Nobody’s a Critic

Or they're at least terrified to be one.


The grand master of critical distance


Criticism isn’t powerful anymore. It doesn’t drive anything, it doesn’t define what is good and bad in culture. Surely this has mostly to do with all the changes in the media landscape over the last few decades. Basically, culture has been democratized. It has been flattened out and multiplied. There are no longer real distinctions between high and low. There’s just more.

The word criticism has its root in the Greek word krinein, which means — in its most original sense — to divide or separate. It’s about sorting things out and making distinctions. Criticism is thus about doing something that is, in this era, almost impossible to do. It is difficult simply to keep up with the vast global cultural output, let alone to make determinations and judgments.

So the critic lives in terror and humiliation, without purpose, without audience, without platform. Newspaper book reviews are shutting down (as are the newspapers that used to house them). Magazines are less and less inclined to devote space or resources to traditional criticism. The blogosphere and social networking sites allow anyone to communicate tastes and opinions directly to those people with whom an outlook is already shared. Criticism is essentially bottom-up now, whereas it used to be practically the definition of top-down. The audience does not look to an external authority to find out what to think — it looks to itself.

In response, critics have become bemoaners. It seems that every week a new article comes out lamenting the state of criticism in field X, Y, or Z. The critics are bemoaning the state of their craft, bemoaning the state of contemporary culture, bemoaning the fate of the world. A few centuries ago the intellectual world trembled at the steps of Samuel Johnson. More recently, careers were ended by a few words from Oscar Wilde or Walter Lippman. A generation of Americans checked in with H.L. Mencken on a daily basis to figure out what they thought about any given subject. Most of these figures were angry and disdainful to some degree or other. But they were not bemoaners. They stood confidently atop the world and proclaimed. Generally they deemed most things worthless. On occasion, they would nominate a work or a person to greatness. A critic who tries to stand that tall today looks anachronistic and slightly foolish. No one is listening. No one cares who the critics are anointing or scorning.

Thus the predicament. On the face of it, there aren’t many options. You can protest and wait for better times. You can try to hold the clock back as strenuously as you’re able. But this comes at a huge cost. It means, essentially, refusing to participate in the culture of your time. Critics have, traditionally, prided themselves in a certain amount of distance. There’s even a name for it: “critical distance.” To some extent this distance was always an illusion, the byproduct of a metaphysics that saw mind and world as fully separate and staring at one another from across an epistemological abyss. But more importantly, people believed that critical distance was possible and that they were achieving it. This self-perception was enough to fuel the practice from at least the early Enlightenment until some time in the middle of the last century.

Some saw it coming earlier than others. Nietzsche was already raving and sputtering about the revaluation of all values at the end of the 19th century. He called for a new, bolder sort of human creature who would be able to face the coming darkness. Then he went mad. Alas, no Zarathustra was looming on the horizon. The following years did not see a new race of giant critics so much as a slow withering. The critics today are a largely tremulous lot, beholden to popular opinion on one side or, on the other, to fancified jargon borrowed from the academy and applied to generally humorous if tiresome effect. Criticism thus finds itself parroting the opinions that everyone held anyway or spouting from a grab bag of “high theory” that invariably makes little sense and is but a desperate plea for legitimacy. A cry for help when all ears are deaf.

Trying to maintain critical distance today is thus a practice in self-alienation. The distance might as well be infinite. The proclamations might as well be made in outer space. So we need another metaphor. If criticism isn’t about distance anymore, maybe it can be about closeness. I’ll tell you what makes sense about closeness right away. In today’s cultural world, a bird’s eye view of the situation doesn’t get you very much. There is nothing to sort out from up there because there is simply too much culture in too much variety. The distance, the desire to categorize and judge, is overwhelmed by the very pluralism it seeks to understand. The only solution is to get down into the mix and participate. You need to grab works of art and hold onto them tightly. Stepping away from them even a little bit is to risk losing touch altogether.

Pleasingly, a version of this argument was made by George Nathan, the co-editor (along with H.L. Mencken) of the original version of The Smart Set back in the early 20th century. Nathan wrote a little book called The Critic and the Drama. It was, I think, ahead of its time in setting up the dilemma of criticism in an age of too much art and suggested some ways to deal with it. Here’s the crucial paragraph:

If art is, in each and every case, a matter of individual expression, why should not criticism, in each and every case, be similarly and relevantly a matter of individual expression? In freeing art of definitions, has not criticism been too severely defined? I believe that it has been. I believe that there are as many kinds of criticism as there are kinds of art. I believe that there may be sound analytical, sound emotional, sound cerebral, sound impressionistic, sound destructive, sound constructive, and other sound species of criticism. If art knows no rules, criticism knows no rules — or, at least, none save those that are obvious.

That last sentence is particularly crucial. Art, Nathan is perfectly willing to accept, has no rules. Another way to say this is that each work of art generates its own set of rules. The only way to deal with any individual work, then, is to read out that set of rules, to discover something about its own internal logic. A criticism that wants to step away, to achieve distance in order to apply a set of external rules and to make judgments, ends up stepping away from the only criterion available: the criterion there within the work. Nathan doesn’t use the metaphor explicitly, but he is talking about closeness versus distance. He is talking about a kind of criticism that stands there right alongside the work of art, participating in it rather than holding it at arm’s length. “If art,” Nathan writes, “is organic expression, and every work of art is to be interrogated with the question, ‘What has it expressed, and how completely?’ there is no place for the question whether it has conformed to some convenient classification of critics or to some law derived from the classification.” Classification, so to speak, takes us outside the work. Expression takes us further inside. And when you’re inside the work pluralism ceases to be a problem. It doesn’t confound you with its multiplicity anymore. When you’re right up face-to-face with a work, it cannot disappear into the sea of difference.

Going a little further into the metaphor of distance and closeness brings us inevitably to the grand master of critical distance, Immanuel Kant. It is simply impossible to talk about the modern critical attitude without addressing the sage of Königsberg. A central component of his aesthetics is the idea of disinterest and then of universality. For Kant, when we make genuine aesthetic judgments we do so with the implication that they are not made ‘for ourselves’ but with the implicit idea that they stand on their own, that anyone else would make the same judgment, that the judgment ought to be universally true even if that cannot be proven. This is how Kant puts it:

For if someone likes something and is conscious that he himself does so without any interest, then he cannot help judging that it must contain a basis for being liked that holds for everyone. He must believe that he is justified in requiring a similar liking from everyone because he cannot discover, underlying his liking, any private conditions, on which only he might be dependent, so that he must regard it as based on what he can presuppose in everyone else as well.

Aesthetic judgment is thus about pushing ourselves away from a work, away from our particular relationship to a work, and away from the conditions and the circumstances under which we’ve encountered a work. Notice how different this sounds from Nathan’s emphasis on the work of art as an individual expression about which one must ask, “What has it expressed, and how completely?” Indeed, the language of “expression” and “completeness” attempts to avoid that of “liking” and “judgment” altogether. Nathan is less interested in the potential universality of the critical response and more interested in the capacity for each act of criticism to be as powerful an individual expression as the work of art it discusses. He wants the work of criticism to be a continuation and elaboration of the expression that was initiated by the work of art. He wants the art and the criticism to be on the same level, to exist in the same space, to be close to one another and involved in the same process of completing an act of expression. Kant wants the act of judgment to govern the work of art much the way a rule governs a particular instantiation. Nathan tries to obliterate that sort of distinction completely. He wants to mix things up, to get the work and the criticism dirtied up with one another. Kant’s constant metaphor, along with distance, is that of purity.

You can always tell Modernist critics — the children of Kant — by the language they use and by the metaphors. They are always worried about the messiness of the world and they are always concerned about miscegenation between art and criticism. Here’s the great Modernist critic Clement Greenberg, for instance:

The distinction between the esthetic and the extra-esthetic is installed by what has come to be called “esthetic distance.” “Distance” here means detachment from practical reality, the reality we live in ordinarily, reality at large, the reality that’s shot through with behavior and consequences and information.

In contrast, here’s a comment by William Hazlitt, an anti-Kantian in terms of aesthetics in every bone of his body:

I hate people who have no notion of any thing but generalities, and forms, and creeds, and naked propositions, even worse than I dislike those who cannot for the soul of them arrive at the comprehension of an abstract idea…They are for having maps, not pictures of the world we live in: as much as to say that a bird’s eye view of things contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

And now something from Hilton Kramer, a hold-out Modernist critic still fighting the good fight:

The omission of most of the best new paintings we have seen in the 1960-2000 period — the years ostensibly covered in Open Ends [the show Kramer was reviewing] — is a reminder, for anyone who needs one, that MoMA is no longer interested in the larger world of art, where pop sociology is not the measure of artistic achievement. MoMA has become the captive of every dumb postmodern idea that has been floating around the universities and the media for a generation or more. Its interest in aesthetic quality is now nil.

And now the anti-Kantian Arthur Danto:

It is the mark of our moment that the direction of art is simply the aggregate of the directions of individual artists, taken one at a time. This means that most of the ways we thought critically about art in less pluralistic times are of little help today. We are as much on our own as the artists are, so each viewer has to be his or her own critic.

That last quote by Danto is making essentially the same point that Nathan was making in his book. We’re all in the same place, we’re all on the same plane. So we need a criticism that participates in art right where it is. A criticism that is comfortable with metaphors of closeness. A criticism that wants to be a part of the works it addresses, right up on top of them confronting the same issues.

A final point. The metaphor of critical distance generally carries with it the idea of criticism as standing above the work and judging it. But this is somewhat misleading. Because, when it comes to the question of valuation, “critical distance” criticism is in no doubt about whether the work or the criticism is more important. Criticism has its role: that of keeping art honest, of making sure it is living up to its responsibilities. But the creative work is still king. Critics in the broad Kantian tradition have, for the most part, spent a good deal of time justifying the need for criticism at all, so strong has been the feeling that the work of art is the holiest of holies. Matthew Arnold, in his essay “The Function of Criticism,” felt the need to write, “Everybody would be willing to admit, as a general proposition, that the critical faculty is lower than the inventive. But is it true that criticism is really, in itself, a baneful and injurious employment; is it true that all time given to writing critiques on the work of others would be much better employed if it were given to original composition, of whatever kind this may be?”

Arnold goes on to defend criticism exactly along Kantian lines, as the capacity to make universal judgments of taste, to be the adjudicator in the realm of culture in which it is of paramount importance to make sure that nothing fraudulent slips in to the category of value. Kantian criticism stands away from the work of art in order to worship it. The criticism of closeness, on the other hand, by bringing criticism down from its realm of judicial heights, has the reciprocal and not immediately obvious effect of “de-specializing” the work of art. If art and criticism are that close, it becomes more difficult to argue that they are doing anything essentially different. If works of criticism are participating in works of art then the two have the capacity to affect and transform one another. In the Kantian tradition, the work of art is protected in its specialness. It is inviolable in its aesthetic domain. Not so if you accept the metaphor of closeness. If art and criticism stand in tandem then a work of art gets some of its Being, gets to be the work that it is, partly through the criticism that is part of it.

This is, I think, a deeply troubling idea to a Western tradition that has long held dear the sanctity of art. Some would trace that back to art’s religious origins. Perhaps that is the case. But whatever the cause, it takes practice to accept the implications that come along with the metaphor of closeness. I offer here one example. James Wood, no great friend to the anti-Kantian conception of criticism, has nevertheless written some of the most extraordinary pieces of contemporary literary criticism. One of his greatest is an essay called “What Chekhov Meant by Life.” Reading this essay transformed and heightened my sense of what Chekhov is doing as an artist. Not in a tangential way, in a fundamental way. Chekhov is better for me now. Or, to put it another way, Chekhov is more Chekhov when you add James Wood. I prefer Wood/Chekhov to Chekhov/Chekhov and I suspect that there is simply no such thing as the old Chekhov after Wood got to him. By the same token, Wood is the critic that he is in no small measure because of how he was affected and transformed by reading Chekhov. Chekhov and Wood participate in one another. Accepting the metaphor of closeness means accepting that this participation is a two way street and that art and criticism collapse into one another and interpenetrate all over the place. Moving from art to criticism and criticism to art is moving along a level plane. That’s to say, you have to get excited about moving horizontally. The days of distance are behind us. • 26 June 2008


Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at

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