What’s the role of the critic?

Anne Midgette in her blog for the Washington Post wrote eloquently about what she believes to be the responsibility of an art critic:

The role of a critic is to cover a field. This doesn’t mean simply pandering to popular taste. It means doing one’s best to convey a sense of what is going on in a given discipline by writing about every possible side of it. It means trying to convey a perspective that a reader who doesn’t spend every night going to concerts/plays/films may not be able to gather himself; or offering a thoughtful take that might stimulate a reader who does go to everything to see something in a different light.

For part of our role is to foster dialogue and debate. That doesn’t mean setting forth judgments of taste in order that readers might fall obediently into line behind us. Quite the contrary: it may mean putting out views that one knows may represent the minority. It means being interested in the thoughts of those who disagree. It means being delighted when someone is powerfully moved by something one didn’t like oneself. It also means writing well enough that someone might want to read you — a goal that’s hard to reach if all you’re doing is trying to push readers to buy tickets.

It’s a noble ideal: fostering dialogue, representing the minority, and writing artful prose all at the same time. But add to that Jonathan Jones’ take on being a critic for the Guardian. Jones states plainly that arts criticism is only for a special few

…if nothing is properly criticised, mediocrity triumphs. A critic is basically an arrogant bastard who says “this is good, this is bad” without necessarily being able to explain why. At least, not instantly. The truth is, we feel this stuff in our bones. And we’re innately convinced we’re right…

Of course, by being so blunt, I run the risk of vilification. I will be seen as a vapid snob, elitist, etc. But I am no more guilty of these traits than anyone else who sets themselves up as a professional critic; I’m just trying to be honest. What do you think all the other critics believe – that their opinion is worth nothing? Unless you think you’re right, you shouldn’t pass verdict on art that is someone’s dream, someone’s life.

Jones and Midgette seem to take separate roads – one high, one low – in this argument. Yet they both end up at basically the same destination: critics are important, they’re special, and they’re needed. Of course they’d say that – they’re critics.

So what do other people want from critics? I’ve noticed that varies greatly depending on whether the reader in question is an arts-goer, or an artist.

Arts-goers on the whole are the more pragmatic bunch – they want to know if they should bother spending their money on a particuar show, and what they might hope to take away from it should they attend. If the review is fun to read, so much the better. If it provokes interesting questions, that’s icing on the cake.

However when it comes to artists and their cohorts, I often hear them decry the criticism in the local papers and elsewhere. Either there’s not enough of it, or what’s done is too “thumbs-up-thumbs-down.” They say the critic doesn’t know what he (and yes, in this town, it’s usually a he) is talking about, or the critic has no taste. Certainly it doesn’t make the job look like any fun.

So what is the role of a critic? Is it possible for any critic to foster critical debate, write beautifully and help you plan your weekend? What do you want from your local art critic? Are they giving you what you need?

  • Paul W

    Critics… Aren’t they the Consumer Reports of the arts world? Both have their own lists of criteria by which to measure the product – some quantitative, some qualitative – and then offer up their rating. CR keeps companies honest & informs readers on how to get the biggest bang for their buck.

    At their best, that’s the role of the critic – to keep artists on their toes, to demand excellence, and to offer up a somewhat reasonable opinion as to why this artist is (or isn’t) worthy of their billing.

    Superfluous prose may give some critics an elevated sense of their role in the arts, but the elegant bluntness of Jonathan Jones is much more pragmatic and useful for all parties involved.