HOW TO LIVE WITH CRITICS

Sunday, July 09, 2017

... Whether You’re an Artist or the President

When President Trump delivered his commencement address at Liberty University on May 13, his themes were mostly conventional ones: patriotism, faith, the importance of striving for one’s goals. The true Trumpian note emerged only when the president strayed for a moment onto the subject of criticism. “Nothing is easier or more pathetic than being a critic, because they’re people that can’t get the job done,” Trump said. Against the impotent carping of critics, he posed the constructive ambition of “dreamers”: “The future belongs to the dreamers, not to the critics.”

This distinction had an obvious relevance to Trump himself, who dreamed himself into the White House against all odds. But it was not an original idea; disdain for critics is perennially popular, particularly in the arts. Indeed, artists who would be aghast to find themselves on the same side of any debate as Donald Trump might well feel a sneaking sympathy with his dismissal of critics. It was the composer Jean Sibelius who apparently originated the oft-repeated quip that no one ever put up a statue of a critic. (If that was ever true, it’s not now: There is a statue of Roger Ebert outside a movie theater in Illinois.) Trump would agree, just as he would surely appreciate the well-known comparison, attributed to the Irish writer Brendan Behan, of critics to eunuchs in a harem: They see it being done every day, but they can’t do it themselves.

The contempt of artists for critics is, of course, understandable. To create an artwork is to give the world a kind of gift, and no one likes having a gift rejected, or even inspected too carefully. In a sense, artists who condemn criticism are relying on the old idea that “it’s the thought that counts”: Because the intention of the giver is generous and pure, any carping about the gift is cruelly small-minded. Yet as anyone who has received an ill-fitting or unsuitable present knows, the thought is not the only thing that counts. Once a work of art emerges from its creator’s study or studio, it becomes the possession of anyone who interacts with it, and therefore it is open to judgment: Do I actually derive pleasure and enlightenment from it?

There is no way to stifle this question, which is the foundation of all criticism. Every reader or viewer or listener asks it, whether they want to or not. A critic is just a reader or viewer or listener who makes the question explicit and tries to answer it publicly, for the benefit of other potential readers or viewers or listeners. In doing so, she operates on the assumption that the audience for a work, the recipient of a gift, is entitled to make a judgment on its worth. The realm of judgment is plural. Everyone brings his or her own values and standards to the work of judging. This means that it is also, essentially, democratic. No canon of taste or critical authority can compel people to like what they don’t like.

Not even the ardent sincerity of the artist can do that — and being subjected to criticism does a great deal to expose the complex motives that underlie an artist’s sincerity. Like any donor, she gives not out of sheer altruism, but also out of a desire for recognition, for admiration of her skill and talent. That is why books display the names of their authors: Writers want credit for what they’ve given us, not unlike the way hospital wings and sports stadiums display the names of their sponsors. One reason artists dislike criticism is that it can unearth and analyze this will to power.

No one gets to be president without wanting to write his or her name in large letters on the American psyche, but most presidents at least gesture in the direction of humility and public service. President Trump, however, has never been anything but straightforward about his egotism. He made his reputation in real estate by splashing his name in gold on almost every structure he built; now he hangs a map of his electoral victory on the White House wall. When the terms of his achievement are so personal, how could criticism fail to strike him as an egoistic injury? The belittling of critics as pathetic and impotent is entirely of a piece with his giving mocking nicknames to rivals, like “low-energy” Jeb Bush and “little” Marco Rubio.

But there is a danger when we see criticism as nothing but an expression of resentment. For in politics, as in art, the right to criticize is really the right to make an independent judgment of reality. Democracy relies on a citizenry informed and active enough to make such judgments; in a democracy, we are all critics. This pluralism is always frustrating to politicians, just as it is to artists, because both tend to believe so implicitly in their own sincerity and good will that they come to perceive opposition as mere obstinacy. In his Liberty University speech, Trump also said that “the system is broken. A small group of failed voices who think they know everything and understand everyone want to tell everybody else how to live and what to do and how to think.” Why not simply sweep those voices aside, the way every creator must silence inner and outer doubts?

This is a standing temptation for democratic politics, and it was one of the chief appeals of fascism. A common theme of fascist propaganda was that parliaments were “talking-shops,” where speechmaking and idle criticism made effective action impossible. The promise of fascism was to replace plurality by unity — “one people, one state, one leader,” in the words of the Nazi slogan — thus making debate unnecessary. The problem, of course, is that plurality — the existence of profoundly different points of view on questions of morality and politics — can never simply disappear. It must be actively suppressed, which is why Communist and fascist states that emphasized the unity of the people’s will relied so heavily on secret police forces.

How to live with criticism is perhaps the hardest lesson that a liberal democracy teaches its citizens. No one really welcomes it, neither the left nor the right. “If we are free to loathe Trump, we are free to loathe his most loyal voters,” wrote Frank Rich in New York magazine in March, a sentiment that would be heartily reciprocated by readers of Breitbart. But as soon as our critics become our enemies — voices to be silenced and dismissed, rather than listened to — we have left the realm of politics behind.

The artist can look away from criticism, sometimes even has to do it, because the creative act involves a difficult self-assertion, which might be compromised by even a small degree of doubt. Politicians who set themselves up as artists of reality, however, who demand the total appreciation an artist longs for, are extremely dangerous. By suggesting that all criticism of their ideas and plans is invalid, nothing but the product of malice, they make public deliberation impossible. We will always need political dreamers; but for the sake of our democracy, we must hope that the future belongs to the critics.

Source.

You Might Also Like

0 comments