On the State of Criticism in 2011

ID_IC_MEIS_NYTIM_AP_001 Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

Never before has the general public had access to such an array of tools by which they can pre-sort the entirety of the world's cultural production along the lines of what they already like and dislike. Let us put aside whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. It has elements both of goodness and badness, as do all such sweeping changes. What it surely does, however, is to further isolate the poor critic. The authority of the critic is diminished to near zero when, with the touch of a button, anyone can find out what millions of people with tastes just like them already feel about artist X. For what purpose is the lonely judgment of our critic, our petulant voice from a lost time? She is, increasingly, a voice shouting in the wilderness, except that the wilderness is fully peopled, the wilderness is cacophonous with voices that utterly drown her out, our little critic from another age.

Some lament this situation; they rail against the coming darkness. That is a legitimate option. Others, though, take a different approach. They face the oblivion with joy, knowing that with death comes freedom. Some critics seem to know instinctively, to feel it in their very critical bones, that the death of the critic-as-authority is the birth of another kind of criticism.

I call that other kind of criticism, the kind that doesn't rely on authority and judgment, Romantic criticism. I call it that because of what I learned, long ago, from that melancholic and suicidal German, Walter Benjamin. Early in his career, Benjamin wrote a typically esoteric and maddeningly impenetrable essay called “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism.” There is much in that essay that I take to be wrong. There is something in it that I suspect to be crazy. But there is an important idea in it, too, an idea that took its first form in the ramblings of men like Friedrich Schlegel and the poet Novalis. The idea is that criticism does not stand outside the work of art, but stands alongside, maybe even inside, the work of art, participating in the work in order to further express and tease out what the artist already put there. In this theory of criticism, we don't need the critic to tell us what is good or bad, to tell us what to like and dislike. We need the critic, instead, to help us experience. We need the critic in the way that we need a friend or a lover. We need the critic as a companion on a journey that is a love affair with the things of the world. Benjamin once referred to this form of criticism as “the first form of criticism that refuses to judge.” The primary virtue of this kind of criticism is its inherent generosity. It wants to make experience bigger, it wants to make each work of art as rich as it can possibly be. Its sole medium, as Benjamin put it, is “the life, the ongoing life, of the works themselves.”

Just this Sunday past, the New York Times—that venerable institution of public record — put out an edition of its Sunday books section with the stated purpose of figuring out the current state of criticism. They asked six critics (Stephen Burn, Katie Roiphe, Pankaj Mishra, Adam Kirsch, Sam Anderson, and Elif Batuman) to weigh in on the matter. I found it particularly pleasing, moving even, to note that a Benjaminian attitude, consciously or less so, is alive and well in most of the responses (even if such an attitude is rarely to be found at a books section in which the “thumbs up, thumbs down” school of criticism is by far the majority voice).