Spilling Over from Criticism Roundtable

Posted by on September 9th, 2010 at 8:31 AM

A roundtable discussion on criticism is raging under another heading, and a couple days ago, against my better judgement, I jumped in. Responses and reactions to which prompted another jump; ditto again, and another leap. But after that, I couldn’t find a button to press to reply, so now, I’m putting my response at the end of this posting, which begins with my first rash leap into the fray.

As a general rule, critics tend to take themselves more seriously than the rest of the world does. That’s no sin: everyone does it, regardless of their hobby horse: if the hobby horse rider doesn’t take himself seriously, who will?

But, seriously, a critic does what he does for what is a very shallow reason.

When I first set out to make a living in the world, I did it by teaching English in high school. Years later, one of my former students wrote and asked me why I chose teaching English as a profession. I thought about it and realized that I had no messianic purpose. I liked literature and I liked talking about it with others who liked literature and liked talking about it. I taught literature because that was a way of creating others who could talk about it in ways that were congenial with my own passion. It was a way of creating a conversation I enjoyed.

Ditto, in some fashion, comics criticism. I enjoy comics and I enjoy writing. Writing about comics combines both enjoyments. What I write is half a conversation that readers, in effect, overhear. And maybe they supply the other half of the conversation; most of the time, I don’t know if they do. But sometimes, I find others who enjoy comics and enjoy talking about the art form. And conversation ensues.

Sometimes my half of the conversation is simply: “I just read a good graphic novel, or a comic strip, or a comic book that I enjoyed and thought you might enjoy it, too. And here’s why.”

So much for high purpose in comics criticism.

It would also be nice, and highly beneficial to mankind and civilization as a whole, if everyone would do exactly as I tell them—if cartoonists reformed and perfected their practices in accordance with my prescriptions, if other so-called critics started talking about comics as a visual art form as well as a narrative one, and if the Grumpy Old Pachyderm became the GOP of “Yes.” But—well, I, like most critics, may be self-absorbed, but I’m not delusional. Not yet.

The other thing that criticism does, apart from gratifying the passions of the critic, is to enhance appreciation of the art being critiqued. In fact, I suggest that enhancing appreciation is the only legitimate function of criticism (beyond a critic’s self-indulgence).

(At this point, someone asked if I didn’t believe in negative criticism—particularly since I do my share of it. And then—what’s the purpose of “art” anyhow? Herewith, my responses to that—responses I couldn’t find a button to use to post in the original setting.)

Sometimes criticism is negative. Instead of pointing to something that might be enjoyable, the critic, in effect, says: If you’re looking for enjoyment, don’t look here. In a decidedly perverse way, this sort of guidance also enhances appreciation: instead of wasting your time here, look elsewhere.

The function of art, to pursue this topic into tedium, is to enhance enjoyment of life. A wise man once said, “The more things you like, the happier you’ll be.” Makes sense to me. Art—drawing, painting, music, and so forth—provide an assortment of things that one can choose from to like, thereby fostering one’s chances at being happy.

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6 Responses to “Spilling Over from Criticism Roundtable”

  1. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Hey Robert. Thanks for posting this in a more visible spot. Your comments on negative criticism make sense (I disagree at least somewhat, but they make sense!)

  2. Caro says:

    Thanks, Robert – I can only wish that art functioned just to enhance enjoyment of life (even though we’ll just have to disagree about how simple and universal “enjoyment” is) but art is used for everything from selling us things to cohering our social groups and setting the style and tone of a historical moment to propping up political regimes and instantiating, challenging and perpetuating political, aesthetic and other ideologies and philosophies — as well as teaching us about all those things and helping us see them more clearly. The idea that it’s about enjoyment and happiness is lovely, but incredibly naive.

  3. Rob Clough says:

    The function that art may serve (via either the intentionality of the artist and/or the way that art is appropriated by other political or cultural forces) and one’s own personal aesthetic reaction are two very different things. Criticism that serves as simply an exploration of one’s own reaction to the sublime (in a Kantian sense) is every bit as legitimate as criticism that takes into account those political, theoretical and cultural influences. Whether or not such criticism is actually interesting or useful is up to the individual reader, of course.

  4. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Hey Rob. I agree with you that criticism dealing with personal reactions is entirely legitimate. But R.C. is saying it’s *more* — or actually, uniquely — legitimate, isn’t he?

  5. R.C. Harvey says:

    Art wouldn’t work to do all the things you say it does, Caro, if it didn’t also, and probably primarily, enhance our enjoyment of life. We expect it to do that, and in that expectation, we attend to art even when it is chiefly selling us something or promoting a political position.

  6. WLLilly says:

    …For some further spilling over , to-day’s Non Sequiter has what I guess is rooted in a mastubation(Sp??) joke – speaking of characterizations which have been made of the form of criticism as a whole !