On Art As Criticism And Criticism As Art

By Noah Berlatsky

Orange Is the New Black is an offensively cutesy effort to make imprisonment look like an entertaining sitcom. The Avengers is a bloated, vapid, smug exercise in corporate synergy. Harry Potter’s world-building is a mess. Hemingway is a misogynist dweeb, and Bob Dylan is massively overrated. Twilight is awesome, though.

I’m sure someone out there (maybe you!) agrees with me on all things, and is nodding along happily with each iota of Harry Potter or Hemingway hate. But there’s probably also someone out there shaking their fist and demanding, “Who The Hell Is Noah Berlatsky & Why Is He Trashing Bob Dylan?” What, in short, is my problem? Am I jealous of J.K. Rowling? Am I just looking for attention and clicks? Is that thing about Twilight a joke? (It isn’t.)

People love to hate criticism, not to mention critics. Critics are irritating, clueless, and philistine; talentless naysayers and/or yes-men belching foul-smelling spit-up on the sublime garments of genius. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott writes in his book Better Living Through Criticism, released today, “criticism is understood to be a time-bound, reactive, secondary activity, stealing whatever temporary prestige, importance, or shock value it has from the durable labor of real artists.” Critics are useless — and, worse than useless, they’re irritating. Away with them, and let us frolic in joyful fields of Netflix binge-watching forevermore.

Before you settle down to watch Daredevil brutally torture people in the name of righteousness, though, it’s worth asking — how do you know Daredevil is art in the first place?

Television didn’t used to be considered art exactly, after all. It wasn’t so long ago that TV was seen as a “vast wasteland” of drooling imbecility for couch potatoes. Soap operas, game shows, and for that matter reality television shows have been, and still are, seen as vacuous entertainment, with little more aesthetic value than commercial interruptions. If Daredevil is different, that’s because someone has decided it is different.

And who is it that’s made that decision? Critics.

ao scott

The fact is, criticism is not parasitic on art. Quite the reverse; art is parasitic on criticism. As scholar Carl Freedman points out, “The poems, essays, and some of the letters written by Wallace Stevens are literature, while the insurance policies and office memoranda also written by him are not.” For art to be art, someone has to make a critical determination that it is art, and not, say, a laundry list, or an advertisement, or an instruction manual.

The fact that a laundry list or an advertisement or an instruction manual displayed in an art gallery could be seen as art only underlines the point. Anything can be art if you view it as art — which means that it is the critical act which defines art, rather than art which defines criticism. “. . . [T]he foundational act of criticism . . . is the selection of an object, the willed decision to look,” A.O. Scott argues. But that’s surely also the foundational act of art. Art is where the critic looks for it.

You could also say that criticism is where art looks for it, though. Certain works, after all, present themselves as art. Daredevil may be great or it may be awful, but its arty camera angles and bleak cityscape demand that you criticize it as art. When poet Gerard Manley Hopkins announces, “I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin,” he’s elevating the language so that you are conscious of its construction and extraordinariness. In contrast, Gerard Manly Hopkins’ shopping lists were mostly (I presume) free of alliteration and ecstatic rhythms, and have therefore been ignored by critics and lost to history.

You can’t have art without criticism, or criticism without art. And indeed, as A.O. Scott argues, you often can’t quite distinguish one from the other. Criticism is itself a longstanding art form; critical works by James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, and Scott McCloud are firmly in the aesthetic canon. And on the other hand, art is almost inevitably a comment on, or discussion of, other art. Whether it’s Jessica Jones with its implicit criticism of the showy, world-trotting Marvel film superheroes, or Duchamp defacing the Mona Lisa, art demands that critics treat it as art by engaging in art criticism itself.

Perhaps the best example of the way criticism and art are bound together is from that critically unvalidated genre, reality television. Project Runway is a show about art, and so, inevitably, a show about criticism. Fashion designers create outfits to be evaluated aesthetically — and viewers view and evaluate both the outfits themselves, and the aesthetic evaluation. When Tim Gunn declares, “This fabric is sad. It makes me want to weep,” he’s acting as a critic. But he’s also acting as a critic. He’s performing criticism as part of the art that is the show, Project Runway. And that criticism is incorporated into the designer’s art, too; they change their designs based on their critiques. The art is built on the criticism, just as the criticism (“It makes me want to weep”) is based upon the art. The two are stitched together so closely that you can’t see the seams.

A.O. Scott quotes Ratatouille’s famously negative view of criticism: “The bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” But then what about Project Runway, in which the criticism is itself “the average piece of junk”? What about, for that matter, Ratatouille itself, with its famous criticism of criticism? Without criticism, there is neither junk nor meaning nor art. Always remembering, of course, that criticism itself is all three.

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Lead image: flickr/Steven Laurie

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