I dislike when people say things like, “How dare he pan my movie. He could never make this movie himself.” Critics are not in the business of making the things they criticize. They perform completely separate jobs that need to be evaluated on their own terms. Here are some things a critic can do:
– Critic as Filter: I cannot consume all movies, books, and food. A critic giving a work a good review saves me the time of sifting through garbage.
– Critic as Dessert: After I enjoy a work of art, I enjoy hearing other people’s thoughts on it. I get to enjoy the work further.
– Critic as Steward: The critic can influence what types of works are created—she can influence the zeitgeist. A good critic will direct creative people to lovely and fertile pastures.
– Critic as Haranguer: A critic can criticize the moral and factual beliefs that are on display in a work. If you want to criticize the ideas of the day, a useful way to do this is to criticize these ideas as they manifest in popular media.
– Critic as Enhancer: A critic can focus attention on important themes, and highlight things I might have missed. A critic can increase my enjoyment by making salient the subtle yet compelling aspects of a work.
– Critic as Biographer: It’s fun to learn about the people who make the art we love. Especially given that much of great art has a distinctive individuality to it. A critic can help introduce us to the artist.
If you want to criticize a critic say, “They don’t pick movies most people tend to enjoy,” or “They are boring,” or “They are wrong about this artist’s motivation.” Saying, “They could never make the movie themselves” is silly. Critics aren’t claiming they could make the works of art themselves, and we should be criticizing them for being ineffective critics not ineffective artists.
In the movie Ratatouille, the character Anton Ego says,“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
Anton Ego has an unjustifiably low view of critics. Critic as Filter and Critic as Steward are perfectly meaningful activities. They are not meaningful for the same reasons a work of art is meaningful, but who cares? Why would we judge critics by the same standards as artists? We don’t criticize tour guides for things we criticize cities for: “Bob the tour guide doesn’t have affordable lodging.” A tour guide is not a city. A critic is not an artist. We still need tour guides.