Where has criticism gone?

Kumura, Masanobu. A Willing Letter Writer. 1733 https://www.loc.gov/item/2008680287/

The media and artistic landscape is dominated by the review which has at its heart the question of is this thing worth my fun tokens and/or time? The review, then, is often characterised by its relationship to the commercial sides of media and art and, as a result, tends to be compromised in both premise and execution. 

There are reviews worth reading, of course, but they are far and few between, and they are often more focussed on the question of what is interesting about this work rather than a mechanical analysis of the transaction costs of engagement. Reviews, especially those published by online content-farms, are constrained by the need to be both objective and universal, both factors that are antithetical to useful and engaging criticism. 

Objectivity is more a function of a database entry (or a Wikipedia article) than criticism. We should take it as read that people can find out all the blandly descriptive qualities of a work. Objectivity in reviews tends to be, really, an attempt at glorifying subjective preferences. The function of a critic, and arguably a reviewer, is to explain their experience with a work and not to pretend to relate to a piece of work as if they were a newly activated robot. We laugh at the opening scenes of Dead Poet Society because the idea of art being assessed in dry objective ways is absurd. And yet we don’t quite extend the same incredulity to the reviews we read. Modern reviews, in the most part, come closer to an attempt to plot the merits of a work on a graph, than they do an attempt to understand and grapple with a work. Who does this serve? It is hard to escape the suspicion that sometimes modern reviews are more attempts at marketing than criticism. 

It also follows, then, that the way reviews try to be universal (which is related but distinct from a fetishisation of objectivity) also compromises their value and distances us from more interesting ways of engaging with art, media and culture at large. Nothing is truly universal: a piece of media that gives one person joy may be tedious garbage to the next. The way individuals interact with art is based entirely on their individual experiences and conceptual frameworks. Reviews lose the plot when they speak about specific themes or elements as being universal. 

The functional and transactional nature of the review is killing off a more interesting and richer means of exploring art, no matter the medium: the critique. In common discourse, a critique or criticism is often taken to be inherently negative. We need to divorce ourselves from this way of thinking and see criticism as a thorough exploration of a work’s qualities, both positive and negative, and not just an exercise of crude nitpickery. 

Criticism, as an art and a practice, feels in very short supply these days. I suspect this is because criticism is hard and requires more thought, depth and intellectual engagement than the average review. It also benefits from a deep familiarity with the genre or medium. And I also suspect—uh oh, time to blame capitalism again—the paucity of contemporary criticism is related to the reality that there is very little money or advertising clicks in thorough and nuanced examinations of individual works of media.  

The appeals of criticism are many. I endorse Wilde’s argument that criticism is an art form in and of itself, where the critic brings to bear their skills in surprising or affecting ways to make us see the world, or at least a piece of it, differently:

GILBERT: …The critic occupies the same relation to the work of art that he criticises as the artist does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and of thought…

ERNEST: But is Criticism really a creative art?

GILBERT. Why should it not be? It works with materials, and puts them into a form that is at once new and delightful. What more can one say of poetry? Indeed, I would call criticism a creation within a creation. For just as the great artists, from Homer and Aeschylus, down to Shakespeare and Keats, did not go directly to life for their subject-matter, but sought for it in myth, and legend, and ancient tale, so the critic deals with materials that others have, as it were, purified for him, and to which imaginative form and colour have been already added. Nay, more, I would say that the highest Criticism, being the purest form of personal impression, is in its way more creative than creation, as it has least reference to any standard external to itself, and is, in fact, its own reason for existing, and, as the Greeks would put it, in itself, and to itself, an end…

The Critic as Artist, Oscar Wilde

Criticism abandons, and proudly so, the notion of objectivity. Instead we get a profoundly personal thing; or as Wilde puts it:

That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself. It is more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete and not abstract, real and not vague. It is the only civilised form of autobiography, as it deals not with the events, but with the thoughts of one’s life; not with life’s physical accidents of deed or circumstance, but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind.  


Criticism has the power to inspire conservations and personal reflections and teach us both about who we are as people and about the broader world in which we live. And in doing so criticism gains the power to restore our ability to see things in shades of grey and not just binary absolutes. As the world becomes increasingly more polarized, accepting the subtlety that criticism can promote seems to me to be a very positive and desirable thing.   

If we fail to make space for criticism both within our own thoughts and at the level of society we condemn ourselves to losing a vital ability to critically engage with art and media, an ability that helps us understand that our perspectives are just that—our perspectives—and not universal truths. The absence of criticism in society has given rise to appalling practices like ranking or scoring media and art, declaring one work or another to the best in arbitrary categories, and pretending our preferences are absolutes. We are losing an ability to make ourselves vulnerable and relate honestly and openly to art and that is a profound shame. 

There is another significant benefit: improving our critical abilities helps us make better art and encourages us to expect better from others. I know ‘better’ may seem to be antithetical to the point I am making, but I am using it as a shortcut to mean a combination of more vulnerable art, more interesting art, more brave art. Review culture has lead to creative stagnation as commercial forces want to make safe decisions that will yield safe reviews telling people to buy, buy, buy.

As individuals we can demand more: more of ourselves and more of the media we consume. Consider the value of searching for a review on a piece of media or art and, instead, either try to find a piece of genuine criticism or, better yet, engage with the work with an open mind and form your own views.1We live in an age of embarrassing riches. And, helpfully, it has never been easier than it is right now to access the sum of the world’s media and art. While I acknowledge there is an opportunity cost, I still encourage experimentation and curiosity in our media tastes.  Then you can tell your story to others and hopefully listen to their stories, in turn.

And think about the time you invest in content farms who pump out shallow reviews. Are there other voices you could instead support? Although I have been critical of reviews, and by extension reviewers, I know for a fact that there are a lot of tremendous writers out there who are yearning to engage more critically. Support them! Leave comments asking for better and more thoughtful discussions and not just base-level, superficial stuff. 

Reviews will always have a place and a purpose. We shouldn’t forget, though, the art and value of criticism. It is a skill we both need to develop and support. Without it the world suddenly looks condemned to a landscape littered with things like the top ten fast car movies to watch right now. 


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    We live in an age of embarrassing riches. And, helpfully, it has never been easier than it is right now to access the sum of the world’s media and art. While I acknowledge there is an opportunity cost, I still encourage experimentation and curiosity in our media tastes. 

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