Arts, Column

A Portrait Of The Critic As An Old Man

The New York Times television critic Mike Hale spoke to the crowd in a dry tone, prefacing his lecture with the admission he might just be the least important person ever to speak at one of these events. His audience seemed broadly disinterested in his introduction. In time, the Fulton auditorium started thinning. Questions revealed many in the crowd were only interested in how Hale got his job, and the rest seemed bent on the opportunity to talk television with one of the industry’s elites.

Hale, however, was far from an elitist, working hard to denigrate his profession, speaking in simple terms about a job he described as little more than sitting down on a couch, watching television. His tone was dry, particularly when speaking about his career-but his eyes lit when he spoke of the “golden age” of criticism. Going to college, he’d spend days reading The New Yorker, moved by a team of writers who, according to his calculations, were doing better work than anything out there today.

The critic and the reporter once lived very different lives. Movies were a rarity, and reviews needed to be neither timely nor straight to the point. The critic wrote about the world as it was, and the reporter wrote about the world as it happened. Evidently, the reporter won.

Hale’s pattern of reading as a young adult in the 1970s is unlikely to experience a resurgence. He read by the issue, waiting for the next batch of reviews and reading in bulk. Seeing a movie was a luxury then-there still was a legitimate fear of wasting time and money on the wrong one. Today, reviews only have a strong effect in the aggregate, and in many ways, technology has managed the risks associated with entertainment. Critical consensus has never been more powerful, while critical opinion grows into little more than a formality, qualifying these scores for an impatient audience

As a writer, I get frustrated when publications like Rolling Stone magazine, given a national audience, keep most reviews no longer than a skimpy paragraph. As a reader, however, I seldom find myself motivated to read more than that.

Hale spoke of a changing climate working at The New York Times, how younger writers are encouraged to keep Twitter accounts and blogs and expected at once to report and review, two functions Hale considers in part irreconcilable-it’s near impossible to write a review on someone’s work without considering the fact that same person is a source of information and potential interview.

Around the conclusion of his talk, Hale addressed the question of how much his reviews influence the opinions of television viewers. At that point, I anticipated his answers: not much at all. At best, he reckoned his reviews might encourage producers to give a floundering series another season. His was a dismal science, and he spoke to the crowd of students knowing well they would never make a career doing the work he did.

I wonder if anything will be lost in our records as criticism turns to recap. As technologies for valuing entertainment become more refined, our sense of what they’re actually gauging grows increasingly abstract. While most can sense a good movie, album, or television series, this sense of “goodness” is seldom experienced as more than a feeling. Walking out of a movie, it’s commonplace to argue about a piece of the plot, but it’s never clear that any one of these points, or even the aggregate of them, constitute a good film. There’s an incessant want in viewers to create arguments justifying an inexplicable sense of “like.”

Should the death of the critic then be taken as a welcome development? Were a critic’s opinions always arbitrary, or is criticism the lost art Hale suggests it to be?

Pure reporting on the arts inevitably omits many of the important details. Even the most thorough recap is unlikely to convey what a television show’s about. The trouble in removing criticism from the way we write about the arts is that the arts don’t “happen” in the way a news story does. A murder is a murder, regardless of who observes it, apart from anything that murder might have meant. The arts, on the other hand, never happen  objectively-the real story is in the observation of the act.

Kill the critic, end the show.


March 12, 2014