Wednesday, February 3, 2016

/ SundayReview | News Analysis | Everybody’s a Critic. And That’s How It Should Be \

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I am a critic. A scold, a snob, a paid hack intent on punishing artists and spoiling the fun of the public. That, at least, is the role I’m sometimes called upon to play. And in that capacity I’d like to say: Forget about the Oscars. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that you will, if history is any guide. The best-picture winners that live up to the name — “The Godfather,” “The Apartment,” “The Hurt Locker” — are outliers in a field of bloated, flash-in-the-pan mediocrities. “Around the World in 80 Days”? “Out of Africa”? “Crash”? Please.
Meanwhile, the pantheon of all-time great films is largely a roster of the snubbed, from “Citizen Kane” to “Do the Right Thing” to “Boyhood.” The best film in any given year is almost guaranteed to be one that didn’t win, or one that wasn’t nominated at all.
That much is obvious. The Oscars are silly. Why should we suppose that 6,000 members of an insular and entitled professional association would be reliable judges of quality? A show-business oligarchy can’t seriously be in the business of legislating taste.
But neither can the public. Box-office data is hardly an answer to industry-insider cluelessness. “Avatar” has made more money than any other movie ever, but does anyone think that makes it the best movie of all time?
Then again: Who am I to talk? I make my living sorting, ranking and judging movies, part of a professional guild devoted, precisely, to the legislation of taste and the denomination of excellence. If the academy is out of touch, what does that make me? A dinosaur. A stagecoach driver in the age of Uber. An old man yelling at a cloud.
On the Internet, everyone is a critic — a Yelp-fueled takedown artist, an Amazon scholar, a cheerleader empowered by social media to Like and to Share. The inflated, always suspect authority of ink-stained wretches like me has been leveled by digital anarchy. Who needs a cranky nag when you have a friendly algorithm telling you, based on your previous purchases, that there is something You May Also Like, and legions of Facebook friends affirming the wisdom of your choice?

The days of the all-powerful critic are over. But that figure — high priest or petty dictator, destroying and consecrating reputations with the stroke of a pen — was always a bit of a myth, an allegorical monster conjured up by timid artists and their insecure admirers. Criticism has always been a fundamentally democratic undertaking. It is an endless conversation, rather than a series of pronouncements. It is the debate that begins when you walk out of the theater or the museum, either with your friends or in the private chat room of your own head. It’s not me telling you what to think; it’s you and me talking. That was true before the Internet, but the rise of social media has had the thrilling, confusing effect of making the conversation literal.
Like every other form of democracy, criticism is a messy, contentious business, in which the rules are as much in dispute as the outcomes and the philosophical foundations are fragile if not vaporous. We all like different things. Each of us is blessed with a snowflake-special consciousness, an apparatus of pleasure and perception that is ours alone. But we also cluster together in communities of taste that can be as prickly and polarized as the other tribes with which we identify. We are protective of our pleasures, and resent it when anyone tries to mock or mess with them.
Obsessives and dilettantes, omnivores and geeks, highbrow and low, we are more likely to seek affirmation than challenge. Some people love opera. Others love hip-hop. Quite a few are interested in both. “It’s all good!” you might say. But you don’t believe that, any more than I do. Some of it is terrible. There is, axiomatically, no disputing taste, and also no accounting for it.
And yet our ways of thinking about this fundamental human attribute amount to a heap of contradictions. There is no argument, but then again there is only argument. We grant that our preferences are subjective, but we’re rarely content to leave them in the private realm. It’s not enough to say “I like that” or “It wasn’t really my cup of tea.” We insist on stronger assertions, on objective statements. “That was great! That was terrible!”
Or maybe that’s just me. This newspaper, after all, pays me to turn my personal impressions of movies into persuasive arguments — not only to share my feelings about movies but also to assess them and provide some useful counsel to readers. So it might seem as if I’m setting out here to make a self-serving point. Don’t trust the Hollywood insiders who control the Oscars! Ignore the quantified peer pressure of Rotten Tomatoes or Box Office Mojo! Listen to me!

And sure: I do have a stake in defending the relevance of my own job, even as I grant that it’s kind of a ridiculous way to pay the rent. Critics are sometimes appreciated — or even, in rare cases, admired, like Roger Ebert — but we are more often feared, resented or ignored altogether. In the popular mind, critics are haters and killjoys. Maybe we’re sadists, like the viperous, martini-swilling New York Times theater reviewer in “Birdman.” Or maybe we’re masochists: In spite of that cruel caricature, “Birdman,” an Oscar best picture, is “Certified Fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes (I think it’s vastly overrated, by the way, but that’s just my opinion).

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The ability of critics to make a living may be precarious, but criticism remains an indispensable activity. The making of art — popular or fine, abstruse or accessible, sacred or profane — is one of the glories of our species. We are uniquely endowed with the capacity to fashion representations of the world and our experience in it, to tell stories and draw pictures, to organize sound into music and movement into dance. Just as miraculously, we have the ability, even the obligation, to judge what we have made, to argue about why we are moved, mystified, delighted or bored by any of it. At least potentially, we are all artists. And because we have the ability to recognize and respond to the creativity of others, we are all, at least potentially, critics, too.
Meanwhile, in our roles as citizens of the political commonwealth we are conscripted into a polarized climate of ideological belligerence. Bluster substitutes for argument. Important political divisions are at once magnified and trivialized. There is little room for doubt and scant time for reflection as we find ourselves buffeted by sensation and opinion.
How do we sort through it all? How do we manage the prodigious too-muchness of the demands on our attention? The incentives not to think — to be one of the many available varieties of stupid — are powerful. But there is also genius around us, and within us. There is “Hamilton” and “To Pimp a Butterfly,” “Transparent” and the novels of Elena Ferrante. Take your pick! Make your case!
We are far too inclined to regard art as a frivolous, ornamental undertaking and to perceive taste as a fixed, narrow track along which we stumble, alone or in like-minded company. At the same time, we too often seek to subordinate the creative, pleasure-giving aspects of our lives to supposedly more consequential areas of experience, stuffing the aesthetic dimensions of existence into the boxes that hold our religious beliefs, our political dogmas or our moral certainties. We belittle art. We aggrandize nonsense. We can’t see beyond the horizon of our own conventional wisdom.

Enough of that! It’s the mission of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means that we are each capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us. We need to put our remarkable minds to use and to pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.
The real culture war (the one that never ends) is between the human intellect and its equally human enemies: sloth, cliché, pretension, cant. Between creativity and conformity, between the comforts of the familiar and the shock of the new. To be a critic is to be a soldier in this fight, a defender of the life of art and a champion of the art of living.
It’s not just a job, in other words.

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