The Best Response to Art Is Art

Considering the “declining authority of the critic,” Morgan Meis argues that the answer is to see the critic not as a judge but as a participant:

I call that other kind of criticism, the kind that doesn’t rely on authority and judgment, Romantic criticism. I call it that because of what I learned, long ago, from that melancholic and suicidal German, Walter Benjamin. Early in his career, Benjamin wrote a typically esoteric and maddeningly impenetrable essay called “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism.” There is much in that essay that I take to be wrong. There is something in it that I suspect to be crazy. But there is an important idea in it, too, an idea that took its first form in the ramblings of men like Friedrich Schlegel and the poet Novalis. The idea is that criticism does not stand outside the work of art, but stands alongside, maybe even inside, the work of art, participating in the work in order to further express and tease out what the artist already put there. In this theory of criticism, we don’t need the critic to tell us what is good or bad, to tell us what to like and dislike. We need the critic, instead, to help us experience.

I obviously agree, as this is something I’ve been saying for quite some time, even going so far as to publish J.C. Hallman’s introductory essay to his volume of creative criticism in The Quarterly Conversation.

I still do think a critic’s role also pertains to defining and applying criteria, more so than people primarily focused on writing novels, etc, but there is obviously more than one way to do this. You can do it in a way that disgraces the text and makes people think it’s some horrid, complex thing that they, mere readers, could never understand themselves. Or you can do it in a way that, as Meis says, invites readers to participate in an experience and that send them, energized toward the text. I great example of the latter than I recently read would be Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, which enacts his feelings on D.H. Lawrence through comedic and highly entertaining stories about his own life. By the end of the book, Dyer has made his personal, idiosyncratic case for the worth of Lawrence (and the writings of Lawrence he finds most compelling) in a way that’s much much more memorable and inspiring than many a piece of criticism I’ve read on the man.

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[…] And Morgan Meis defends the role of the critic in a time when the critic’s role as a cultural arbiter has been pretty much annihilated by collaborative filtering. “We need the critic, instead, to help us experience. We need the critic in the way that we need a friend or a lover. We need the critic as a companion on a journey that is a love affair with the things of the world.” Meis is halfway there. We also need the critic as the person who is going to challenge the received notions of “good” culture via collaborative filter, if not to conquer the filter then at least to point out that the eager consumer can dispute it. We need the critic in the way we need a frenemy. (via) […]


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