Hinterland Diary

How do critics apply judgment in a world like this? . . .

Fanship, brandship, and relationships are all a part of what the statement "I like this" really means. Your judgment joins a pool of other judgments, a small relationship economy, becoming one of millions that continually coalesce and dissolve and re-form around culture products--movies, sneakers, jeans, pop songs. Your identity is your investment in these relationship economies. Investments in certain tried-and-true properties are virtually risk-free but offer little return (saying you like the Rolling Stones resembles buying thirty-year Treasury bonds), whereas other investments are riskier but potentially more lucrative (such as saying you like Liz Phair: are you investing in her image as a strong rock chick, which is cool, or are you standing up for an indie sellout and CK jeans model, which would be uncool?). The reward is attention and self-expression (your identity is in some way enhanced by the culture product you invest in); the risk is that your identity will be overmediated by your investment and you will become like everyone else.

From John Seabrook's must-read article and book, "Nobrow."

September 6, 2007 9:27 AM | | Comments (2)

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"Brandship," I would assure Mr. Seabrook, has absolutely nothing to do with how I respond to anything -- save, perhaps, in directed response about objects of business marketing. His statement is naive.

John asks, "How do critics apply judgment in a world like this?"

Speaking as a rock critic emeritus and a general assignment arts writer (no opinions flung) presentus, I'd say that "Know thyself" is a good place to start. Everything follows from that - or proceeds toward that. Some of the best criticism is about figuring out how one responds, or why, to an aesthetic experience, and involves referring to whatever touchstones help in getting a grip on the new one. Or, as any decent rock critic would note, it's not about choosing between the Rolling Stones or Liz Phair on the basis of which one will make you look cooler to others -- it's about Liz Phair's music and image gaining meaning because they are partly a response to the Rolling Stones. As for the grad student who thinks it's immoral to talk about taste until everyone is clothed and fed, hand him a copy of Yeats' "Lapis Lazuli" and play him the Byrds' version of Pete Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!" take on the book of Ecclesiastes. For the moment, he's beyond the arguments of mere mortals and needs an answer in the form of some relevant great art.

Starting with "know thyself," by the way, presumes that criticism should center on the fundamental one-on-one interaction between the critic and the work at hand, with broader (and, one hopes, extremely wary and qualified) reflections on what the work says about society at large a secondary and only occasional concern. I think that to do otherwise puts the cart before the horse; what the art work says about society, or how it is influencing society, should not be the point. Maybe for historians, a few decades hence, armed with knowledge of an art work's journey over time, and with the perspective required for a valid assessment. For now, can we all just speak for ourselves and not presume or pretend to know what an art work means to or says about society at large? With exceptions for some cautiously-couched speculation when we think we may be onto some trendspotting and just can't contain ourselves? And then only after we've really given the work-in-itself a decent reckoning? "Know thyself" is hard enough, but today it seems what's often aspired to is talking a good game of knowing-it-all -- which Seabrook does very well in his article as he ascribes status motives to every aesthetic opinion and choice. Seems kind of anti-humanist and anti-art to me. A critic should be doing his/her best thinking and writing for an audience interested in learning about the subject at hand, not one that's using the critical consensus as a tool for acquiring coolness and social status. In fact, critics are in a position to teach, by word and by example, that life isn't about being perceived as cool, it's about being able to experience, understand and enjoy -- for yourself.

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This page contains a single entry by FlyOver published on September 6, 2007 9:27 AM.

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