Tag Archives: Michael Arlen

The Great Appreciators

Informed criticism is clearly diminished as a cultural mainstay, in part because we have made it so much easier to produce and distribute simulations of cultural products.

This is an era in American life where the young seem as interested in becoming content creators than content appreciators. To be sure, this is a broad  and inexact distinction. But it is clear that a large segment of younger Americans today are ready to self-identify as musicians, songwriters, filmmakers, writers or audio producers, without much experience or training. The results are usually predictably modest: unplanned videos, under-edited and “published” books, magazine-inspired blogs, or derivative music produced in front of a computer.  Without doubt, serendipity has always had a place in producing wonderful new talent. But it is also true that more of us want to count ourselves as being a part of the broad media mix made possible with nearly universal internet access. It’s now hardly surprising to meet a middle schooler who edits their own videos or, after a fashion, curates their own web presence.  As You Tube demonstrates, self-produced media content is unmistakably popular.

If this first quarter of the new century is the age of the content producer, it seems that—broadly speaking—the last half of the previous century was an era for witnessing and reflecting on breathtaking talent. The decline of this impulse is a loss. An appreciator is more than a consumer. These are folks with an understanding of the history and conventions of a form, with an equal interest in exploring how new works can build on and stretch the most stale of cultural ideas. The best work of appreciators can be cautionary, encouraging, or fire us with the enthusiasm that comes with new insights. Productive analysis can help us fathom what we do not yet understand.

               Pauline Kael

In the previous century, critics and essayists of all kinds of art were ubiquitous. Periodicals and big city newspapers routinely published considered assessments of trend-setters in popular culture, fiction, television, theater and film. Some combined their pieces in book-length studies of the period that are still worth reading. Michael Arlen and Neil Postman wrote insightful analyses of news and entertainment television. Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert were among many popular reviewers producing novel assessments of films and the film industry. They were matched by music critics like Michael Kennedy, Dave Marsh, Gene Lees and Donal Hanahan, who provided appraisals of performers and performances. Their counterparts in the visual arts included writers like Robert Hughes, Walter Benjamin, and Jerry Saltz: all exploring the vagaries of talent and caché in that enigmatic world.

Among countless publications, readers poured over this criticism in the pages of The Dial, The New Yorker, Gramophone, Paris Review, Harpers, The Atlantic, New York Review of Books and Rolling Stone. And no self-respecting daily newspaper considered itself complete without its own music and film critics. Bigger city papers also added performance reviews of dance, along with the assessments from urbanists of a city’s newest additions to its skyline.

Even beyond obvious and daily samples of book and theater reviews in many Twentieth Century news outlets, there was an entire world of appreciators with appetites for reconsidering the rivers of culture that came from distant headwaters. For example, Gramophone was founded in 1923 by the Scottish author Compton Mackenzie, who understood that there was an appetite for essays about the composers and performers captured in the new electrical recordings of the time. He proved the unlikely proposition that many wanted to read about music almost as much as they wanted to hear it.

Criticism has Diminished as a Cultural Mainstay

                       Susan Sontag

With video and digital media still mostly in the future, Americans in the first half of the century, had the time and the will to know the backstories of the cultural products of the day. Indeed, some writers like Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Janet Malcom became intellectual thought leaders. They helped to explain what artistic mastery should look like. And they had the counterparts in a range of academic thinkers—T.W. Adorno, David Riesman, Marshall McLuhan and Kenneth Burke, for example—whose deeper cultural probes would soak into the fabric of the nation’s undergraduate curriculum. Sampling the output of so many professional appreciators would keep liberal arts students preoccupied for years, and sometimes forever.

        Toland Image From Scene from Citizen Kane

To be sure, our interest in the understandings the nation’s cultural output has not vanished. But criticism is clearly diminished as a cultural mainstay, in part because we have made it so much easier to produce and distribute simulations of cultural products. I use the word “simulations” because the impulse to be a content producer often bypasses the intellectual labor that comes in value-added art. So many today proceed without a grounding in the canons of a particular form: its histories, possibilities, and innovators. I suspect the desire to be an immediate practitioner in a realm that is barely understood is usually fed by the promise of fame. The result, as my colleagues in film sometimes lament, is that students want to be producers of video stories before the have considered the durable conventions of narrative: for example, the norms of a written screenplay, or how this first written map is converted into the visual “language” and grammar of film. To cite a specific case, it would be useful for a young filmmaker to know how cinematographer Greg Toland used light and shadow to create the unmistakable visual palette of Citizen Kane (1941), or how Steven Spielberg and John Williams exploited the tricky business of musical underscoring to leave audiences suitably terrified by Jaws (1975).

In our schools and colleges, the equipment to make art is frequently made available to students who have only rudimentary understandings of how they might be used. The youthful conceit that progress is made by setting aside what has come before is mostly an excuse to avoid the work of contemplation that creates competence and a lasting passion for an art form.

The Pleasures of Criticism

Good criticism ‘opens up’ our understanding of an object, idea or event: what its presence can mean as part of the human experience. 

                                 Paul Goldberger

The title here may be misleading.  I have no interest in selling the idea that harsh judgments are ‘fun’ to make.  That’s what “criticism” can mean.  But it isn’t what I think of when I use the term.  I’m more interested in its second and less common meaning: writing that combines analysis and assessment of the most interesting forms of expressive activity.  Criticism is a sustained and considered effort to understand a new project: usually the work of an artist or innovator interested in moving beyond the strictly utilitarian. Critics try to make sense of what these people have done or perhaps failed to do.  They may come from academic or journalistic organizations, or freelance on their own.

Almost every field–from architecture to food–has potential ‘appreciators’ who profess to use fresh eyes and ears to extend our understanding about a particular effort.  Criticism can be as accessible as reviews of new books, plays or music in a news outlet like the New York Times.  It can also be seen in the rarer video essays of Anthony Bourdain, Leonard Bernstein or Michael Tilson Thomas.  Some efforts stand as monumental and single works of sustained analysis, like like Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950. (Oxford, 1975).  And some can be impressive panoramas that leave us richer in our understanding of a single kind of human enterprise. Among these, I’d count Michael Arlen’s fascinating assessment of television in the Vietnam era, Living Room War. (Viking, 1969).

                                  Joan Didion

Criticism ought to be a cherished kind of writing—not just because it promises incisive observation, but because good criticism ‘opens up’ our understanding of an event: what its presence can mean as part of the human experience.  To use a simple example, I will never eat in most of the restaurants that the New York Times’ food critic will write about.  But Pete Wells’ assessment of the food and the experience of a particular eatery is still interesting.  Wells isn’t doing a Yelp review.  His best reviews place an establishment in a timeline, and its food in a broader culinary tradition.  The food he samples functions as a kind of ‘find’ in an archaeological dig.  It’s roots are from somewhere else, but handed down and modified by whoever is in the kitchen.  And, of course, its New York.  So most restaurants feed strivers looking for sensations that are different and potentially better.  Who knew that Malaysian coffee can be so different?  How have Americans not understood the varied and fascinating textures of something as basic as rice?

      Robert Hughes illustration by John Spooner

Try any field of effort, and there are fascinating critics from the present or recent past to explore.  Many have been journalists: Robert Hughes on art, Alex Ross on concert music, Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael on film, Joan Dideon on the East and West coast life, Paul Goldberger on architecture, or Gary Giddens on jazz.  Whatever the work, we expect critics to be curious, aware, and more interested in discovering and knowing than judging.

 

Living in the thick of a culture requires sorting out and assessing the passing parade of ideas and artifacts that vie to make an impression.

I was trained as a rhetorical theorist and critic.  No shingle hangs out of my office to attract potential customers.  But with communication as my world I am never at a loss for subjects to explore and ponder. I and thousands of other academics are following in the footsteps of other rhetorical critics before us, including Wayne Booth, Hugh Duncan, Jane Blankenship, Richard Weaver and Kenneth Burke.  The names of these academics are perhaps not familiar.  Yet they have shaped what communication means in the American academy.  They are still read by flocks of undergraduates on their way to sharpening their critical and analytical skills.

                     Kenneth Burke

Burke wrote what many of us sometimes say in moments of exasperation: we are all critics.  Living in the thick of a culture requires sorting out and assessing the passing parade of ideas and artifacts that vie to make an impression.  The key difference is that our own ad-hoc judgments are usually personal: said without much prior knowledge and not very well worked out.  That’s why our opinions are usually less interesting than a gifted writer who is also a professional appreciator.