Notes from the Cultural Wasteland
I've written a lot of articles for IMPACT and covered a lot of topics. None of them, to date, have gotten the quantity of response that my feature last month, "The Chaining of America," received. I think that's interesting. Obviously, the place of the corporate world in our culture is important to you, as is, I suppose, your place in that corporate world.
I've been feeling a little guilty about that story, though. You see, I said things in the article that weren't objectively true and complete. They weren't false, they just weren't true, in the sense that when you read, you expect to find accurate, objective reporting of facts. However, when I write for IMPACT, I do so as a critic--in this case a social critic--and critics are inherently inaccurate. Not wrong, necessarily, but for every answer to every question I put forth, there are one or two equally plausible answers.
Criticism is inherently inaccurate because it is inherently subjective. Unlike objective reporting, the facts are mainly there for analysis. A critic, however, sees a picture and must then interpret and evaluate it. He or she must perform that analysis using the tools and experience they bring to the process. Each critic brings with him or her a set of personal experiences through which the topic must be filtered; an agenda about which they wish to proselytize; a desire to be considered interesting and clever by their readers; a desire to please their editor; and, usually, a desire to either be liked by or to piss off the person or institution being critiqued.
Therefore, if you read a dozen different articles about Generation X in the workplace, for example, by a dozen different social critics, you'll get a dozen different, and often conflicting theories about "the problems" and "their solutions." A socialist, for example, might have sounded more like the letter in this issue, in which the writer chastises me for overlooking the "slave mentality" of today's worker. (NOTE: That's a good point. However, social critics from Malthus to Marx have written essentially the same thing over the last couple of centuries, and my desire to be considered clever and interesting led me to focus on those ideas I thought the readers would consider "new.")
On another hand, a religious-right critic might well postulate that the lack of quality in goods and services comes from a falling-away of traditional Christian values and the Puritan work ethic. Steve Allen might have said that the phenomenon occurs because of the "dumbing down" of America. Drucker, Covey, or Crosby might have said that the problems could easily be solved by reading their books or going to their seminars. Jello Biafra would have just ranted and raved. And so on.
Besides the social criticism I write for IMPACT, I write some arts criticism. That's an interesting process and an fascinating thing to look at from inside the critic's mind, from the point of view of the artist, and as someone with a stake in the success and growth of the performing arts in my community. Having just co-directed a play which received mixed reviews, I've recently had a lot of opportunities to deal with the effects of criticism on the artist. Also, I'll soon have the opportunity to review a new season's worth of theatrical production in a neighboring community, so I'll be dealing with all those subjective elements, too.
Lately, I've heard a lot of comments about critics and criticism, too--mostly from my cast and others around the theater, but also from friends and acquaintances who read one or more of the reviews. Soon, I'll probably receive comments about my own criticism--mainly from my editor. I probably don't know a lot of the people I'll review, since I leave my stomping grounds for this, but I'll occasionally hear from a mutual friend or get a letter.
One of the comments I hear most often (and this is usually from someone who mainly reads movie reviews): "I read the reviews, and if the critics like something, I don't see it. If they hate it, I do."
A couple of the more interesting things people have said to me about critics include, "I think (arts) criticism is an obsolete throw-back to the days before television. And nobody else gets reviewed; you don't see reviews about doctors or hardware stores--just arts and restaurants." Well, I've reviewed hardware stores, and doctors probably should get reviewed.
Here's one that I've heard a lot: "No one critiques the critics." That's an interesting one. Sometimes they are, but it's well after the fact, as in an anthology of Mark Twain's literary criticism, for example. If you look at the phenomenon historically, you'll see that criticism is one of the forces that shapes culture, so critics probably should get reviewed. More often, however, critics get paid to freely judge and evaluate the work of artists who, mainly for the love of culture, dedicate a lot of time and talent to its creation.
Since they sometimes hold a good deal of power over the success and even survival of an artist or institution, a critic should be held accountable. Their qualifications should fall under scrutiny--just because someone is a competent journalist does not mean that they are prepared to pass judgement on a work of art. Their political, social, and artistic agendas should be analyzed and evaluated for their integrity and for their potential effect on the artistic life of the community within which they earn their bread. Their cleverness as writers should be evaluated to ensure that it does not overwhelm the work reviewed.
However, the job is already pretty tough. Sitting through half-dozen plays or movies in a week--or even a month--is probably no picnic. Balancing your agenda to support the artistic community that supports you--versus your responsibility to the readers (and being willing, therefore, to point out when a work doesn't "work") could at times be a daunting task, as well.
Probably, no one is going to take on the task of reviewing the reviewers. So it's up to you. Read criticism critically. Realize that out of the thousand things that run through a critic's mind, he or she is forced to narrow them down to a few hundred word's worth or so. Above all, keep pointing out those things you find worth mentioning that the rest of us critics overlooked.
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