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The best criticism, as Adam Gopnik wrote in an appreciation of the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, should be “not a slot machine of judgment but a tone of voice, a style, the promise of a whole view of life in a few pregnant sentences”.

And people who worry about the present state of criticism tend to fall into the trap of regarding it as a public service. The health of the arts, they say, depends on a robust and vigorous culture of criticism. I sympathise with the view and occasionally feel flattered by it. But I think it inflates the role of critics. As Robert Hughes once said, practising criticism is “like being the piano player in a whorehouse; you don’t have any control over the action going on upstairs”.

In place of public edification, I believe criticism is better seen as a (potential) public pleasure. It sounds obvious, but a piece of criticism, in the first instance, has to be worth reading. A good column might be a leisurely, soft-pedalled essay hinging on subtle discriminations, an ecstatic love letter to some new discovery, or a fuming snort of disgust. What matters is that it is written with conviction, and that it opens the reader’s eyes to things about its subject that they may not have considered in quite those terms before.

“Art deserves to be met with more than silence,” says The Guardian’s critic Adrian Searle. Artworks, he continues, “accrue meanings and readings through the ways they are interpreted and discussed and compared with one another”. It’s in this process that the real stimulations of criticism are to be found.
In the end, let’s face it, criticism is an indulgence: one that matters a great deal to those who have had their worlds changed and amplified by reading great examples of it, but hardly at all to many others.

Contrary to those who believe journalistic criticism will struggle to survive in the internet age, however, I think people are actually going to want more and more of it. If you step back and survey the situation, it seems simple. In affluent societies, of which there are more in the world than ever before, the arts rise in stature, and as they do, people naturally want to discuss them.

Nothing has happened in the digital age to fundamentally affect this, except that people increasingly feel themselves to be drowning in arbitrary information and ill-informed punditry. So, will they react by switching off entirely? Or will they rather seek out, with increasing appetite, the writing that seems best and most enjoyable to read? I think the latter.

Critics rehearse in public what we all do all the time: we make judgments. It’s common these days to hear people say, “I’m not being judgmental” or “Who are you to judge me?” But making judgments is how we negotiate our way through the world, how we organise and sharpen our pleasures and carve out our identities.

One could even say that critics try to do, in a breezier and less committed way, what artists do by nature (and without the need to apologise). For at the heart of every creative act are a zillion tiny decisions — conscious and unconscious — about what to do, what not to do, and what simply won’t do. All are forms of criticism: “taking the knife of criticism to God’s carefully considered handiwork”, as John Updike put it. That’s why, when you ask good artists about their contemporaries, they will either choose not to comment or say things that make even the most savage critic look benign.

Good criticism (and I mean this as an expression of an ideal) should be risky, challenging, candid and vulnerable. It should be urbane one moment, gauchely heartfelt the next. It should kick against cant wherever it sees it, and cherish and applaud not only art but the impulse to make art, for that impulse, which comes out of life as it is lived, is the real mystery, and the source of everything that makes it wonderful.

Sebastian Snee
The Australian