April 23, 2010
Arguing with Critics
Are critics necessary? The blogosphere has been abuzz with that question over the past month, ever since New York Times film critic A. O. Scott gave the question a high profile in print. He was moved to write about it after his television show, “At the Movies,” was unexpectedly canceled.
At the core is the question whether there’s anything truly special about professional critics. They can be prized for qualifications and skills that make their opinions more reliable, or disparaged as members of a privileged class who exert unfair influence because of their positions.
It’s true that media outlets, whatever their journalistic values, have sometimes appointed people with no apparent qualifications to write about arts and culture. One major-city daily newspaper chose as film critic a staff member who had no training in film or previous experience writing about cinema. The New York Times famously chose a drama critic because he was thought a stylish writer, though he had no special knowledge of the theater. That kind of decision can confirm readers’ worst fears about the abuses of editorial power.
Yet some criticism is read for its insight and originality decades or even centuries after it was written. Samuel Johnson’s literary essays, music reviews by George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson, the art criticism of Clement Greenberg, and the film writing of James Agee and Pauline Kael are only the most obvious examples.
Besides their close knowledge and penetrating observations, each of those writers spoke with a singular voice that compels attention even today. Andrew O’Hehir, writing this week in Slate, remarks that “film criticism is a kind of performance, an adjunct form of entertainment.” A.O. Scott, thinking about the original hosts of “At the Movies,” realized “I don’t go back into the archive of Siskel and Ebert’s reviews to find out how they voted, or for consumer advice, but rather to hear the two of them argue.”
That, more than the democratization of opinion or the obsolescence of old media, may be the most important thing. Singular personalities with well-founded ideas will always attract attention, whether pontificating from on high or scrapping on a blog. “The future of criticism is the same as it ever was,” mused A. O. Scott. “Miserable, and full of possibility.”