemployable (yes, both definitions of critics, according to some of the more jaundiced) would be prepared to spend night after night in a darkened room in the company of strangers having an experience that came with no guarantee of pleasure. It’s an ongoing search, and a lot of the time you may not find anything particularly rewarding, but some of the time you do, and that’s what you’re there for. While you’re waiting you need to stay flexible, open, receptive, even to ideas that might strike you as strange or stupid or repellent. Lock yourself off from possibility and you close down the unexplored avenues of your mind. You’re denying yourself access to one of the ultimate moral functions of art, which is to help us become clear in our perceptions of life.

That introduces another essential requirement of the critic: attentiveness to what the artist has to say, and a willingness to make the connections that are being offered. The critic needs to be what Henry James called one of those people on whom nothing is lost. That’s sometimes a hard trick, because it requires a strangely schizoid state of mind, perhaps summed up best by the American poet Edwin Denby, one of the greatest dance critics of the 20th or any other century, when he said there were two aspects of looking at dance as a critic: one is being made drunk for a second by the experience, and the other is expressing lucidly what you saw when you were drunk.

That applies just as well to any other artform, of course, which makes the act of criticism quite unlike the experience of a member of an audience. As an audience member you can surrender yourself entirely to the experience. As a critic you are always on your guard. Yes, your reactions are intuitive, gut reactions, but you should be able to express them, to rationalize and justify them, in words. That ability to explain why and how is what separates serious criticism from the off-the-moment opinion we exchange as we’re putting our coats on. And that we see all too often on the intenet.

To take that all-important second step implies that the critic has understood the need to do your homework.

The fact that the internet has democratized criticism—has made it possible for everyone and his uncle to call himself a critic—does not mean that we should relax the basic requirements demanded by the task. Jeanette Winterson, the English novelist who writes on art and culture, tells this story. Years ago, she says, when she was living with a stockbroker who had a good cellar, she asked him how she could learn about wine. “Drink it,” he said.

The same advice can be applied to art. Experience it. Let it be part of your life. Develop a palate. If we’re serious about the job, we apply ourselves, we look and learn and read in an endless cycle. The process has another benefit: it keeps you humble. The more you learn about an artform, and the cultural structures from which it has emerged, the more you know how little you know.

Consideration of the reader should never be far from the critic’s intent. High on the list of prerequisites for the job must come the desire to communicate what has been learned, however imperfect that learning might have been. Pleasure or pain or something in between, you need to have an irresistible urge to share.

High, too, must come a pleasure in writing, a commitment and dedication to the uses of language. That is a task fraught with challenge. Writing about any artform other than writing is immediately a step removed from the art itself. Ideally, a critic of, say, dance should dance his review: but I wouldn’t personally want to inflict that on anyone, and in any case it’s not practical or possible in print, so we resort to words.

They’d better be good ones: well-chosen, to the point, accurately evocative, cogently argumentative. The rules are the same as for any lively writing: show, don’t tell. Evoke through metaphor, descriptive language, well-chosen images. Avoid the passive voice. Stay well clear of weasel words that sound meaningful but mean nothing. Support your assertions. Have fun: as Pauline Kael said about movie reviewing, it’s not heart surgery. Give wit room to play; entertain your readers as you enlighten them. A review should be enjoyable as a piece of writing on its own terms.

Objectivity, that great tripping-stone of the critic’s critics? I think not. Those who cry for objectivity in a critic are shouting into the wind. It is our individual experience that colours our perception of the world. Objectivity is a news report, one hopes. Criticism is bias, predilection, ignorance, enthusiasm. The critic acts from instinct, intuition and insight, and hopes to convert that, through analysis and argument, into something that might be helpful for someone else to read. All we can do is hope we strike a chord or provoke an independent thought or two.

The dialogue can provoke extreme responses. I’ve been threatened with violence, even death, as a result of reviews I’ve written. Once I was hanged in effigy outside my office building by an upset dance company. And why not? You’re writing about individuals who have put themselves on the line for art, you’re writing about their babies, and you’re trampling on some fragile ground. Extreme responses to public criticism should come as no surprise. Ego isn’t carved from granite; it bruises as easily as a peach.

What, you ask, about standards? Another red herring. The critic will develop a set of personal performance benchmarks against which he will measure what he has seen—they’ll be not only technical, but to do with the entire complex of evaluative processes that go on when you engage with an artwork—but they will forever fluctuate and change in time with the changes that occur in the evolution of the artform, and in the society in which it exists.

Escape into the future, the exercise of the imagination, is the artist’s central nature. Much of what we call art is a kind of early warning system of what’s to come. That’s what makes it so important, and so scary. So the best you can do, bearing in mind the love of the art that we’ve already talked about, is cleave to your own evolving vision of what succeeds as art and what doesn’t, what moves or engages you or what doesn’t, and explain, always explain why that’s what you think.

Even then, there’s no single authoritative voice or opinion. The experience of art takes everyone in a different personal direction, and so long as someone can support an argument that isn’t based petulance or name-calling or the angry response of a hurt human animal, I defend the right of anyone to say anything about what they’ve experienced in the theatre. Even if they disagree with me. Particularly if they disagree with me. That’s when the intelligent fun begins.


This series of essays would not have reached its present form without the commentary and input of Susan Mertens, whose clarity of vision, aptness of metaphor and rigorous insistence on precision of language always distinguished her own work as a critic. I have been fortunate to spend the past four decades sharing and discussing with Susan our ongoing engagement with the imaginative expression of other people. These essays are a distillation of that long period of experience and reflection. –Max Wyman

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