In Defence of Criticism: A Short Essay

To Criticise or Not To Criticise?

You hear criticism and you probably don’t think much of the term (or you may be suspicious) — if that is the case, you are not without reason. We often use the word “criticism” in the negative. For instance, you might have said: “I didn’t like how X criticised my cooking skills.”

Even the first definition of Oxford Languages for criticism is “the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.”  The second definition of the term is “the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work.” Some of the most famous authors you know were critics as well as artists: Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, to name a few. You might think criticism an objective term, a term for the cynics and the dismissive, the high-and-mighty, but it doesn’t have to be so.

Still, critics of art and literature (especially those who practise it as their profession) do tend to have a bad reputation; precisely because of the negative connotations of the word. Author Ernest Hemingway, for instance, wrote frequently about his hatred of critics. In a 1925 letter, he complained of the profession, saying: “God knows people who are paid to have attitudes toward things, professional critics, make me sick; camp following eunuchs of literature. They won’t even whore. They’re all virtuous and sterile. And how well meaning and high minded. But they’re all camp followers.”  

Hemingway, who was never one to shy away from a binary opposition, placed the critics in direct contrast to the artist: the critic is sterile and high-minded; the writer is fertile and earthly. But the two, as other authors have proved, can co-exist. In “The Critic as Artist ” by Oscar Wilde, one of the characters, who funnily enough is named Ernest, asks: “But, seriously speaking, what is the use of art-criticism? Why cannot the artist be left alone, to create a new world if he wishes it….It seems to me that the imagination spreads, or should spread, a solitude around it, and works best in silence and isolation. Why should the artist be troubled by the shrill clamour of criticism? Why should those who cannot create take upon themselves to estimate the value of creative work? What can they know about it?”

The Use of Criticism

Ernest and Hemingway share more similarities than just their name. For instance, Hemingway by calling a critic “sterile” insinuates that the critic is incapable of artistic creation. Ernest makes the same point when he states, “Why should those who cannot create take upon themselves to estimate the value of creative work?” Note how Ernest said that the critic cannot  create as opposed to will not create. According to both Ernest and Hemingway, the critic simply cannot create and is resentful of the fact. Remorseful and bitter, the critic then turns elsewhere: namely, to criticism, to pick a bone with those that do and can create. 

Gilbert, upon hearing the accusations of Ernest, replies by using the example of poet Robert Browning: “Where one had hoped that Browning was a mystic,” he says, “they have sought to show that he was simply inarticulate. Where one had fancied that he had something to conceal, they have proved that he had but little to reveal.” What Gilbert reveals here is the ability of the critic to evaluate art, to think about art in a greater context, not uncritically gaping in awe praising obscurity for mysticism or barrenness for purposeful concealment, but having the responsibility to pass empirical judgement. Ernest accuses Gilbert of being unjust, adding that “in the best days of art there were no art-critics.” The best days of art for Gilbert were to be found in Classical Greece. He declares that the “Greeks had no art-critics.” Gilbert answers, “It would be more just to say that the Greeks were a nation of art-critics.” 

Here, you might pause. I have bombarded you with unnecessary words, I have even stated the critic has “a responsibility”. The only responsibility a critic has is perhaps to themselves and to their tastes. When a book speaks to you, finding exactly what it is that elicits such a reaction will not only reinforce you with a better understanding of the book, it will also give you the opportunity to explore different sides of the book that you may have not previously considered. On the other hand, it is infinitely better to be able to justify exactly what it is that you don’t like about a work of art. I remember, many moons ago, I was on a school trip to an art gallery and I whispered to a friend about a painting: “I don’t know; it just gets my goat; it makes me angry.” I left it there. But returning back to it many years later I realised that the lines jumped in all sorts of discordant directions, there was too much red, too much vigour. Perhaps, it was the vitality of the painting that had intimidated me, or not having a vocabulary to express how I felt.

The Critic as Artist

But, back to Wilde. For Gilbert, “Life and Literature, life and the perfect expression of life” are the “two supreme and highest arts.” He notes that “[r]ecognising that the most perfect art is that which most fully mirrors man in all his infinite variety, they elaborated the criticism of language, considered in the light of the mere material of that art.” Gilbert here constitutes criticism as an art; not to be opposed to but to function alongside the rest of the arts: whether it is music, visual art, or literature. He goes on to explain, albeit flippantly on some occasions Ernest would have us know, the many different modes of criticism. Most remarkably, he mentions Plato who treated art from a moral standpoint, examining the ways art was capable of influencing character, its importance to culture and Aristotle who judged art from a purely aesthetic point of view, assessing it materially, methodically: the theatric presentation, for instance, or the structure of a play, the subject-matter, and the very conditions of art are all subjects that Aristotle examined and cared for. 

When you are in front of a painting or when you read a book (and consequently pass a judgement), you are actively creating. In How Literature Plays with the Brain: The Neuroscience of Reading and Art by Paul B. Armstrong, Armstrong notes how art aids the brain: “Humans apparently have a capacity for neurogenesis similar to what has been found in canaries, whose brains can propagate new neurons in areas used for learning songs, or in rats, whose hippocampus….may expand in a rich learning environment. If so, then there are three primary sources of plasticity in the brain: (1) new neurons may be spawned as a result of learning and memory; (2) particular neurons may develop special proclivities depending on their history of use; and (3) neurons wiring together as they fire together in the multidirectional interaction that can occur between different regions may result in the brain’s restructuring itself after repeated experiences.”        

In an article from 2016 titled “Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ Responses Following Art Making,” researchers Girija Kaimal, Kendra Ray, and Juan Muniz found that the participants’ cortisol levels had significantly lowered after an art-making session. If we follow down the route that Wilde suggested and embrace the idea that critics are also artists, then the very act of engaging with different works of art doesn’t only create new neurons, new pathways and different ways of thinking, it can also result in lowering your levels of anxiety and stress (which are often worsened by high levels of cortisol).

You Are A Critic, Too

Oscar Wilde might come to haunt me in my sleep or burden me with his Canterville ghost (or he might not), but I do think that everyone is and can be a critic. Anyone can be an artist too — but whether you are a good one on both counts can be a different matter entirely. In my field, we are literary critics as much as we are researchers and I draw an infinite amount of pleasure by evaluating Ernest Hemingway’s works, though I have realised that criticism follows you outside work hours. You are probably doing this unconsciously. My desire to talk about criticism probably stems from the fact that I haven’t been in an art gallery in a really long time and I miss thinking with other people; observing their reactions to art. 

My favourite moments in those mystical (mystical until you decipher ‘em!) encounters with art are when you can see the bodily reactions before the verbal: a small parting of the lips, the flush of colour in the cheeks, the widening of the eyes, the dilation of the pupils — all indicators that you have been captured by this invisible force. You are trapped in the web of a black widow spider. Is this a silly thing to say? Sometimes this is what it feels like. Every Lucian Freud or Francis Bacon painting is a big, sticky web. And then there is a moment of silence as you trace the words on a page, as you look at the corners of a painting. You soon realise that your engagement with a work of art isn’t some arbitrary and fanciful reaction and you aren’t trapped after all: it is an intoxicating concoction of colours, shapes, forms that you can decipher and break down as surely and materially as you can decipher chemical compounds. 

When you have a chance to read Wilde’s entire essay (you can find it here), some eyebrows might be raised. Here you have two upper-middle class men (by the sounds of it), sharing expensive cigars, talking about music and art, undoubtedly sitting surrounded by velvet and silk. You might say, “Elena, you are such a doofus, Ernest Hemingway was right — critics are high-minded, privileged, and nonsensical” but remember that Oscar Wilde’s entire schtick was decadence and aestheticism (l’art pour l’art) and as a critic, you ought to evaluate Wilde based on that precise context. 

When I first came across Oscar Wilde, I was a mere teenager sneaking The Picture of Dorian Gray in my mathematics and physics class. I don’t know whether I did it out of rebellion or because I couldn’t stand the sight of letters posing as numbers. I could only dream of the lustre and finesse, but I was quite aware I could never obtain it. Fast forward to a decade later and I found myself in Paris, looking after intoxicated American students in the evenings as a resident assistant, sneaking into art galleries in the morning just to stand in front of Manet’s Olympia (1856) or Mark Rothko’s White and Greens on Blue (1957), the former part of the permanent collection of Musée d’Orsay, the latter a temporary loan for an exhibition on The Water Lilies at Musée de l’Orangerie. Looking at the painting themselves, sleep-deprived and probably a little bit dehydrated, was as good as any shot of espresso. I thought myself a critic then — you don’t have to have a cigar to be one, after all. You don’t need to be up in an ivory tower. 

This essay was originally written for SASiety, a postgraduate blog written by postgraduate students at School of Advanced Study, University of London, and can be read here.

Published by Elena Zolotariov

Elena Zolotariov reads, writes, and researches literature. She is an English literature graduate of Aberystwyth University, where she completed her BA Hons in 2017, and the University of Kent’s Paris School of Arts and Culture, where she gained her MA (Dist.) in 2019. She will begin her PhD research later this year, focusing on the life and works of Ernest Hemingway. In the meantime, she will be blogging here about books, art, and contemporary culture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: