Homage to the Gadflies

Late last week I was perusing the pages of a New York opera site, and I discovered an article that was a review of a book about the art and critics of the New York opera scene. What surprised me (but probably shouldn’t have, was the sheer volume and heat of the anger at critics. All the old saws were there: only failures are critics; critics never added any value to anything, and one particularly harsh missive that argued that any critic who was unable to perform at the level of the artist he critiqued had no credibility.

Which, of course, is so much rot.

Now, I can’t paint, draw, sculpt, make a movie, write a song, or design a building. But I do write, and I have taken no shortage of verbal double-ought buckshot for my writing from people who cannot themselves assemble a coherent sentence. What is in question, though, is not their ability to write, but their ability to read, and if someone can read, he can critique a writer. If they could not (or did not) read, they’re disqualified, but only then.

The same, I would argue, applies to any art.

So while some critics can be insufferable (and some artists can be divas,) to suggest that one must be an artist or have an artist’s talent in order to critique art is so much elitist hogwash. It delegitimizes the opinion of everyone but a closed coterie of talented specialists who (I would argue) are more likely to engage in critical back-scratching (“if I go easy on him, he’ll go easy on me”) than someone without that kind of skin in the game.

What is more, that sort of intellectual snobbery seems somewhat antithetical to a democratic nation, one whose society is built on the presumption that everyone’s choice – and by extension, opinion – is of equal value, if not of equal merit. And don’t get me started on the importance of some undefined level of expertise: it was a child that pointed out that the emperor was naked, not a fashion designer.

Finally, I think we need to admit that critics have a great value if we both recognize their strengths and their limits. Critics have been instrumental (pardon the pun) to my musical growth and appreciation – I would be much more of a tyro than I am today without them. If there is one message we must comport to noobs and aficionados alike, it is this: a critic is entitled to his or her opinion, but he is not entitled to yours. Read, learn, then go listen/look/watch with an open mind.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

2 thoughts on “Homage to the Gadflies”

  1. Good one, David. I tire of critics at times, especially when, over and over, they have nothing positive to contribute. Then, I enjoy the Chutzpa it takes to take an unpopular position.

    1. You make a fair point, C. There are critics who make their living contributing nothing of value, taking their coin (money, attention) for producing so much hot air. There are, however, some good ones, and paradoxically I think the rise of the internet has given exposure to some outstanding critics whose work might otherwise never have seen the light of day. Two other points need to be made.

      First, I think the problem with criticism historically was not criticism per se, but the concentration of influence to a few voices. When that happens, you are facing a tyranny of opinion. Fortunately for us, the internet has put paid to the day when a single critic – or even a handful – can make or break a movie, an exhibition, or an album.

      Second, the Internet has altered the nature of criticism, perhaps permanently. It is more democratic, for one: rather than criticism being the privilege of a dubiously anointed elite, it is now the privilege of anyone with the passion. See this blog, for example. For another, criticism has changed from pronouncement to discussion. Whether through comments or blogs, critics must now endure their share of brickbats. Thus criticism is now peer-reviewed, and critics will be held increasingly responsible for their pronouncements.

      Aloha nui nui

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