Recently, I had a conversation with my friend and brother Doug Welch about good criticism. Since the conversation, I’ve been meditating on everything that makes good criticism and deep reflection difficult. Doug always pushes me to think harder, broader, deeper, further — if I’ve ever added anything helpful to the critical and reflective world, the seeds of those contributions were sown in some conversation I’ve had with him. He talked about Neil Postman’s argument that popular culture is the most dangerous when it tries to be serious. I’d never heard that before and so I pushed to learn more. Doug was kind enough to put up with my incessant questioning for a little while longer and the conversation yielded some interesting questions like:
- Is something bad simply because it’s popular or good because it’s obscure?
- Is the opposite true? Good because popular, bad because obscure?
- How do we determine artistic integrity?
- Where does the author’s intent come into play?
- Where does the reader’s response come into play?
There were others, but that was the gist. The conversation made me think really, really hard about things. I found myself using Chesterton to argue against Chesterton — “If the capitalist is allowed to win, there will be no art that is not simultaneously advertisement, which is a considerable step lower” from Utopia of Usurers pitted against “Literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity” from A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls.
On the one hand, I agreed that artistic integrity can be and often is compromised if the point is to sell toys, cologne, or cars. Doug rightfully pointed out that news can be compromised when you’re selling ads to the companies you’re covering. On the other hand, I also believe that the populous enjoys all kinds of things in corporate that cannot be enjoyed on an individual or cult level. Banksy was popular before he sold a thing. The ocean is popular but no one would say it stoops to be a sink simply because it holds water.
Criticism is judgement.
And good judges are hard to find because good judgement requires hard work. At least those four things — artistic integrity, popular reach, author’s intent, and reader’s response — must be judged against the standard for the beautiful, the good, the true. And that’s all good criticism does: it weighs a work and finds it either full or lacking. Either that painting is beautiful, good, and true or it’s ugly, bad, and a lie. Here’s where it gets tricky, though: as Chesterton also said in A Defense of Ugly Things, even an ugly thing can hold a kind of beauty. And even bad men can be used for good purposes. The best truthteller can find the truth in a lie. What makes it hard is that a given work is very, very difficult to parse apart. We get things wrong all the time and you need look no further than the largest critical industry in the world: the world of Biblical criticism and interpretation. If we can’t judge The Book right all the time, what makes us think we could judge a book — any book — with flawless wisdom and accuracy?
To get at the relative goodness or badness, beauty or ugliness, truth or falsehood in a work, we tap into those four fields and perhaps more:
Reader’s response you’ll find hiding in comment sections, blogs, user reviews, in conversations after a film or a museum visit, and so forth. It starts with preference and ends with indifference and both can be true or false, so finding out what readers feel about a cultural artifact is insufficient.
Author’s intent you’ll find in interviews, journal entries, hiding among conversations between them and close confidants, in liner notes, early drafts, and works about the work such as Stephen King’s Danse Macabre or how the Sehnsucht in Lewis’s Surprised by Joy parallels the talk of desire in the characters of The Pilgrim’s Regress.
The popular opinion shifts for the crowd is fickle. Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Dickinson have all gone in and out of popularity but all three remain part of the higher canon. At the same time, some of their works are more popular at times than others. Now is the time for Tale of Two Cities and not for Great Expectations. Now is the time for Crime and Punishment and not for The Idiot. In the same ways, certain Beatles songs are covered — or licensed for film scores — more in one year than in another. I highly doubt you’ll hear “You’ve got to admit it’s getting better, better all the time,” in the next year or so, but it was definitely popular about a year or two after the ’07 market crash.
And as for artistic integrity, it’s simply a judging for whether or not the author stayed true to the thesis and virtue of the work throughout — and even this is debatable. One need look no further than the Matthew McConaughey’s Lincoln commercials where he swears up and down, “I did it cause I liked it.” How do you parse that? Yes, he’s getting paid to do it, but he’s also a huge fan of Lincoln cars. Is that inauthentic? Is it a sell-out of his artistic integrity to make money off of what was always a part of him? And if that’s the case, can any of us ever make money from any of our passions?
I mean to muddy the waters.
That’s all. Good criticism is hard precisely because judgement is hard. Men will spend their whole life studying Spencer, Spielberg, or Stravinsky and find themselves more the beggar at the end of the journey than when they began, befuddled by more questions than answers, and humbled at the task ahead. Men like David Lee have spent years critiquing the feminine endings in Milton’s poetry only to find themselves writing poems about pigs. That’s what good, true, and beautiful art does to us: it strips us down to the bones of our being and forces us to beg like Oliver Twist for just a little more. If we’re lucky, at the end of the journey, we’ll find that we can give back to that basic goodness of being, that basic truth of consciousness, and that basic beauty of bliss. But we will do it in rags if we will do it at all.
Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish.
— St. Thomas Aquinas
Gerard Manly Hopkins said the just man justices. In the same way, the man whose life matches the criterion of beauty and truth is alone fit to criticize. Or as Jesus said, “Do not judge or you too will be judged, for to the measure that you judge it will be judged to you. How can you dig out that speck of sawdust from your neighbor’s eye while you have a telephone pole sticking out of your own? First remove the plank and then you will be able to see to remove the speck.”
I suppose another way of saying it is that the only way to be a good critic is to let all art — good art and bad art, false art and true, the beautiful and ugly — become no more than a catalyst by which to make you into a better and better man or woman. The good man alone is fit to judge:
“…for the great day of their wrath has come
and who can stand?”
cover image by Ben Sutherland