“Rag and bone shop” table surface in my studio

The New York Times Book Review last week had a simple headline: “Why Criticism Matters”. The editors set the stage by describing our current age as one where opinions are “offered instantly, effusively and in increasingly strident tones”—by anyone, anytime. So in that context it is reasonable to ask where the serious critic now sits in the cultural flow. “Where does it leave the critic interested in larger implications — aesthetic, cultural, moral?” Six critics were asked to explain what they do and why it matters, with Afred Kazin’s view of criticism as a tether point:

The critic, Kazin wrote, “is a thinker, and it is the force . . . of his thinking that gets him to say those things that the artist himself may value as an artist, the reader as a reader.” He “is not an artist,” Kazin asserted, “except incidentally.” Yet the critics Kazin commends all wrote in a high and even virtuosic style.

I found the essays remarkably varied, some more successful than others. My favorite was by critic/poet Adam Kirsch. Here’s a passage worth remembering from his essay:

If you are primarily interested in writing, then you do not need a definite or immediate sense of your audience: you write for an ideal reader, for yourself, for God, or for a combination of the three…Like everyone, I wonder whether a general audience, made up of what Virginia Woolf called “common readers,” still exists. If it does, the readership of The New York Times Book Review is probably it. But measured against the audience for a new movie or video game, or against the population as a whole, even the Book Review reaches only a niche audience. Perhaps the only difference between our situation and Arnold’s is that in Victorian England, the niche that cared about literature also happened to constitute the ruling class, while in democratic, mass-media America, the two barely overlap.

What this displacement takes from the critic in terms of confidence and authority, it perhaps restores to him in terms of integrity and freedom. Or maybe it’s just that, as a poet, I am all too used to making excuses for the marginality of a kind of writing that I continue to feel is important. Whether I am writing verse or prose, I try to believe that what matters is not exercising influence or force, but writing well — that is, truthfully and beautifully; and that maybe, if you seek truth and beauty, all the rest will be added unto you.

A similar statement could be made about painting, about the visual arts that actually produce that rarefied, old school thing called an artifact. I resonate with Kirsch’s point of view, paraphrased for those of us who are visual art makers:

What matters is not exercising influence or force, but painting well—that is, truthfully and beautifully; and that maybe, if you seek truth and beauty, all the rest will be added unto you.