I Am Critic, Hear Me Roar, My Brain Is Too Big to Ignore



No surprise, the arts journalism community is continuing to buzz over a column by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian on the topic of what and who a critic is, and for whom criticism exists. An art critic may appear to be distinct from a theater, dance, music or literary critic, but certain fundamentals are common to all. Per Jones:

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…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.

Critics are born, not made. I don’t know why I became convinced that I had more to say about art than other people, and an opinion that mattered more than most. But I did decide that – and persuaded others to listen.

….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.

So, I’m sorry, but this is the deal. I don’t believe my views on film or TV or music are worth anything special. But I do believe – actually I know – that my instinct for what is valuable in art is unusually sure…

(It is at this point in our program that we must take a commercial break. I have selected the one from YouTube that features Jones’ role model:

Now back to our show.)

At issue is not whether Jones “persuaded” his betters to publish his byline — that’s self-evident. It’s his defensive tone that undermines his authority. Indeed, while the critic does get to say, crudely speaking, “this is good, this is bad,” it is unquestionably the critic’s responsibility to explain why. Simply declaring “because I said so” is to speak the language of the toddler down the block who throws a hissy whenever his mother removes his favorite toy. The critic does get to “feel this stuff in our bones,” but the critic must know, or at least be dedicated to learning, how to articulate that very sensation so any reader can participate in that critic’s view. That doesn’t mean agree, mind you. The very essence of criticism, then, is not about the person with the byline possessing more knowledge than the person reading the byline — that’s implied by the existence of the byline itself. It’s about the person with the byline transferring that knowledge. Criticism is teaching and learning, not the impulse to demand respect and obedience.

I also have to say that Jones is on equally shaky ground when he says that “critics are born, not made.” True, it takes a special kind of person to declare themselves a critic and to persuade someone to provide them with a byline and, for heaven’s sake, compensation for presenting their views for public consumption. But Jones’ glib statement would ask readers to believe that critics come fully formed, which is not the case. A critic undertakes a lifetime of immersion, of an openness to being wrong as well as right. A reviewer is a consumer advocate — do or do not buy a ticket for this or that show; do or do not buy, look at or think about this particular piece of art.

Frankly, it sounds like what Jones is up to is a power-grab — this is the mark of the reviewer who wishes he could turn into a critic but hasn’t yet sharpened his tools well enough for the job. Critic need not declare their power openly; it is inherent in that aforementioned byline. Jones should grasp the energy that caused him to display such self-assurance and put it where his keyboard ought to be.