My last post drew a line between two different critical perspectives, the cultural scope of Armond White and the more direct movie-going relationship of Roger Ebert. I reserve the right to add a third dimension to that picture, but for the moment I want to stay focused on the phenomenon White had (correctly, I think) pinpointed. Which is to say, for starters, that the popular perception likely does identify Ebert as indicative of film criticism.

White presented that bias in a singularly negative light. Presumably, he thinks the world would be a better place, or would at least be more capable of bettering itself, if people saw someone more like him as the proper face of criticism. And since White can’t name another contemporary critic he thinks is doing the profession justice, that leaves pretty much just him. To wit:

If there were a whole bunch of critics who I thought were doing a good job, then I would stop.

Be that as it may, I see the problem in a different light. It isn’t that audiences are inclining towards Ebert when they ought to appreciate the rarefied genius that is Armond White. Rather, the problem is that they seem to have gravitated to Ebert simply because they don’t know what else to do with criticism.

That’s a failure, in the first place, of education. It’s also a failure of imagination, but a little education would go a long way towards cluing people in to how they could be using their imaginations with respect to criticism.

To put a finer point on it, I’m not sure that we’re saying often enough and clearly enough that criticism is a way of talking about art that allows people broaden their appreciation of any particular work. One reason, I suspect, is that if we did say that to students, most of them would walk away with the impression that art is more work than it’s worth. And it probably would seem that way to them since we don’t often convey a very good sense of what art actually is worth.

Because of that indirection, art education, at least in the U.S., has developed a number of strategies for luring students into an acceptance of criticism. Hide from them the fact that what they’re practicing is actually criticism, and you can acclimate them to its usefulness. That puts criticism somewhere on one of the upper floors of the ivory tower, whereas a more direct method could make criticism more accessible.

Translated back into the terms of Armond White’s complaint, if the everyman thinks of Ebert as an example of what critics do, it may be simply because the the everyman actually knows what to do with Ebert’s columns. If you’re a movie-goer, and particularly if you share his sensibility, Ebert’s columns can be quite useful. If you don’t share Armond White’s sense of what can be done with art and art criticism, then his columns can seem pretty useless. White seems pretty proud of the fact that he qualifies as one of the elite, but his implicit demand that people defer to his opinion because of that status misses the point. It’s because we’ve made criticism the specific domain of the educational elite that he ends up standing in the shadow of someone like Ebert.

Does that mean we should be teaching a more direct course in criticism? Not necessarily. But what’s the point of teaching art, or literature, or film otherwise? Right now, such courses seem to me to function, at best, as a kind of mystery cult initiation. We’re all inducted a neophytes in high school, and most of us remain there, knowing some of the basic formulas, but not understanding what they’re supposed to mean. Only those who voluntarily pursue further initiation ever find a use for what they’ve already learned.

For the rest of us, there are activities that seem to be their own reward, like movie-going. And if Ebert helps to make movie-goers more effective at movie-going, I don’t see how we can ask for much more.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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