Does Criticism Even Matter Anymore?

“Good critical writing is measured by the perception and evaluation of the subject; bad critical writing by the necessity of maintaining the professional standing of the critic.”

— Raymond Chandler

When newspapers began feeling the squeeze of 2008’s economic downturn, one of the first cost-cutting measures that was implemented was simple: firing their movie critics.

Though, yes, it’s easier to simply pull a review from a wire service rather than have their own in-house film buff grade your city’s latest helping at the cinematheque, many were quick to point out that by excising their film critics, newspapers were losing part of what made them unique. Comedian Patton Oswalt devoted an entire segment of his brilliant 2007 stand-up disc Werewolves & Lollipops to his local film critic (“The Gatekeepers of Coolness”) where he thanked him for making him the “pissy little world-traveler that I am today”, as that critic’s mainstream-loving, indie-hating worldview forced Oswalt to go out and discover cinema for himself, looking for actual cultural events that were happening outside of his hometown of Sterling, Virginia instead of just reveling in the fact that Dr. John stopped by to participate in a local chili cook-off.

As long as there is art, there will be people to judge that art, and as long as art is being judged, criticism will exist. Though it’s hard to ever completely articulate exactly what a critic does, our own Rachel Balik was able to summarize things nicely in describing the main thrust of Noel Carroll’s book On Criticism:

“The role of the critic should not coincide with the role of the art historian: namely, simple interpretation and contextualization. Rather, the sole purpose of critics is to influence the public in making art choices by way of guiding them through an understanding of a work’s value. In order to offer this guidance, a critic must possess the necessary knowledge of art history, but the final piece is — and must be — passing judgment. That judgment hinges on determining ‘success value‘. In other words, how closely did the artist come to realizing her own goals and intentions for the work? Then, the critic reveals that value to the audience using interpretation and contextualization, which are essential but not primary features of criticism. Carroll’s argument of evaluation hinges on establishing success value above all else. He suggests that [a] critic’s reticence to pass judgment could be remedied with a clear methodology for determining success value. Criticism is not a ‘simple declaration’ and there’s no component of subjectivity. Carroll writes that the value judgment is substantiated with reason revealed in description, elucidation, classification, contextualization, interpretation, and analysis.”

My own personal experience with criticism goes back to my teenage years, when I finally discovered pop music for the first time. As a kind growing up, I — quite literally — couldn’t tell you who was in the Velvet Underground, why Nirvana broke big, what my favorite Joni Mitchell song was, or tell you what Johnny Cash was best known for. For the longest time, I didn’t know anything — and I mean anything — about popular music. It wasn’t until one fateful day when I was flipping around radio stations and I stumbled upon Train’s then-popular hit “Drops of Jupiter”. I didn’t really hate the song, but I sure as hell didn’t like it either. Switching between stations, I looked for something else, only to change to another station to discover that they too were playing “Drops of Jupiter”. Surprised (and somewhat disgusted), I switched to yet another station, which was in the middle of playing … “Drops of Jupiter”. Stunned, amazed, and profoundly disappointed, I knew that from that moment onward, if I were to discover new music, it would have to be on my own terms.

My mom picked up on this, and soon subscribed me to CMJ. I didn’t know much about it, and, in truth, I had little-to-no idea who half the bands mentioned were. Yet I read. Every article and every word. Some were better written than others, but every once in awhile, I discovered something unique that caught my eye. With mere words on a page, I suddenly got excited about different types of music, often buying albums without having heard a single second of them beforehand. Though this occasionally lead to disappointment, I was often surprised by what I found. In 2003, I picked up a copy of Four Tet’s Rounds due to the reviewer in question describing the listening experience to that album being akin to the notion of “lightning zen”, or a moment of instantaneous clarity and inspiration. Kieran Hebden’s ever-shifting sonic collages opened up new doors for me, and made me appreciate albums that I already owned in entirely new lights.

Yet for me, the biggest revelation was when my dad got me a subscription to SPIN Magazine at the start of the new millennium, right as Sia Michel took over as editor. The issues that came out around that time were sarcastic and witty, snaky yet well-read, and — above all else — just plain fun to read. It was at a time where every writer — blessed with their own style — seemed to still be reaching for the same overarching, vaguely humorous goal. The writing during that time was so good I even began reading articles about bands that I cared little about, even downright hated. Over time, it gradually began to dawn on me that the written word held immense sway over my own artistic sensibilities, and then it hit: wouldn’t it be great to give to others what all those great writers had given to me?

It was through those “Greatest Albums of All-Time” lists that I discovered Dylan and Lou Reed, DJ Shadow and Beck, Shelby Lynne and Pasty Cline, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I owed a lot to critics — even the ones I passionately disagreed with (for the life of me I will never understand why SPIN had such a crush on Courtney Love’s solo career). Yet even with my friends and co-workers, a four-star critique of a movie in the local paper is more likely to make us go see something than a scathing review that calls said film “a time vampire”. When our own friends and acquaintances give us reviews (even with something as banal as “Dude, this movie is awesome! You have to check it out!”), we’re more likely to be inclined to see it, especially if that same evaluation comes from multiple sources. A friend recently got me to watch the Ron Moore/David Eick reboot of Battlestar Galactica after saying that in short time, “it will become your favorite television show ever” — a bold statement if there ever was one; a correct statement some four seasons later.

Yet when the day is done, we are still masters of our own destiny. We will listen to whatever music we wish and watch whatever films we want, sometimes in the face of negative reviews and contrary popular opinion. One thing, however, is clear: we will never see every single movie that has ever been made. We will never read every book or listen to every album. When I die, there will still be thousands of Xbox games I haven’t played, hundreds of comics I haven’t read, tons of TV shows I simply never got around to watching, and more plays that I will have not seen performed live than I would ever care to admit to myself. In our increasingly media-saturated world, our “free” and “leisure” time seems to be increasingly finite, so what we decide to entertain ourselves with has become an increasingly difficult decision.

Why, you might ask? Simple: because there are more options for us now than ever before. What we watch or listen to or read is no longer limited to what’s available at the local Blockbuster video store or on the paperback rack at our local supermarket. We can now use our Netflix accounts, Lala streams, Hulu players and Kindles to access virtually anything we want (and in record time). At PopMatters’ own home office, we receive more album submissions than ever before, and no longer strictly from record labels. The rise of home recording and CD burning allows just about anyone to form their own band, and, as such, hundreds of “self-released” discs come flooding in every week. From a purely logistical standpoint, will every single one of them be masterpieces? No. Is it possible, however, that the “next big thing” could just be sitting there in that mountainous pile of albums, just waiting for a critic to grab hold of it, champion it, and break this life-changing music into the mainstream? Absolutely.

Question: does criticism even matter anymore? Answer: it matters more now than it ever has before, as there is simply so much out there it’s nearly impossible for one man, one publication, or one conglomorate to cover it all; to, as Noel Carroll puts it, determine its “success value”. With this flood of new releases that reside in every facet our of modern-day culture, the very role of the critic has changed, as the rise of the blogosphere has allowed virtually anyone to become their own media outlet. Since Sia Michel left SPIN in 2006 after being bought out by another company, no one publication has filled that personal one-stop-critical-shopping outlet for me, but the people writing for Aquarium Drunkard, Gorilla vs. Bear, Pitchfork Media, TinyMixTapes, Cokemachineglow, and — yes — right here at PopMatters, have proven to be nothing more than inspiring to me. These publications are all web-based, and, as such, can ebb and flow as quickly as our culture allows. I still read all music-related print-magazines I can on a near-daily basis, if not simply because I know us net-critics can fix our mistakes by rewriting code instantaneously: the perilously laboured work that goes into a print publication these days is more considered than ever, and, as such, the quality has gone up considerably.

When trying to think of a way to properly articulate the job of a critic, one of the best sources I found was one of the most unlikely: in the form of food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) in the 2007 Brad Bird film Ratatouille. Near the end of the film (spoilers, spoilers), Ego — the most feared food critic in the world — is humbled by the simple peasant dish of the film’s title, and upon meeting the chef in question (Remy the Rat, voiced by Patton Oswalt, which makes this the most roundabout article I’ve ever penned), he writes a positive review that reflects on how sometimes the critic must challenge themsleves, and offers this to say:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy: we risk very little, but enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that‘s in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. […] Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere …”

Great criticism leads to the discovery of great art, and great art — no matter where it comes from — deserves to be properly recognized. As long as people continue to make art, criticism will still find its active place in our culture. As long as people make truly great art, we — as critics — can only aspire to do the same.