The mind of a critic
To judge, educate or entertain? In his final column for Review, Sebastian Smee reflects on the qualities and pleasures of good criticism
Professional critics perform a role that, in most aspects, is impossible to defend. Where does one start? With the arrogance of setting oneself up as a public judge of other people's creative endeavours? With the inevitable superficiality of one's responses, as one lurches from one subject to the next? Or with one's repeated failure to get the tone right, to find the right combination of sympathy and discrimination, enthusiasm and intolerance?
The psychodynamics of criticism are easy enough to nail down. Just as children attracted to the police force are, naturally, weaklings desperate to wield power and exact revenge, critics are bookish nerds with bullying instincts.
"Just doing the job," we tell ourselves as we pontificate from the safety of small, book-lined studies in the suburbs where no one can disturb us, let alone take issue with us.
And, of course, we're hobbled by jealousy. Don't doubt it for a second: critics envy artists. Inside every critic is a painter, photographer or sculptor fantasising about the opening of their own sell-out show.
In light of this, no one should be surprised that critics are rumoured to be losing their clout. Entertainment has ousted serious writing about the arts in all but a handful of newspapers and magazines. Criticism has given way to profiles, interviews and all the vapid paraphernalia of publicity.
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