William Somerset Maugham
If art is the lungs and intestines of culture, the entry point of new ideas and the energy needed to keep it humming, then criticism is the blood. It is how the ideas and aesthetics of the artist come to be spread throughout society and penetrate consciousness. Some people claim that that in this age of mass-media and commercial art the critic's role is either extraneous or reduced to pointing people towards the better pieces and away from the crap. I don't think this is so. I think we still desperately need critics, and good ones.
One aspect of great and revolutionary art is that it's difficult to process, almost by definition. One doesn't need help to understand Alien Vs Predator because it's about the images and the visceral thrills one receives from them. It doesn't have much beneath the surface, and what is there (anti-corporatism and perhaps some commentary on human arrogance) has been said better literally hundreds of times. Not so with a film like Adaptation , a film that has both a surface enjoyable layer and one underneath that speaks about the agony of creation, the impossibility of perfect translation, and the malleability of artistic structure. For most people those themes might be recognizable and one or two of them might be clear, but you're not going to be able to untangle all the interwoven threads without some sort of help. A film has 2 hours or so to entertain (which is usually very important) and get its message across. It has to bury a lot of what it's saying beneath layers of references and subtle thematic interweaving. Underneath most great films there's a rich tapestry of meaning that may be even more interesting and important than the plot or dialogue or cinematography, even though it's composed of all three. This is true of books, music, and visual art as well, but I'd like to stick with film because it combines so many aspects of art forms that it creates an extremely versatile media for subplots and hidden meaning.
Sub thematic material is a wonderful thing, but it's often inaccessible to the average person and as such it has limited impact in and of itself. This is not a condemnation of the average person's intelligence or perception but rather it's because they are either untrained in the techniques that artists use to disguise messages or weave them into the background or they are more interested in enjoying the surface material of the work than of digging for buried treasure. This is a perfectly legitimate thing for them to do, they paid their $10 and to ask them to do difficult work in order to uncover the hidden bits of the film is unfair. This is why I don't think that the works of Wim Wenders would be smash hits in a perfect universe. Is the perfect universe full of people who go to their day jobs, work 9 hours, deal with the commute, raise their children, pay their mortgage look in on their sick relatives, and then in the few hours they have free go to a film where the auteur basically says "I have something to say, and you're going to have to do mental gymnastics to figure out what it is. Heck I might not even know myself!" I say no. There is definitely a place for those films but I'm okay with films and art in general being consumable and comprehensible to the majority of people. I'd even say it's better that way.
What a good critic does, then, is to help the masses comprehend the difficult aspects of a piece of art. He points out fascist undertones in an action film or the commentary on the nature of romantic vs. parental love in what appears to be a piece about growing up in 1930's Brooklyn. In some ways he's like a mother bird who half-digests an insect before regurgitating it into the mouth of her young. He observes a piece of art, engages with it, processes it within his head, and then points people to what they need to do to understand it themselves. This is a great service to people who don't have the time or inclination to figure out what's inside an artist's head but who care about the art they are inputting into themselves.
I don't mean to imply, by the way, that there's only one way to interpret a given piece of art or a right way. I believe in the subconscious and I believe that subconscious influence is part of what makes art different than discourse. If I want to tell you why I think current copyright law is wrong I can do so in a thoughtful well-researched essay. If I want to show you I can do so in a piece of art, which will undoubtably sacrifice some accuracy and clarity in exchange for being more engaging and open-ending. Good art helps you to deduce and evaluate the position of the artist on something, it can be anything really, but doesn't shove it down your throat. Anyway, in the process of showing someone, rather than telling them, an idea there is much more room for subconscious ideas to insert themselves. One can edit an essay for word choice but the more complicated the media becomes the more variables there are. One can read into almost anything, and if females are on the left-hand side of the screen more often than not while males are on the right that could mean something to someone. I also think that even if an artist's subconscious didn't put something in the work without their knowledge, even if its just happenstance, that doesn't necessarily dilute the meaning. Victoria Falls, the world's largest waterfall in terms of width, exists by the grace of nature, but that doesn't mean it isn't a poignant and deeply meaningful sight to behold. When an artist releases his work into the outside world he relinquishes his control of it and if people find meaning where none was intentionally placed I think that's a beautiful thing. It's just a wonderful natural byproduct of creation, like a waterfall or a dandelion is a byproduct of nature.
The critic is an essential and valuable part of the artistic process but it's a role that has recently become commercialized and co-opted by the business side of art, to the point of increasing irrelevancy for the majority of people. The critic has always worn two hats, one as artistic facilitator (which we've discussed) and one as commercial gatekeeper. Basically critics saw the lousy plays, listened to the lousy music, and attended pre-screenings of the lousy movies so the public wouldn't have to. In addition to processing and facilitating the good stuff they pointed people away from the junk, often with extremely memorable wit. Then somewhere along the line rating scales were introduced and everything fell apart. Rating scales are the bane of good criticism. They boil an opinion down to a number on a scale and take away the nuance and the meat of the criticism. We all know that critics thought that Gigli was a bad movie but how many of us remember WHY it was a bad movie? I read a bunch of criticism and they mentioned bad acting, irritating accents, offensive stereotypes, and a lousy plot. Those are good examples of HOW it's a bad movie, but not why. Most agree that Martin Brest is a good director, he had at least a workable cast, and it imploded. Good criticism would delve inside that and try to figure out why it collapsed in on itself. Most chose to snipe from the outside. That's fine for a movie with no potential, I don't expect to be told why Boat Trip sucked, it's by the guy who brought us Platypus Man and The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, but I want to know why Martin Brest created such a turd. Unless I read a few select critics, generally unpopular ones, I won't. I think this is because the modern critic knows that his readership is going to look at the rating he gave and a few juicy pull quotes and move on.
You might argue that I'm oversimplifying, that Ballet critics don't use a ratings scale and neither does the New York Review of Books. That's true, and there's still good criticism out there in part because of it. On the other hand those types of criticism only appeal to a small portion of the population, the portion that needs the least help in interpreting art. It used to be that even populist papers had critics who attempted depth and interest along with wit and commercial gate keeping. That's long dead, and I mourn its demise.
While I'm on the subject I'd like to finish by discussing a couple of other issues surrounding criticism. One is the critique that in the age of digital media the critics should no longer serve the gatekeeper function because aggregate group opinion is a more accurate predictor of your interest in a given piece of entertainment. I find this argument highly problematic. I will admit that for a piece of populist entertainment something like IMDB's rating system is extremely useful. It tells you what movies spoke to people and what didn't. If the votes of the uneducated masses are unconvincing to you there's always rotten tomatoes, which aggregates critics' opinions and prevents you from being suckered into seeing a turd by a critic with peculiar tastes (or who received some sort of studio payoff in the form of access or high quality 'free' items). On the other hand, such aggregate ratings do not give you the depth or perspective of a really good review, and while Rotten tomatoes does present the reviews for you to read it is often difficult to find the ones with true value. It also discourages people from seeking out reviewers with depth or whom they agree with, since critics are often displayed in different orders for different movies and Rotten Tomatoes doesn't explain how or why it picks which critics to feature.
There's also the curious phenomenon of meta-criticism. This is when critics look at a genre or a group of films and analyze themes and materials they share, and how they interact with the society at large. While this can be useful it's more sociology than true criticism, because art produced by different people naturally lacks coherent vision. This may be one of the reason why it's so hard to analyze popular films, they are frequently created more by committee than auteur. That's not to say I'm against comparative analysis of art, I'm not, but it's not a substitute for individual analysis. Yes, looking at raunchy teen comedies can tell us about our society's views of sex and youth, as well as influencing those views, but one of the points of art is that it mixes individual perspectives in with the cultural and social ones that permeate our world. Such meta-criticism subtracts from that.
Critics are an essential part of the art world and provide an invaluable service to both artist and public. Without them the distance between artist and audience is made much greater and communication is hampered. Current criticism is focused too much on the commercial aspects of art, on telling us what to buy and helping corporations to sell their products. I hope that somewhere out there there is a young William Hazlitt or Pauleen Kael ready to introduce a whole new generation to what it means to truly view art. If not then regardless of how much promise Internet distribution or new technologies have, much of artistic expression will remain locked up inside the art itself, inaccessible to most and misunderstood by others.