What is criticism?
At its best, a piece of criticism is something smart said about a thing that is smart. It is the type of criticism which most criticism aspires to be; it is also the most fundamentally redundant. It puts in words what was already in terms that the heart already knew and the body already felt. It is a description of a caress to the cheek, an explication of a sucker punch to the gut. It helps us mutually recognize certain qualities in the smart things we might wish to ourselves create without giving us the literal tools we need to create smart things ourselves. If it were so easy, after all, there would be no dumb things, and we would not require these answers printed at the back of the book.
On a lesser rung, a piece of criticism is something smart said about a thing that is dumb. It is, in theory, the most utilitarian form of criticism, in that it can provide insight to creators of things into what makes a thing dumb, so that more new things that are created will be smart instead of dumb. The continued existence of dumb things, however, points either to the cultural irrelevance of smart criticism about dumb things, or to the fundamental laziness of people in the business of creating. Often taking the form of “hit pieces,” this form of criticism is often the most subjectively entertaining, a fact which, in turn, reveals certain less-than-flattering aspects of those of us who participate in cultural conversations.
Far less useful or desirable is the piece of criticism that stands as a dumb thing said about something smart; this level of criticism can even be seen as dangerous in so far as it may pass itself off as smart and in turn somehow superior to the object of its attacks. In this sense, this type of criticism can validly be subjected to derision. However, dumb things can also be said about smart things not out of ill-will but quite by accident; such criticism can usefully be turned into the opening of further conversation with the purpose of correcting the original perceptions and further illuminating the original subject to the greater benefit and understanding of all involved. In this sense, it is perhaps the most useful type of criticism: the thing said not as a conclusion but as an introduction, a subjugation of one self to the process of meaning-making.
Finally, at its basest form, criticism is something dumb said about another thing that is dumb. While it may often be safely disregarded, it may not be forgotten, as it is, after all, a fundamental and essential underpinning of the system of intelligence which is veined throughout the culture of criticism.
Criticism, in so far as it is deeply connected with intelligence, is also firmly ensconced in a system of privilege. Freedom of thought, the time required to pursue thought and develop works of thought, whatever financial or physical resources may be required to engage with thought and works of thought; all signs of a privileged status in contemporary society. Gender, race, religion, class–all play into a system of privilege that is inescapable. Recognizing the role of privilege in critical conversations opens one’s eyes to the ideological nature of all said discussions: it is just not a question of what a smart thing is and what a smart thing said about that thing is but who is it who says these things and makes these things and who is it that grants that these things are, in fact, smart?
Of course, it also stands to reason that, beyond the influence of ideological concerns, there is a gradation of critical intelligence and the relative smartness of our cultural artifacts: there is a smartest thing said about the smartest thing there is, and the dumbest thing said about the dumbest thing there is. What, then, are those things?
Who is the most privileged? Who, in short, is winning?