The critics of the world are puzzling to me. I am puzzled not only by what they say, but how they become experts in the particular activities they critique. I have always seen myself as the possessor of normal intelligence and on good days think I may even belong on the plus side of that bell-shaped curve. But when I read some of the reviews of music, books, movies, art and even scientific articles, I realize how really stupid I must be. I often have no idea what they are talking about, and wonder if I am on the wrong page.
It reminds me of something one of my patients said when describing his former psychiatrist’s intelligence. His assessment was: “He was so smart that I could hardly understand a word he said.” I admit that I have used the big word tactic in the past hoping to impress people of my superior intellect, and with that in mind have accumulated several multi-syllabic ones which I keep in reserve for special occasions, but I could never compete with these guys in the weird word department.
Most of my exposure to critics comes from the several publications to which I subscribe (and sometimes even read). Much of human behavior can be explained in my opinion by our origins as herd animals, and to be a good member of the herd one must follow the leader or in this case the expert. As a relatively compliant human I tend to take seriously the critics’ recommendations, but often find their assessment so far from mine that I have difficulty touting it to others. All is not lost in those situations for it gives me the opportunity to let my audience know that I am well read and something of a connoisseur myself. If that is well received I may even launch an attack on the critic.
Their in-depth analyses especially of artistic stuff runs so deep that I often find myself drowning. It has been said that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and I suppose that also applies to ugliness. For example, the music that is pleasing to my grandchildren is experienced by me as simply loud and irritating noise. This would not likely result in an objective review by me of the latest hip hop or rap song. In like fashion, my parents were turned off by the swing music of the ’40s and ’50s with which I grew up.
Art: Ugly or Genius?
Nowhere is the critic more likely to wax poetic than when reviewing visual art. For me a painting for example is either pleasing or not, but these guys find hidden meanings which continue to be invisible to me even after they point them out. I am very fond of the impressionists who were the “Polly-Annas” of the art world in that they chose to enhance the beauty of things they portrayed. I do realize that ugly has a legitimate placed in the art world. If the purpose of art is to elicit emotions, then art can be a powerful tool which forces us to face the world’s ugliness. Unfortunately, it appears to me that much art that is ugly was not intended to be so, nevertheless it may be taken by some critics to be a mark of genius. It has occurred to me that were Picasso to have shown up in an art therapy session in my hospital and do his cubism thing, I would have set about forming a plan of treatment for his psychosis.
Could this be yet another example of the “Tail Wagging the Dog?”
The better-known critics have a great deal of power. A favorable review from a big-time critic can put a starving artist into a much higher tax bracket, or conversely send him looking for a low paying day job. Many critics become celebrities in their own right. I can only imagine how many wannabes would gladly suck up to an art critic from the New York Times. Likewise, a visit from one of these gurus must be a major coup for a gallery owner. With all this influence available could it be that this is another example of the tail wagging the dog? Are the ever-changing fads in art due to boredom with the status quo or simply another instance of follow the leader?
Poetry: Schizophrenic Word Salad or Genius?
Perhaps the most glaring example of my literary deficiency lies in the inability to understand much of contemporary poetry. Admittedly, when it comes to poetry, I am a simple-minded person of the roses are red, violets are blue category. However, I recently inadvertently read a rave review of a book of poetry and subsequently happened on one of the poems in that collection. It reminded me of the “word salad” sometimes heard from those who suffer from a severe form of schizophrenia. The alleged profound thoughts these words were to elicit never reached my brain. It probably sounds heretical to many, but I can’t help wondering if I am really missing something or if these guys are just blowing smoke.
Art: The Language of Feelings
As you might expect, an old-fashioned guy like me is a big fan of Robert Frost. I must have been in junior high school when I first read his classic “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” After all these years I am amazed at how it still takes me to that place and time, and leaves me in that snowy place for a minute or so. Were I a critic, I might describe the last three lines of the poem (“I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep “) as a metaphor for life, but I choose to simply luxuriate in the feelings the poem elicits. When I attempt to define those feelings, I am at a loss for words, but perhaps that is what art is all about i.e. the language of feelings.
Music is another category of which I am blissfully ignorant. Having flunked out of a couple of attempts to learn to play a musical instrument, I am vaguely aware of the complexities involved, and have the greatest respect for musicians of all stripes not only for their talent but dedication and work ethic. Nevertheless; since I am unencumbered by enough knowledge to analyze music I am left free to either enjoy or abhor it
When it comes to movie critics, my favorite hands down was the Siskel and Ebert TV show which lasted nearly 25 years. These two guys who must have spent most of their waking hours watching movies presented their opinions of current movies. The interesting part was that they frequently and sometimes violently disagreed in their critiques. Their debates demonstrated that pronouncements by experts are by definition subjective.
Where the Critics Really Shine: Scientific Literature
None of this is meant to diminish the value of critics for we are in need of those who can sort through the massive amounts of information dumped on us, and make recommendations. Nowhere are critics not only important but essential than in scientific literature. Studies are often very complex and beyond our ability to understand. Fortunately, there are always other scientists familiar with the subject at hand who are passionate about the pursuit of truth, eager to examine the data, and study the design and conclusions.
The Undiscovered Geniuses are Waiting…
No matter the subject scrutinized, it behooves us to remember that that in most cases such critiques are only opinions, and one should not close their mind to other possibilities. Undoubtedly, there are many undiscovered geniuses among us. What a tragedy if there were a Michelangelo or Shakespeare out there somewhere lost in the crowd.
P. S.To the best of my knowledge there are no blog critics active as yet, but if you happen to be one please be merciful.