As an artist, a creator of new and unique material, I’m pretty useless. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that every good idea I’ve ever had has been either a ripoff of something that’s already been done, or an emulation of someone else. I am wholly unoriginal.
So what do I keep jabbering on about endlessly? Well, I think that I am, for the most part, a competent critic. But what does that even mean? What use do we as a society have for someone utterly incapable of original thought, but who will start dropping judgement like it’s hot at the slightest provocation about something of which they haven’t the slightest hope of creating anything comparable? And if conventional wisdom is true and everyone is a critic, what possible purpose can the critic ever hope to serve?
This is a problem that has been bothering me for some time now, but it was only recently that I arrived at some sort of answer, and like a true critic, the best way I can sum up my thoughts is with the words of another.
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations — the new needs friends.
Ringing any bells? It’s a line from Pixar’s 2007 cooking rat film, Ratatouille — esteemed food critic Anton Ego hits the nail squarely on the head with this bit from his review of Remy’s cooking at the climax of the film. Being a Pixar joint, I think everyone in the world has probably heard and digested this ages ago, but I only saw the film recently, and as silly as it sounds, I actually had a little moment of clarity when I heard the line, in a way that resolved something of an existential crisis that’s been building up at the back of my psyche for some time now.
When I like something, I tend to gush about it. Like, a lot. To just about anyone who will listen, regardless of whether anyone listening will care. Music, video games, people, whatever. It’s actually a bit of a problem, I think — a character flaw. Doesn’t this guy ever shut up?
But that’s exactly what the critic should do. Critics, first and foremost, should be fans of the media they critique, which means that nothing should thrill them more than a well done example of that medium. By the same token, nothing should irk them more than a poorly done example — with the possible exception of a poorly done example receiving the laudation of a well done example.
The point is, the purpose of the critic is to be raving fanboys of things they love, and the fiercest detractors of the things they hate. They should be effusive either way, and this is how they contribute to the advancement of art. After all, a work is only effective inasmuch as it can find an audience, and people will just keep making bullshit if they think they can get away with it.
The challenge, of course, is doing it in a way that people actually care about.
I’m still working on that part.