Jun 11, 2009

Criticism, Honestly

A nice shout-out from LA Times' Charles McNulty on the new American Theatre Reader, in which he aptly describes some of the internal contradictions and contending forces at my new place of employment, and goes on to smartly highlight Julius Novick's superlative piece "The Critical Instinct." Setting up and quoting Novick:
Good criticism, Novick argues, isn’t anonymous, with the writer’s identity bleached out or subsumed into a newspaper masthead. It’s an encounter--an interaction, really--between an individual sensibility and a unique manifestation of the art form.

“To be truly honest,” Novick writes, “is to be engaged in a never-ending fight against a never-ending human capacity for self-deception. Nobody wins that fight all the time, but a good critic is constantly pressing himself to discover what he really thinks and feels, what’s really going on.”

Novick's piece echoes my favorite piece on the true nature and value of the critic, Fintan O'Toole's dozen-year-old piece for the Economist (I've posted it here), in which O'Toole makes a similar point in slightly narrower terms:

Critics should be honest enough to accept that they represent nobody but themselves--not the art form, not even in any real sense the newspapers that employ them. Their job is not to report on how a work was received by an audience. It is not to sell books or tickets. It is not to reform or mould the practice of theatre or music or poetry. And it is not to maintain, as arbiters of taste and value, the authority of the institutions who print their opinions.

The job of the critic is to try to ignore the magnifying effect of print and hyperbole, to preserve a sense of proportion, and to give a genuinely individual opinion. It is a modest but by no means a contemptible task. And it is one that is inextricable from the artistic process itself.

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