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May 16, 2006

Woa there . . .


I'm sorry, but I have a BIG reservation about throwing out all notions of a critic's so-called objectivity, and the way the highly personal nature of blogging has encouraged this -- what Claude Peck noted earlier about all those fans' reviews and the difficulty in discerning agendas and whose ox is getting gored.

For one thing, many arts critics are not dealing with noble, struggling local painters, actors, authors. We're dealing with billion-dollar, multi-national media conglomerates, and that's a very good reason for the relatively recent development of what Mr. Horowitz rather dismissively terms a critic's "disengagement." What has cheapened the entire enterprise of cultural criticism isn't blogging but the cynical, corporate manipulation of the press: the networks' and movie studios' and record companies' use of blurbs from Any Critic Anywhere (even the creation of Phantom Critics), its promotion and manipulation of happy-face critics on TV and so on.

Ultimately, as much as I may admire, identify with and learn from an artist, my duties lie with the reader, serving him, and as artists have increasingly become very media-and-self-promotion savvy, I have become wary of being courted and spun. As a book critic, I've had acquaintances call me up and flat-out ask for reviews. When I told them this simply wasn't permitted, they were taken aback -- an indication of the easy, completely accepted notion in the New York media world of one hand washing the other, and a good reason, one suspects, that so much of what passes for book reviewing in New York is cozy, snoozy and insular.

On the other hand, when I was a theater critic in Dallas, I went to parties with theater people, mingled with them, gained sources -- hell, I married a local actress. But before I even dated her, I told her that I could never review her again. That was part of the bargain.

Her reply: Well, your never reviewing me again would be a plus, wouldn't it?

Added, later thought: None of the above directly pertains to a critic's impersonal objectivity, which I agree is philosophically, psychologically impossible to attain. And it's debatable how valuable trying to achieve that is, as opposed to simply being open about one's preferences, biases, etc. My argument above concerns professional objectivity. And if people want to be taken seriously as cultural critics, I seriously believe that's fundamental.

Posted by at May 16, 2006 8:34 AM


There's a difference between the kind of back-scratching you're describing here and the possibility of criticism that engages with a work and even with practitioners. The former assumes that criticism is solely a branch of promotion. The latter suggests another, tougher kind of possibility.

I think an arts writer owes a duty to her reader, for sure. But equally, she owes a duty to the art (not the artists) she comments upon, and this is surely a corrective to sentiment. "Supportive" criticism - the touch of special pleading, &c, or even the consciously skewed review - isn't worth the pixels it's written in. It may feed an artist's ego (though never mine - I loathe falsely earned praise as much as unfair condemnation) but it cheapens the artform as much as any carelessly ignorant commentary.

All of which may be no more than truisms. But when I think of the critics I've most loved reading, those who have opened possibiliities - Randall Jarrell or Octavio Paz on poetry, say, or John Berger on visual art, or Susan Sontag on most things, or event hings like Rilke writing on Cezanne - what is most exciting about their writing is that it is, in a crucial sense, very personal. In a way, their opinions are neither here nor there (opinion is the least of it); what moves and excites me is that feeling of being privy, in the mediated way that writing permits, to such interesting processes of perception and thought. I don't think it is the proliferation of individual voices and perceptions that is at issue - I welcome the way this can challenge the comfortable assumptions of received opinion (in whatever medium). What is at issue is really the quality of the thought that emerges from this personal, invested place.

Posted by: Alison Croggon at May 17, 2006 3:38 AM

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