arts criticism

So was “At the Movies” — which was also called “Sneak Previews,” “Siskel and Ebert,” “Ebert and Roeper” and other names during its long, storied run — the start of a slippery downward slope or the summit of the critical art? Neither, of course. The circumstances in which the art of criticism is practiced are always changing, but the state of the art is remarkably constant.

Which is to say that, from a certain angle, the future of criticism is always bleak and the present always a riot of ill-informed opinion and boisterous disputation. Some gloomy soul will always wish it otherwise and conjure an idealized picture of decorum and good sense. Early in the last century, T. S. Eliot wrote that “upon giving the matter a little attention, we perceive that criticism, far from being a simple and orderly field of beneficent activity, from which impostors can be readily ejected, is no better than a Sunday park of contending and contentious orators, who have not even arrived at the articulation of their differences.”

A hundred years before Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge thundered that “till reviews are conducted on far other principles, and with far other motives; till in the place of arbitrary dictation and petulant sneers, the reviewers support their decisions by reference to fixed canons of criticism, previously established and deduced from the nature of man; reflecting minds will pronounce it arrogance in them thus to announce themselves to men of letters, as the guides of their taste and judgment.”

Both Coleridge and Eliot, who were writing about print, sound uncannily like ranters against the Internet and television. And, like present-day old-media scourges of the blogosphere, they had a point. But they were also projecting an impossible and self-undermining wish, because it is only through the confusion and noise of the public sphere that criticism has advanced, discovering its principles and best practices, preserving tradition and embracing the new.

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. And in our own brief tenure in their chairs, Mr. Phillips and I found argument to be the biggest challenge and the greatest satisfaction.

“One minute for the cross-talk, guys,” the producer would say, using the show’s term of art for the back-and-forth that follows the scripted reviews. How can you do a movie justice in 60 seconds? You can’t, of course — or in 800 words of print or in a blog post — but you can start a conversation, advance or rebut an argument, and give people who share your interest something to talk about.

And that kind of provocation, that spur to further discourse, is all criticism has ever been. It is not a profession and does not stand or fall with any particular business model. Criticism is a habit of mind, a discipline of writing, a way of life — a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them. As such, it is always apt to be misunderstood, undervalued and at odds with itself. Artists will complain, fans will tune out, but the arguments will never end.

So I’ve come full circle. The future of criticism is the same as it ever was. Miserable, and full of possibility. The world is always falling down. The news is always very sad. The time is always late.

But the fruit is always ripe.

— A. O. Scott,

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