A Critical Point

Written by Daniel Silveyra on 01-Feb-09.

Few roles in society have been held in low esteem in a manner so enduring as the critic. For the casual reader his role is negligible: Anyone can give his or her opinion. For the producers of that which is appraised it is something of a sport to flay the critic in the most extravagant fashion possible – Hemingway and Mencken come to mind. Disraeli was but the kindest of them when he wrote that “Critics are those who have failed in literature and art”. And yet the critic remains a constant in all literate societies. If critics continue to thrive, then there must be demand for what they do. But what specific function or use does the consumer see in this profession?

One possible answer comes from the idea of the critic as a person of heightened senses- an innate perceiver. As Wilde said, “the critic has to educate the public”: She is an expert in detecting subtleties that lie beyond the average perception, and has therefore acquired a different, more refined judgment of the value of things. Another explanation could be found in a cult of personality: The audience craves the critic’s point of view in order to better emulate him or the traits it deems attractive in him. In this view it is not the critic’s perception which is important, but the fact that it is the critic’s.

While partially relevant, these theories do not satisfy. If the critic’s taste and perception are so above that of his audience, then what use is her recommendation to them? And if emulation or celebrity status is the main attraction for the public, how can the popularity of unknown blog-based critics be explained? Certainly, critics are professionals in their trade and are therefore specialized in perceiving and appraising, and one often encounters the opinions of musicians on subjects they can barely pronounce. But the main function of the critic is as a resource-saving agent for the consumer.

Contemporary economics takes into account that information is not “perfect” – it is often incomplete and rather costly to obtain and process. The rational consumer’s resources are scarce (information being one of them), and he will try to get as much benefit out of them as he can when purchasing cars, clothes, books or tickets for a film. Even assuming that the consumer knows exactly what he likes (which is a whole debate of itself), the enormous variety of options he has available to him makes the selection process a difficult one. In order to choose what film to see, for example, he must investigate its genre, its cast, director, and their respective curricula relative to his tastes in order to estimate the probability of the film being to his liking. Even with the advent of mass advertising and ease of access to information, the consumer has a limited amount of time to dedicate to the process.

It is here where the critic comes in – a specialist who allows the consumer to “outsource” this selection process. He is, in essence, a predictor – he saves the consumer’s time and money by telling him which products will maximize his welfare and which will be a waste. The unreliable nature of this particular product, however, makes the critic’s role a special one: As there are few universally accepted values in the appraisal of entertainment, the critic is tasked more with predicting the way his readers would react than the way they should react. When Henry James complained that “We have been educated to such a fine — or dull — point that we are incapable of enjoying something new, something different, until we are first told what it’s all about…In short, the blind lead the blind”, he was missing the point. A critic’s role is not to educate his audience, but to successfully estimate what they will or will not value. The critics closeness to the ordinary man, that which he is often held in contempt for, is precisely what makes him good at what he does. He will be an educator only when his audience does not know its tastes, and only if he himself knows them better than they do themselves.

The crafting and selling of opinions will always be a field ripe for polemics, and this alone should suggest the critic’s relevance in society. The artists’ complaints are akin to the woes of all who are evaluated (none of which are the real clients of the evaluation) – a necessity of an industrialized, mass-market society. Despite the importance of a flair for words and an intellectual mystique, it is the critic’s estimates for which he is paid. A successful critic is merely one whose audience- that group of people who share references and perceptions- has found him.

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