The Case for Criticism

flicks_clips1_20070711.jpg This Thursday is Thanksgiving—a day when we should wake up to the overwhelming goodness and bounty in our lives. It is a wonderful and much-needed occasion to reflect on what is good in the world: family, home, health, happiness, etc.

On this day we are often reminded that being “critical” or “cynical” does no one any good. As a critic by trade, I sometimes feel a little guilty around Thanksgiving. Life’s too short to go around criticizing things, right? Shouldn’t we be thankful for what is good in life rather than complain or criticize what is wrong? The world needs more positive thinking, after all.

But criticism gets a bad wrap when it is associated with cynicism or some other negative word. Sure, there are types of criticisms that are rooted in unhelpful, aggressively deconstructive attitudes. But other criticisms come from a constructive spirit of enrichment and appreciation. Some criticism, in other words, is meant to make the world better. I might even suggest that all criticism—when it is serious, well-informed, and nuanced—benefits humanity.

The world is a complex, overwhelming place. There is a whole lot of good and a whole lot of bad—an absolute glut that gets bigger by the day. Without questions and criticism, it would be unmanageable—or if not unmanageable, then at least unlivable.

Criticism is all about understanding, theorizing, making simple what is complex… It is plucking out and propelling the best of what is otherwise obscure. The purpose of criticism is to champion goodness, truth, and beauty and to criticize that which is bad, dishonest, or ugly (things that are, arguably, increasingly subjective).

I recently wrote an article on criticism for Relevant magazine in which I came to the defense of the much-maligned discipline/vocation. Here’s a brief excerpt:

[The job of a critic] should NOT be to try to keep people away from bad movies. Instead, we should try to keep people from missing the great movies. Sure, I enjoy writing scathing reviews of atrocious films (who doesn’t?), but I’d much rather write about a film that I love. It’ s fun to make a dent in the undeserving monstrosities, but it’s way more fulfilling to give some momentum to the deserving-yet-unknown little guy.

I think the food critic character in Ratatouille (a movie I highly recommend) puts it nicely in his final speech of the movie. He speaks for all critics, I think, when he says:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

Indeed, the discovery and defense of something new—something true, beautiful, significant, progressive—is when the critic feels most validated. It’s when anyone feels most validated. Yes, it’s true that the cultural significance of “the critic” is waning. In our bottom-up, user-driven society, top-down suggestion is way less persuasive than peer-to-peer recommendations. We see through marketing and are suspicious of opinions—unless they are from people we trust. And yet to be someone that people trust (more than just your best friends and family) takes some devotion to the critical discipline. (read the rest of the article here...)

I’m not saying that all critics are valid or helpful, just that the idea of criticism is not something we should fear or view as inherently negative.

What we have to be thankful for is often brought to our mind, elucidated, and eloquently celebrated by the critical act. Far from something that is contrary to a positive, enriched outlook on life, criticism is an essential and invaluable affirmation of who we are as rationally-endowed, finely-tuned beings.