A Little Note on the Big Sleep

I’m typing this on my phone, unable to sleep. I was going to post something like this after Bowie passed, but refrained in favour of keeping my headphones in for a couple of days and letting forty years of great music wash over me.

And now Alan Rickman’s dead.

Kurt Vonnegut – the writer who I may think of most in times of stress – said that his enlightened Tralfamadorians would greet all deaths with a simple “So it goes”. In part because we live in a universe where all things move toward their end, but in a larger part because time, on blessed Tralfamadore, is an illusion. People who mean something to us are always where – or at least when – they were when they came to mean that thing.

It’s a lovely sentiment. But the time machine we call memory is imperfect, and I at least have a little too much Dylan Thomas in me to summon up that clarity without a little rage. Some losses are too keen to make for good philosophy.

For the most part.

I do – as I think we must – think differently of artists whom we love.

When Terry Pratchett died, my mother called me. To see if I had heard, to check I was okay. This is a process that had been missed for actual relatives. But I was okay. And here’s why:

Except in fortunate, specific, cases we don’t know the artists we talk about. We have fleeting glimpses. Formed impressions. Often, they’re not the people we thought they were.

But why should they be? The attachment we feel isn’t to a person. It can’t be. It’s to their art, and to the idea of their art. We feel sympathy for their friends and family. We mourn the passing of the idea.

And for art, well, So It Goes. Songs play their final notes, curtains fall, books come to an end. But the ideas of that aft stay with you.

Art – we must always remember – is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s not affection, or inspiration, or even beauty. It’s an act of creation. All art is something out of nothing. It’s something new entering the world.

Matter, they say, can never be created or destroyed – only changed. But artists add things to our base sphere. Those things remain.

The Tralfamadoriansams are right on this one: art is outside time. The book is waiting for you to pick it up again. The song is waiting to be played.

The impulse to mourn often comes from our sense of loss. The dead don’t mourn. They have gone on to joy or to nothingness. We feel the pang if songs they might have written we never got to hear, parts they may have played we never saw. But EVERY part or song or book or painting or cathedral is more than we had any right to expect.

To borrow from another artist who touched my life immeasurably, without me giving back: I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.

But I will say, be grateful, and take comfort.

The fact of art itself is nothing less than a miracle. To quote another artist whom I love (present tense, because I experience the art now, and not the man, passed), Orson Welles:

“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.” Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

I couldn’t say it better. Isn’t it marvelous that I don’t have to?

The Critic As Artist Redux

The very sharp Matt Zoller Seitz wrote an excellent piece over at his blog discussing the need for film and television critics to write about the form of the media they review as much as the themes and emotional impact that the media conveys. Discuss the nuts and bolts of how things work, to an equal, if not greater extent, to the effect they ultimately achieve.

Matt is not wrong. And I should preface this little blog entry by stating that Matt has a Pulitzer Prize nomination and is internationally renowned, and I write for a professional blog with a relatively limited circulation and a relatively niche (though not as niche as it used to be) set of topics. I unequivocally state that Matt knows vastly more about the industry, and certainly more about criticism than me.

However, Zack Handlen, who writes for the AV Club, and whose work I have always enjoyed, posted on Twitter to the effect that in the wake of that sensible, and compellingly argued article he was concerned that absent the appropriate tools to discuss the form, he should not be working as a critic in the field. That got me thinking about what criticism means in the current cultural context, and what values it has outside the strictly educative aspects.

Whilst I agree with Matt that writing about form fulfills a vital function (and, indeed, in my own work I do spend a fair bit of time writing about form), I think that given it is not the only function of criticism to deconstruct the formal composition of the subject (a proposition with which I would hope Matt and most readers would agree) there are nevertheless vital and worthwhile functions served by the critic who does not discuss form, or discuss form significantly.

I’ve actually been thinking about this topic for a while now, and am thankful that this exchange spurred me to write it up. Matt’s post begins with Ted Gioia’s comments about music criticism becoming increasingly a form of autobiography. That the discussion tends to be of the critic’s reaction and what it says to them at the time as opposed to the technical aspects of the music. Whilst I think that there is a lot of essential truth to this argument, I think that the landscape of criticism has changed so much in the last decade that we need to embrace that altered structure as a new evolution of the form.

Like it or not, the internet has given literal effect to the old adage that everyone’s a critic. We have neologisms like blogosphere to describe the bevy of people who offer up criticism of the media they consume. Most of them, on a strict percentage basis, lack the traditional tools of criticism – knowledge of form and academic background in the field – but they are capable of assessing whether or not media spoke to them and are more than keen to offer up their opinion about it. Indeed, opinion has become the currency of the internet – approval and disapproval sound as blog entries, Reddit and forum threads and sharp vox pop soundbites on Twitter. At the same time, the internet’s unparalleled ability to provide the ready collection of data has given rise to the science (or pseudoscience) of critical aggregation. “74% of critics liked it!” “Metacritic average score of 8.4 out of 10”, etc, etc.

For many critics, this can (and I’m sure in some cases does) feel like a dilution of the critic’s function. Once everyone has a platform to express their opinion loudly, and once critical consensus becomes the dominant “tag” of critical approbation, the function of a well-reasoned, carefully structured review concentrating on the form can feel compromised. To an extent, it’s only natural that critics, particularly smart critics, want to “clean house” to fight back against this tide because they feel that a body of scholarship is being compromised.

I do agree that criticism is a key form of scholarship, and is extremely prevalent in understanding how works affect us, and accordingly how both media and the mind work. For the key consumer of criticism however, they are not necessarily looking for a deconstruction of the form: in some cases they will not understand the terms, and in many more cases they may not necessarily care. What the public generally wants to know is whether or not they are going to like a piece of media, not whether or not they should. This is the cause of the fundamental disconnect continually portrayed between audiences and critics, why people talk about pieces of work “not being for critics” or “critical darling” films being snoozefests for the general audience. It’s not (necessarily) because the general audience is dumber than the critics, nor that they simply do not have access to the tools, its that their interest on what is being presented to them focuses on particular areas, most usually their likelihood of enjoyment.

Likelihood of enjoyment, however, is difficult to quantify. As Matt points out, focusing on the formal aspects of the piece being criticised allows people to understand the ideas emotions that the creators of the piece are attempting to convey, and allows an interested party to make an assessment at their success in conveying them. But the first test in conveying ideas and emotions is, fundamentally, a personal one, because if ideas and emotions are conveyed via the piece, they’ll occur to the consumer of the piece by virtue of what the piece presents.

What someone feels in experiencing any form of media is inherently a personal experience. A gifted writer can communicate it, they can encapsulate it, but like trying to describe a colour to someone else, you can never truly be sure you’re talking about the same thing. That’s where the emotive, and the autobiographical elements of criticism come to the fore. To an extent, you’re only ever telling the audience how you felt when you experienced something, and then explaining to them why you felt that way. Matt points out that the why of the matter comes, at least in part, from the technical process that causes the piece to function in the way that it does, but the why of the matter also comes from who the critic is and what elements of their personality inform their emotional responses.

There are a bevy of critics out there, and as both a putative (or at least attempted) critic and a consumer of criticism, I tend to find that my method for deriving the primary function of criticism to a consumer (which is, ultimately, an assessment of whether or not I should see/read/reevaluate a piece of media) comes down to the degree of trust I have in the critic. Sometimes that trust comes from the display of virtuosity, in the knowledge that they can see things in the particular piece that I may have missed or point out that these things deserve to be seen, but sometimes that trust comes from the openness of the reviewer, the understanding that they’re coming from a similar place to me, and that my emotional reactions, whilst never precisely the same, are likely to flow along the same channel.

What Matt proposes is an easy enough thing to accomplish (one tenth of a review given over to formal elements – and it’s worth noting that the discussion of formal elements doesn’t in fact require formal education – stating that silence surrounding the whispered word of an actor lends special emphasis to that pronouncement requires nothing more than the evidence of your senses), and he’s right that it is worthwhile and admirable for critics to try and educate the public about why things work the way they work and why this is information worth having.

But being that it’s not the only function, I think it’s problematic to try and classify other critics as part of the problem. We live in a mass, mass, mass media culture. I took the title for this post from an essay by Oscar Wilde which discusses the function of criticism against the background of the relatively new phenomenon of mass journalism and mass readership, but mass journalism and readership has now been replaced by mass authorship. The critic is no longer lecturing, even to a class of interested students, they’re engaged in a dialogue with people who are increasingly reluctant to be told that they have less right, or even less ability to communicate their emotions to the outside world. That behooves the critic to find their own voice, unique amongst the multitude, crying in the wilderness, and trust that discussion of formalism will have enough oomph to attract readers to learning out of aspects of their own interest, and that discussion of emotions and themes will likewise have enough to attract readers to spending some time in the head of that author.

Criticism belongs to the culture, and the culture has changed its shape. Criticism, and indeed, all art, are changing shape towards personalised demographics, people selecting how they want to receive information and on what subjects. The rate of media production, once in the context of media you include (as one must) blogs, websites for commentary, television, YouTube, films, books, e-books, magazines, zines, comic books, Tweets, games, etc, etc, etc vastly outstrips the time people have to consume it. People are (and always have been) selecting what information comes to them, but they are now much better equipped with the tools to do it. Like it or not, selection bias is going to come into play, and if people want a discussion of form, they’ll know, or easily be able to find out, where to get it.

The role of the critic is going only to become increasingly reputational and increasingly interpersonal because the only distinction the audience will be able to draw is whether or not they find the work of the critic compelling, and that means not just telling people what’s happening with media, but making an argument for why they should be listening to you. That means speaking to them in the language that matters to you, because the one thing that the world now has a surfeit of is people who are willing to offer their genuine opinion in a public space, even if that’s cloaked behind a fake name or online avatar.

That means, as a critic, your fundamental role is to be honest about yourself, not just in terms of your knowledge and qualifications, but also in terms of your emotions and preferences. If a critic is going to talk about form, they should let the audience know that up front, and if a critic is not going to talk about form they should let the audience know that too. They should be respectful of the priorities others emphasise in their criticism, and they should always be willing to point out that they’re skipping over something or that a differing analysis should be found elsewhere. I don’t think, however, that the genie can go back into the bottle, and that ‘critics’ can define themselves by reference to a particular school or a particular set of emphases within the critical sphere. It’s too late for that – the meaning of ‘critic’ has changed. It’s not a guild with exclusivity: anyone with a blog can describe themselves as a critic, and people will take that with a much greater degree of bona fide legitimacy than the offered up opinions of a random joe on the street corner, even if it’s the same random joe. The term ‘critic’ is becoming increasingly devoid of meaning, and more and more important will instead be the function of standing up and saying “This is who I am, and these are my views”.

This doesn’t mean that the intellectualism of discussion of media has changed. It just means that critics are forced to hear, and respond to, the other half of the conversation. The up-until-recently unexpressed voice that would read an article on film and declare “critics don’t know what they’re talking about – I liked the explosions”. There is still a place to make the argument that things are well executed and poorly executed and there is logic and educated standpoints to be taken on those issues and I’m glad Matt is out there doing so in his way. I’m also glad Zack’s out there doing it his way, and to an extent that I’m out there doing it my way. It’s not even a Darwinist view, because your opinions remain out there, even if someone else’s opinions are preferred. The critic still has the power to write about why something worked for them, and have it heard by those wanting to hear it. It’s the appeal to authority that’s gone for good.