Why are you reading this review? What do you hope to get out of it? When it comes to consumer goods, we understand why people write and read reviews of products: they want to know if those products are effective, long-lasting, and worth the money one would have to spend on them. But a review of a book, much like those for films and musical recordings, doesn’t provide a reader with the straightforward claims one finds in reviews for, say, a new type of laundry detergent.
It is a very different thing for a reviewer to show a before-and-after comparison of a piece of dirty fabric after it has been washed than it is for a critic to point to a sentence, a chord progression, or a film shot and say, “This is excellent.” By way of demonstration, one need only look to how one Twitter user who expressed his admiration for a notable shot in the Game of Thrones series finale became the subject of immediate and comic meme-ification.
And yet despite lingering questions about whether things like album reviews even matter in a time when music is available so widely and “freely”, magazines and websites continue to publish reviews by critics; film posters foreground quotations from publications, and; book publishers use “blurbs” to help promote their titles. People regularly discuss the “Tomatometer” or Metacritic score of a TV show or film once it’s released. Reviews can even be cause for controversy and targeted harassment; just ask any critic who has made the “mistake” of leaving anything less than an ebullient review of a Taylor Swift record what their email inbox looked like after their piece was published.
But for Michael Clune, the Samuel B. and Virginia C. Knight Professor of the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University and author of the new monograph A Defense of Judgment, what we may think of as “judgment” has increasingly become the machinations of the free market by other means. We exist in a world where, thanks to the ease with which almost anyone can share their critiques of art and culture online, judgment appears bountiful.
However, in one of the important professional sites of training in criticism and judgment – the university classroom – Clune argues that professors “bend over backward to disguise [their] syllabi, articles, and books as value-neutral.” By doing so, college professors – that is to say, individuals whose jobs involve a good deal of judgment – hinder their capacity to inculcate norms of valuation in the next generation of writers, critics, and in general those who want to be edified by art.
Caught in the thrall of popular dogmas, such as the notion that “judgments of artistic value are subjective” and “all judgments of artistic value are equal”, university literature departments have, in Clune’s view, undercut aesthetic education, and in the process have given power to the free market to decide what is good art and what isn’t. If judgments about art are nothing more than subjective preferences, this line of thinking goes, then the work of judgment will be steered by the marketplace, which will simply latch on to those artworks that have formed a critical mass of popularity. (Clune cites “poptimism” as one popular market-based aesthetic ideology, joining the many popular critics that have advanced that criticism.)
For Clune, judgment cannot help but be a central part of literary education, whether a professor may want to admit it or not. He correctly points out, “Literary scholars – like art historians, musicologists, and classicists – say to our students: These works are powerful, beautiful, surprising, strange, insightful. They are more worth your time and attention than others.” A Defense of Judgment aspires to re-center judgment in the realm of literary studies, Clune’s home discipline, but the book’s argument bears on the practice of aesthetic judgment more broadly. This work should be taken seriously by anyone who thinks that criticism matters, whether it’s conducted in an online forum, a publication, or in a classroom.
I was drawn to A Defense of Judgment because of the urgency of its central argument, particularly as humanities departments across America continue to face the threats of slashed budgets and adjunctification. (Unfortunately, Clune’s assertion that “academic institutions — however beleaguered — currently represent the sturdiest shelter for aesthetic education” holds less and less true each passing year.) The landscape of professional criticism outside of the university looks equally bleak, if not bleaker.
In the face of media mergers and acquisitions, mass layoffs, and the rise of “gig” workers without staff contracts or benefits, many critics have simply been forced out of the profession, unable to earn even an unremarkable living. What Clune promises in A Defense of Judgment is a modest but assertive goal: to reinvigorate the practice of aesthetic study by framing judgment as a skill that one develops through an engagement with existing critical traditions.
Drawing from the legacy of David Hume’s essay, “On the Standard of Taste”, Clune identifies judgment as a “practice” rooted “not in fundamental principles or rules, but in experience”; judgment can be “honed, educated […] the way you become an expert is through practice.” Judgment, in this light, becomes a skill with social and political import, rather than a simple flagging of personal taste.
Based on my experience as an educator and one passionate about the arts, I can say that the beliefs about judgment Clune argues against certainly do exist, and continue to have purchase in cultural conversations about art. One does not need to conduct extensive surveys to figure out that “interpreting art is personal” qualifies as ordinary belief amongst Americans, at the very least. We see this in the way organic interpretive communities form around popular artworks.
While I, for example, may read Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining as a horror narrative about domestic abuse, certain devoted readers have advanced the theory that Kubrick’s film represents a heavily veiled admission of his involvement in faking the moon landing. I do not feel that this (admittedly heterodox) reading of The Shining “conflicts” with mine, nor do the conspiracy-minded viewers of the film necessarily reject other interpretations. Most folks, I’m willing to wager, do not see judgments about an artwork like The Shining as competitive with each other; where disagreements appear, one is likely to hear “Well, art is personal!” in response.
I recall an interview with the musician and virtuoso mandolinist Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers fame) in which he described an encounter with a fan who asked him about the lyrics to a Punch Brothers tune called “Don’t Get Married Without Me”. The song, a jaunty, poppy number about a couple in a cyclically rocky relationship, opens with the following lines: “You’re right, we’re awful now / Just bale the water while the ship goes down / So we can float away / On separate rafts to die another day.” The fan asked Thile if the phrase “bale the water while the ship goes down” alluded to the film Titanic, whose final scene features two lovers struggling to survive on a wrecked wooden piece of the eponymous cruise ship, a disaster that would in no way have been averted by baling water.
In response, Thile cited some wisdom he received from a musical idol of his, Gillian Welch, who in similar fan encounters adopted the policy of saying “Yes” to any questions about interpretations of her lyrics. So, despite “Don’t Get Married Without Me” having nothing at all to do with James Cameron’s epic film, Thile said “yes” to his fan. He did not want to deny that person’s individual experience with his song.
Of course, Clune doesn’t dismiss art’s capacity to connect with people in highly particular ways, even with those that do not withstand the scrutiny of close reading. Ultimately, one can still feel a particular thing about a song like “Don’t Get Married Without Me” without being committed to a capital-D definitive interpretation of it. But our notion of aesthetic judgment is a structurally weak one, Clune argues, if we treat it as something that has no “claim on us beyond that of mere preference.”
One can understand why, if such a preference-centered view is true, Clune identifies the elision of judgment as a threat to the future of literary studies. Judgment, if it lacks any reference to pre-existing critical traditions and practices, hardly seems like an enterprise for which one would or even should take on a considerable amount of student debt.