M H Vanstone - m.h.vanstone@gmail.com - criticism

The Problem of Plenitude

The past several decades have witnessed the increasing dismantlement of age-old power structures across a variety of artistic fields. Technological advancement has led to the greater democratization of art (I use this in the broadest sense of the term) appreciation, creation, and commentary, helping to simultaneously undermine both institutational gatekeeping and the dominance of the mass media and its commodity-driven outlook.

This transformation of the artistic landscape is still very much a work in progress, as marginalized voices continue to lack adequate attention and platforms despite growing efforts toward inclusivity. Nonetheless, the possibility to find a potential audience has likely never been greater, and the ability of creators to independently find patronage for their works has served to alleviate reliance on public and private (corporate) funding. 

But while the proliferation of creators and commentators continues to reconfigure the systems through which we find and engage artworks, which is a movement long overdue in the history of art, this transition, as all tend to do, has brought with it a host of new problems, including the increasing segregation of works (almost by necessity) into artistic enclaves, a dramatic imbalance in the ratio of creators to publishers, and the diminution of traditional criticism as a standard-setting entity, to name just a few. 

The fall of the traditional critic (be it art, literature, film, music, etc.) perhaps relates in some way to all of these issues, as the critic once served as a public curator and artistic guidepost. The overthrowing of the traditional critic by the masses has represented an important step in wrestling tastemaking away from an elite cadre of professionals, but the revolution has seemed to leave us with no overarching standard, or, what amounts to the same thing, a proliferation of standards to the point of self-negation, a kind of critical nominalism. 

The traditional critic hasn’t just been pushed aside but seems the target of genuine disdain. Nowhere is this clearer than in the realm of contemporary mainstream cinema, where viewer ratings overrun and obliterate whatever critical commentary exists on a given film. “Who are they to tell me what is good?” “It’s all subjective anyway.” If blindly following and feeling beholden to the dictates of “experts” was one problem, a naive arrogance and total disrespect for well-articulated opinions is another.  

One might legitimately ask why we even need a standard. Why not simply let the variety of voices and styles continue to develop themselves? Who really needs someone to comment on all this? The answers here are many. For one, the striving for some kind of standard, whether or not it can be achieved, naturally drives artistic development. There has to be an idea of how a film, song, or book should be for any kind of galvanizing effect to take place among creators, and this is the service the critic once provided. Lacking any ideal whatsoever leaves us in a sort of artistic relativism, with no real goal in sight, and no real criticisms to be made about anything.

The quality of criticism and conversation about artworks always correlates to the quality of the materials produced. The increasingly nuanced attention that is generated by any sustained critical community raises the bar for artworks and serves to spur them on. Observe any product area with a thriving community of commentary and notice the rapid development of the former. Criticisms received make a thing better over time. Herein lies the difference between criticism and reviews. We do each other no favours by merely summarizing and pointing out strong points. 

Oddly enough, it is among the zealots of some of the largest entertainment franchises that any kind of rigorous criticism is maintained today. Many a Star Wars fan will give you a more intelligent, nuanced criticism of one of the films than the majority of criticism done on any dramatic title. And whether or not this is merely the product of a nerdy obsessiveness, and regardless of the effect that this criticism has on the actual making of the films (which seems to be next to none), a standard is nonetheless rigorously kept. Firm expectations exist. And so, regardless of the outcome, the work seems to have stakes. 

Without these stakes, without any goal and the possibility of failing to achieve it, we languour in a dispassionate economy of lifeless sharing. Ironically, what we need back is precisely what we sought to overthrow in the first place, though reformulated for the present time. This means no dogmatic domineering or elitism, as well as a broader understanding and appreciation of artistic approaches. It means an eye for the impossible, for the as yet unrecognizable technique and style. It does not mean abandoning any sense of direction or ideal. But having opened the pandora’s box of public opinion, is respect for such a figure even possible?