The Economist

October 12, 1996, U.S. Edition

What are critics for?
We invited Fintan O'Toole, a leading Irish critic, to tell us


PROFESSIONAL critics have a hard time with Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Not because the play is so cryptic or even because of its morbid reflections on the futility and cruelty of life, but because of the exchange of insults in the second act between Didi and Gogo. Starting with “moron”, and moving through “vermin”, “abortion” and “sewer rat”, it ends with “crritic!”.

In Beckett’s stage directions, the word is the abusive equivalent of the atomic bomb. Didi “wilts, vanquished and turns away.” Yet, while critics continue to occupy a place in the esteem of artists somewhere below that occupied by the sewer rat, their profession shows no sign of either wilting or turning away. Arguably, it is more powerful than it has ever been.

Oddly, the power of critics has been increased by the arts themselves. In the theatre, for instance, managements have inadvertently enhanced the power of the critic by moving from the old repertory system to long runs of single plays. In a rep system, more performances of a successful production could compensate for fewer of an unsuccessful one. With longer runs, the financial risk is greater and reviews make much more of a difference.

Paradoxically, in publishing, the sheer abundance of books now being produced gives literary editors a new kind of power, exercised not by deciding whether a book should be reviewed favourably or unfavourably, but by deciding whether it should be reviewed at all. The reading public depends on reviews, not only for indications of merit, but for knowledge of a book’s existence. The more choice there is, the harder it is for people to choose for themselves.

The power of critics has increased at a time when confidence in the idea of a critical consensus has all but collapsed. Critics can no longer see themselves as articulating a consensus in a society about its cultural, aesthetic and even moral values. Criticism is powerful not because there is a consensus about what is good and bad in art, but because there isn’t. Societies with fixed values and standards do not need critics: in feudal times, there were only censors.

Aesthetic judgments have never been more open to question. Contemporary concerns with class, race and sex have undermined the whole idea of a hierarchy of artistic works in which timeless classics look down from lofty heights of greatness at mere ephemera. At the same time, the rise of mass media has toppled the distinction between high and low art so painfully constructed by modernism. If you are not sure what art is, how can you be sure of the difference between good art and bad?

Much of the contempt for critics stems from their reluctance to be honest about this. In responding to Arnold Wesker’s hostile description of reviews as “individual opinions whose importance is magnified out of proportion by print”, critics sometimes make themselves look philistine, pompous, precious or a combination of all three. In fact, individual opinion is the critic’s best defence. If consensus values are gone forever, intelligent, honest and coherent expressions of individual opinion may be the best anybody can hope for.

Critics should be honest enough to accept that they represent nobody but themselves--not the art form, not even in any real sense the newspapers that employ them. Their job is not to report on how a work was received by an audience. It is not to sell books or tickets. It is not to reform or mould the practice of theatre or music or poetry. And it is not to maintain, as arbiters of taste and value, the authority of the institutions who print their opinions.

The job of the critic is to try to ignore the magnifying effect of print and hyperbole, to preserve a sense of proportion, and to give a genuinely individual opinion. It is a modest but by no means a contemptible task. And it is one that is inextricable from the artistic process itself.

The distinction between the critic on the one side and the creative artists on the other is much more blurred than it sometimes seems from the tendency of some artists to talk of critics as if they belonged to another species. For one thing, most criticism, especially of literature, is actually done by creative writers. For another, almost all artists are involved in a continual process of making and remaking the values by which their own work is judged.

A few years ago, I crossed, briefly, the great divide between critic and practitioner. Having been, for a long time, a theatre critic, I took a year off to work as literary adviser to the Abbey Theatre. I went into the rehearsal room prepared to be humbled, to discover how useless and irrelevant the abstract judgments of the critic really are. Instead, I discovered two things.

One is that actors in rehearsal ask the most intellectual of questions. What does this line really mean? Why am I doing this? What would happen if we did it this way? The other is that performers are themselves the most merciless and demanding of critics. Almost invariably, they know what is working and what is not. However much they need to hear it said, they know that “You were marvellous” is good manners, not good criticism. They know that if everything is marvellous then nothing is any good, that for praise to mean anything, there must also be damnation.

An American sociologist, Wesley Monroe Shrum, in a recent study of the relationship between critics and performers at the Edinburgh Festival fringe* provides some empirical evidence for the belief that critics often say what artists think. He asked 43 directors and actors to say what was good and bad about their own show. The vast majority (84%) used “phrases or comments” that were similar to those used by one or more of the critics. Some of the artists were much more dismissive of their own work than the critics were. In one play, for instance, the critic praised the acting but the director thought it was “nervous” and “patchy”.

Yet the odds are that if the critic had written that the acting was “patchy and nervous”, the actors as well as the director would have retreated into the comforting certainty that critics know nothing anyway. The problem, of course, is that just as everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die, everybody wants rigorous, incisive and fearless criticism, so long as it is aimed at somebody else. When a contemptible cliche-monger gives you a rave review the scales fall from your eyes and he stands forth as a critic of rare sensitivity and perceptiveness. But when a review is hurtful or damaging, there are two standard defence mechanisms.

The first, and most common, complaint about critics--that they get between the reader or viewer and the work of art--is also the most brazenly hypocritical. Pure, unmediated art is rare. Before most works reach their public they pass through the hands of publishers, editors, producers, gallery owners, studios, record companies, agents, blurb writers, marketing consultants, hype merchants, interviewers, designers and retailers. At each stage, assumptions and judgments are made, com prom ises are negotiated, interpretations are imposed, expectations are raised.

At its worst, bad criticism simply adds another, admittedly thick layer of skin to the onion. At best, albeit at the risk of tears, it cuts through to the core and allows the work itself to emerge. And critics, unlike all the others in the chain of mediation, do their work in public. It is not that criticism is completely transparent--the selection of reviewers by literary editors, for instance, itself involves a degree of pre-judgment. But compared with all the anonymous parts of the process, the critic operates out in the open, exposed to contradiction.

The second common complaint is that critics are unqualified. There is, of course, no excuse for mere ignorance, and it is entirely proper to expect that a critic understands the history and the conventions of whatever art form is under scrutiny. But it is emphatically not the job of the critic to “understand the intentions” of the artist. (It is, rather, the job of the artist to make those intentions plain.)

It is also essential that critics do not see themselves as specialists, that their opinions remain individual and do not become the conventional wisdom of the insider. In academia, critical theory has become an increasingly impenetrable substitute for real engagement with works of art. The editors of the “Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism”**, for instance, acknowledge the “overwhelming” proliferation of theories in contemporary academic usage. It is striking that they do not even pretend to offer a synthesis, let alone a consensus, providing instead a heroic inventory of competing ideas--226 essays arranged from Adorno to Zola.

Cynthia Ozick, herself both a fine fiction-writer and a brilliant critic, points out in “Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character”*** that “College teachers were never so cut off from the heat of poets dead and alive as they are now.” In what she calls “the ex-community of letters”, there are “a thousand enemy camps, `genres’ like fortresses, professions isolated by crocodiled moats.” Specialised languages, exclusive jargons, internalised passions, are the order of the day. A key task of critics is to disrupt that order by keeping alive the belief that ideas about art are public property.

That, in essence, is what critics are for. They are for refusing to take things on their own terms. They are for testing the claims that artists make for their work and that their press agents make on their behalf. They are, above all, for making connections--not just the obvious connection between artist and audience, but also the more angular, more arguable connections between art and society.

The complaint that is sometimes heard from artists--my work isn’t about society or politics or morality--misses the point. Art may not be about any of these things, but criticism is. It is about trying modestly, and with a due sense of its own limits, to bring the pieces of an increasingly fragmented culture into some kind of proximity. In that task, the real tension is not that between artists and critics. It is between honesty and hyperbole, between intelligent engagement and prize-giving ceremonies, between argument and advertising. So long as that tension remains in the air, critics will be doing a useful job.