To Criticize the Critic

What use does criticism serve, if any? I’m thinking here of the reviews of books, movies, or music, whether the smallest notices in newspapers on up to book-length studies.

Do some of us genuinely enjoy a good suggestion? Have we found a handful of voices that we trust, that feel like a friend, and so we’re likely to see or hear or read something they recommend—or avoid what they don’t?

Is it simply comforting to read entire generations of scholars intelligently discussing a favorite writer or painter or musician of ours? (I am especially partial to this.)

Do some of us love a good fight, and like to see a talented writer dissect and destroy a movie or a book with obvious relish?

Is there just no other civilized way to find out what’s happening, what’s new, other than to have someone pretend they’re objective and write about it? Because haven’t we all seen something like the review, say, of a few books on the Eastern Front in World War Two, only to slowly realize that what should be a review is actually just some writer’s summary of that time period, or it’s just about the writer himself?

I imagine it’s a combination of all of these, and more, but it doesn’t go much further than that. We can never forget that none of it is objective or final, and it does a disservice to art to ever pretend that someone has found a key to it. Even the best criticism is just what we read or write in between actually experiencing or creating new works of art.

Harold Bloom can claim all he wants that literary criticism “is the modern version of wisdom literature”—but, as he is a critic and not a poet or novelist, of course that’s what he would say. Somewhere the critic George Steiner admits that if essayists like himself possessed even an inkling of what Dostoevsky or Shakespeare did, they would be trying to write novels and poetry, not dissecting them. That’s probably closer to the truth, and it puts me in mind of Emily Dickinson’s famous quote: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Even the professional critic would have to admit that the experience of art is to be immensely preferred over any discussion of it. But it’s like televised sports: as much as the fans and the players would prefer to live in the euphoria of that experience, the actual game can only go on for so long. And so, before and during and after the game (and for years and years later), there are the commentators, as learned as any Talmudic scholar, parsing numbers and averages, weather patterns and venues, players and predictions and the relation of all of it to the deep history of the sport itself.

The same holds true, I think, for religions, which all have various theologies and histories that are a way of holding space, a kind of thumb or forefinger keeping the page, in between the kinds of experiences which criticism, explanation, history, and classification cannot touch.

Let’s just try to remember this, as we go along: what we call criticism is actually just a convenient or civilizing way of trying to hold fire in our hands, it’s a way of having manners, of talking about what is beyond words. Yet the comfort of classification or debate must never blind us to the reason we’re there in the first place, the frightening revelation of what we cannot control or understand but which nevertheless gives all our lives meaning: the actual experience of art.




15 replies »

  1. I enjoyed this post, especially the idea that criticism and review serves to hold and define an ephemeral experience. I wanted to forward this post on to other readers, but someone has sprayed graffiti on your comment section and needs no more attention.


  2. Although I am partial to the subject as well, I’ll throw my two cents about the importance of the action your title indicates.
    When we experience art, each of us manifests an act of aesthetic presence, unique, diverse and obviously subjective.
    The sensation that is generated underlines our relationship with the object ( of art) but has nothing to contribute towards the knowledge about it.
    Now, the action of defining that aesthetic process under the frame of criticism ( or even so from the pedestal of an objective criticism) has, according to my humble biased view, an inherent ambiguity since it can only be a product of intellect.
    Especially when the work of critics is considered as a source not of an aesthetic supervision, but, of and coming from, the knowledge of the object .
    So as such I find no purpose or need in it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Art studies are very useful to me, plus I enjoy them very much. Often I find that when I sit down to write about art I didn’t “know” the work as well as I thought I did. The writing helps clarify my thoughts. Writing about art involves, of course, a different type of thinking than making art. it may be true that “critics” sometimes don’t have a deep enough awareness of their biases. But I think it’s also true that artists sometimes don’t have a deep enough awareness of their unoriginality. Some of the writers I most admire use both parts of their brain–what you might call the analytical mind and the poetic mind.

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  4. i think you’ve been a bit heavy handed here Tim pal. the ‘experience of art’ is to discover, which the critic does (if done properly, of course) to a very fine degree. i have taken a lot from Bloom & numerous other critics in my learning to feel poetry at some levels i might not have discovered myself. their energy & love of poetry & literature is ample & yet they publish little of their own, to my knowledge Bloom has only published some fiction, but not enough to be considered an author. critics to me are those that love literature & are exceptionally sensitive to it but feel little pull to write it themselves, perhaps for the reason you state but from the position of creating: they can feel the pull of someone else’s words but not their own & so they submit to a role they can perform, which is admirable considering so many who have had a single thought & then decided to be poets & never really had any sensitivity to the art but only the voice in their head they feel sets them apart.

    i mean Yvor Winters was a conduit for poets: Thom Gunn studied with him, making the journey to the U.S & of course Robert Lowell camped in his garden. there must have been something about him, something to do with his sensitivity that made him sort after.
    Winters called the relationship between concept & feeling “of motive to emotion” in his Preliminary Problems. he acquiesces there is not a guideline to what makes a great poem, but that the critic’s job is “a civilizing influence” to “affect the quality of daily judgments & actions.” which begins with analysis. he knows that without the poet’s word on the matter of their work, there can only be intense guess work & no man’s intellect is ample to bridge that yawning gap, but that to try, it seems to me he implies, gives added importance to the written word. Dylan Thomas is known to have said when asked the meaning of his poems that (i paraphrase) ‘it wasn’t his job but that of critics & psychologists.’
    i think the experience of art is profuse & to some it boils down to talking it over. i am actually in the ball park of direct sensation, the feeling that affects the skin like when Crane says “Dance Maquokeeta: Pocahontas Grieves” i get chills even after all these years.
    if you watch Bloom read Tea at the Palaz of Hoon, you can see the voodoo of poetry in him & for all his technical language, at the end of the day, the scintillae of poetry’s alchemy works on him.

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  5. I count on critics to have broad knowledge of the subject and to know how the immediate item under criticism fits in with that broader view, contextualizing the artist’s content. They should be sensitive to zeitgeists, trends, blindspots, etc., and be able to see more in both breadth and depth than I do, because they spend their lives studying the subject. At the same time, a really keen critic is aware of his or her blind spots.

    Few measure up to this ability.

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  6. Daniel, this is good stuff, & may well prompt a companion post “To Praise the Critic.”

    The kind of criticism you describe is the best of it, so much so that I wouldn’t even call it criticism at all, but something much higher. I should have mentioned that I do actually like Bloom because of course, at his best, he seems to go beyond criticism & into articulation of the experience, of what it’s like to read, to enter someone else’s soul, the thrill & enthusiasm of art, the articulation of what has moved him, & maybe why it has.

    But at least for me, this kind of criticism is rare. I don’t know if you’ve read any of Paul Mariani’s biographies, I loved his Hart Crane, but every one of them is slammed by reviewers for the same reason: he’s not “critical” enough, he takes the poems & letters & life story & seamlessly just *tells* it with great verve, you know that he loves his subjects. But it’s telling to me that people don’t like this, they want distance & some kind of cold judgement, some pretence of objectivity.

    Winters has always left a bad taste in my mouth. It was him who knocked down Crane, & who prompted a handful of sad & desperate letters from Crane, who suddenly felt the need to justify or defend “The Bridge,” which Winters had torn down. Maybe I’ve only seen the back of Winters & never the front, but he seems to me the kind of academic poet who is almost as concerned with theories of poetry as actual poetry, so that he paints himself into some aesthetic & theoretical corner which might help him produce the kind of poetry he likes, but which makes it impossible for him to see something like The Bridge for what it is. I’d take that sprawling visionary mess over any safe conservative stanzas–or essays–Winters ever wrote. Again, I’m willing to give Winters the benefit of the doubt, to try to bridge the gap with guesswork & analysis, but I would never give him the last word of judgement about anything, which it seems any critic demands at some point.

    It’s also true that I owe much larger critics & writers a great deal, who’ve been my guide to the authors I most admire, since at fifteen or twenty one all I had was their introductions, their notes, etc. I think most especially of Richard Ellmann as a kind of gatekeeper for Joyce. But as good as he is, & he is among the best, his work leads you back to Joyce, not back to more Ellmann. & as good as Bloom is–& I actually think he’s best being interviewed, hearing him talk, or intone the poems–compared to actually going back to Crane or Stevens, some of his books verge on self-parody, & he’s actually best read in the bathroom, to pass the time. I don’t mean that to sound as harsh or snarky as it probably does; that was part of the essay, we can’t actually stay in the rarefied air of Stevens 24-7, & reading someone good like Bloom is a middle ground of stay a little high; I would just hazard ever mistaking Bloom for Stevens, in the end. & saying that about one of the better critics, says a lot to me about those much lower down on the ladder.

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  7. I agree on Winters. He was a dick for tearing into the Bridge. But i think his intentions essentially pure. Too pure. I don’t like his poetry. It is like a week old bread stick. Sorry for the short reply. On my phone & knackered like a farmer’s work boots.

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  8. For me to create art is a feeling tethered to thinking. I may plan out a series of Carnival Figures based on Isak Dinesen’s (aka Karen Blixen) story ‘Carnival’ but how they actually turn out I don’t know in advance. I have found that my own critic is harsh when I write but not nearly as harsh when I paint.


  9. As to the critics out there I have read plenty of literary criticism but do not prefer to do so. I like to interact with the art itself and form my own experience of it, to it, with it and that is done through feeling.


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