Feb 6, 2009

Do critics matter?

In response to Me’s post from 2/2/09:

Not all chefs are good chefs. Not all lawyers are good lawyers. Not all doctors are good doctors. Mediocrity nestles itself everywhere. Likewise, not all critics are good critics.

The article you reference is a clear example of how the democratizing effect of the Internet is instilling fear in the hearts of academics and purists. The fact that the people DO have a powerful voice to pass judgment on film, art, books, etc. via the Internet poses a serious threat to their mighty, elitist Ivory Tower. Like Meryl Streep said in the article, professional critics are “becoming irrelevant.” The times, they are a changing.

Of course, one must be wary. A lot of junk also gets filtered through the popular justice system. How else to explain the success of Beverly Hills Chihuahua? But still, just as you choose your friends and weigh the importance/relevance of their opinions, one should do the same with critics.

So, what makes a professional critic a good critic? What makes them relevant, still? In my opinion, a good critic doesn’t pass judgment; he provides context and significance. Think of him as more a historian than judge. Most critics aren’t filmmakers, so there goes their credibility, in my opinion. But a good critic will recognize the role of a film and its context. He’ll explain why the movie/restaurant/art/book/wine matters. Notice that the more respected critics NEVER give grades like they do in elementary school, much less a thumbs up or down. A good critic presents an analysis – it’s up to you, the reader, to engage in that discussion and determine if its worth it.

For examples of good critics, throw out your dusty copies of The New Yorker and pick up instead Time Magazine. Richard Corliss (movies) and Richard Lacayo (art) are the best. Every week I look forward to reading their take on stuff, even if I know I’m not gonna see it. Why? Because they provide context, not judgment. Reading their stuff is like participating in a great conversation. They are not condescending. They do not write from an Ivory Tower.

I don’t think criticism will die, but it certainly will evolve. We just need to filter them, like we do everything else.


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