Do critics and criticism still matter to Americans?

BOOKS; THE ARGUMENT

Explosion of the mass-culture market has given the consumer authority that overshadows the experts.

October 03, 1999|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,Special to the Sun

''We're starting to wonder whether anybody really wants to read criticism anymore," the culture editor of a well-known magazine recently told me. Time was when I would have been shocked by such a statement -- but times and tastes are changing, and editors are taking note. For years, American magazines and newspapers have been slowly cutting back on review space and running more personality-driven features instead; Talk, Tina Brown's new magazine, publishes no criticism of any kind, save for an occasional book review.

We've come a long way from the '40s and '50s, the era famously dubbed "the Age of Criticism" by the poet-critic Randall Jarrell. This, mind you, was also the age of the middlebrow, the American who was neither high nor low in his tastes but simply thought it important to know what was going on in the world of art -- and could find out by paying a visit to the nearest newsstand.

Back then, virtually every important newspaper and magazine, whether intellectual or popular, covered the arts regularly and seriously. Edmund Wilson was the New Yorker's literary critic; the New York Herald Tribune published Virgil Thomson and Edwin Denby, respectively the best classical music and dance critics of the century. The Nation fielded a blue-chip lineup of reviewers unrivaled before or since: James Agee on film, Clement Greenberg on art, B. H. Haggin on music and Diana Trilling on fiction.

Where did all the great critics go? The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Michael Kammen argues in "American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the 20th Century" (Knopf, 352 pages, $30) that as traditional popular culture gave way to mass culture, aggressively manufactured and marketed by such institutions as film and TV studios and record companies, the American middle class simultaneously grew in numbers, purchasing power -- and self-confidence.

"A film or a rock group or a play [musical or dramatic]," Kammen writes, "may not be well received by critics, yet enjoy considerable success at the box office nevertheless. Moreover, it can also happen that movies admired by the critics may fail to achieve popular appeal. That is a significant aspect of the democratization of culture. Cultural expertise ... does not possess the influence that it did earlier in the twentieth century."

This decline in influence arose in part from the fact that what Kammen calls mass culture (most people refer to it as "pop culture") is by definition more readily accessible than the high culture of the museum and concert hall.

This isn't to say it's not good. In fact, more than a few critics have argued that the best of American culture -- jazz, movies, the detective novel -- is popular in origin. But most pop culture, having been specifically designed for easy digestibility, is not complex enough to support full-fledged aesthetic criticism, any more than Coca-Cola, satisfying though it may be, can be written about in the same way as, say, a vintage Bordeaux.

Meanwhile, academic attitudes toward high culture underwent an equally significant change. In the Age of Criticism, it was taken for granted that quality was the ultimate aesthetic criterion and that some art objects were of objectively higher quality than others. A hierarchy of value was assumed -- Mozart was better than Duke Ellington, who in turn was better than Elvis Presley -- and the chief function of criticism was to correctly place the art object in this hierarchy.

Today, though, most academic critics believe that there are no objective aesthetic values and that standards of "quality" are imposed by those in power -- that the only reason we think Mozart better than Ellington is because the ruling class has taught us to think so.

As early as 1971, Clement Greenberg was warning, in a lecture collected in the newly published "Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste" (Oxford, 192 pages, $30), that critics of the day were "expected to be commentators, idea men, sloganeers, phrase-makers, ideologues, but not connoisseurs. When an art critic explicitly discriminates quality and, above all, when he goes into detail about quality with a specific work of art -- that is, when he exerts his taste -- he is taken to be old-fashioned." Things have gone much further since then: such critics are now thought not merely to be old-fashioned but reactionary, even fascist.

To be sure, the very best academic criticism has much to teach us in its tough-minded insistence that no work of art can be fully understood when divorced from its social context. But a criticism that flatly dismisses quality as an illusion can tell us nothing of value about the immediate experience of art. Such "critics" look at a canvas by Cezanne and talk about how much the paint cost or the way in which the artist's choice of subject was affected by the fact that he had a private income. "But is it beautiful?" we ask. "Who cares?" they reply.

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