It seems like everyone in the field of arts and entertainment was debating the value of criticism in August. A controversial essay calling for less enthusiasm set the literary community abuzz. The release of this decade’s Sight & Sound poll results had film critics debating their role. The annual spectacle of E3 seemed to put video game critics in an introspective mood.
Many of those disputes could be avoided with a little clarity. Criticism, after all, is not a monolith. Different critics perform different functions, and some critics (perhaps most) transition so fluidly between those roles that even they sometimes fail to notice that the hat they’re wearing is not the one they wore to the party.
To that end, I offer the following archetypes. Note that these are not types of critics per se — few critics set out to be just one or the other, and even those who are hired to fill one role usually slip into another every now and then. They are, then, roles that every critic sometimes adopts, and understanding the different ways in which they function ought to help us understand the contributions critics make.
Viewing gladiatorial combat, Roman crowds would signal their judgment by the pollice verso. In the early 1980s, Robert Ebert suggested that he and co-host Gene Siskel use a version of the pollice verso as the rating system for their eponymous movie review show. Since then, the thumbs up/thumbs down dichotomy has come to represent that most visible result of criticism, the rating.
Perhaps because (however deceptively) it boils criticism down into simplest terms, the Judge is the most popularly recognized archetype. Most such judgments can be expressed as a simple positive or negative review, sometimes with numerical gradations. Or maybe the reason is simply that the Judge provides the service most closely tied to money. After all, a compelling review will inform how we decide to spend our leisure money, and influential reviews can help make or break the investments of studios and publishers.
It’s easy to scoff at that pragmatic interest. After all, not everything worth saying about a film can be stripped so far down. But it’s also worth pointing out that popular support of the Judge affords the critical establishment with opportunities and attention it might otherwise struggle to attract. Ebert still attaches ratings to his reviews (stars now, instead of thumbs), but his place at the bench also allows him to present less binary points to one of the biggest audiences in criticism. It’s also served as a point of entry, ushering neophytes toward longer and more complex forms of criticism.
In his decision with respect to the Supreme Court trial of a theater manager from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Court Justice Potter Stewart put forth a famously slippery criteria for identifying obscenity. He declined to define “hard-core pornography,” saying:
perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
That’s a criteria with some obvious limitations, but then, Potter was a judge, not a theorist.
Which isn’t to say that the Theorist isn’t willing to make a judgment every now and then, but the Judge tends to operate on instinct and intuition. The Theorist is a critic with a distinctly Aristotelian frame of mind, looking for ways to categorize everything needed in order to understand a given subject. Having grounded that understanding in some more or less rational foundation, the Theorist is then free to judge individual instances. Those judgments are generally made by comparing the instance to a theoretical ideal.
But the Theorist need not judge at all, and may turn theory to more creative ends. Some of the most influential artists of the last century have been theorists, like filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Jean-Luc Goddard. True to the archetype, both men blurred the line between critic and artist, since even when they wrote about the works of others, their goal was to aid in the creation of a new ideal.
As the Theorist sees it, the underlying question of all criticism is, What is the subject of my criticism? Sometimes that question allows for insight that can’t be gotten any other way; sometimes it allows us to push our art in previously unconsidered directions. The risk is that, by committing ourselves too narrowly to a single theory, we may miss out on conclusions that are nevertheless true.
Back in the first century, Judeans staged a revolt against the Roman Imperial rule. Things went poorly for the Judaeans, and the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple to undermine the solidarity of the group. Judaism survived, but underwent a series of rapid adjustments. The Hebrew Canon (which Christians were already starting to call the “Old Testament”) shifted to the center of Jewish ritual. A large body of supplementary commentary and criticism, called exegesis, began to accumulate around the tradition.
Like that religious counterpart, the practitioner of critical exegesis teases meaning out of the details and nuances of a work. Taking the practice to one logical extreme, the Exegete might conclude that the entire point of art is to provoke an interpretation. In that regard, anything that can be criticized is, first and foremost, a text.
Some texts are tailor-made for exegesis. In a famous Playboy interview, Stanley Kubrick declined to make sense of 2001: A Space Odyssey, inviting viewers to make their own sense of the experience. Some texts, like Finnegans Wake, seem virtually incomplete without it. But the Exegete is liable to find hidden meanings everywhere, even when they’re not particularly welcome. Most viewers are content to take Ferris Bueller’s Day Off more or less at face value; the Exegete, on the other hand, may be inclined to see Bueller as an enabling figment of Cameron’s imagination.
Every schoolchild knows the old canard about how it took the voyages of Christopher Columbus to convince Europeans that the world was not, after all, flat. It turns out that’s not entirely true — medieval maps show clear indications that medieval cartographers struggled to accommodate the curvature of the earth — but the idea persists because it suggests a more enduring truth. When we learn a new thing, it changes our view of what we thought we knew before.
In the field of criticism, the role of the Explorer is to expand the context in which we view any given work. Learning about the Elizabethan worldview enables us to better understand the plays of Shakespeare. Understanding the political and cultural changes that have shaped South Korea may help make sense of the recent explosion of crime, revenge and horror movies coming from its movie industry. Knowing a bit about Kafka’s life may give us some insight into his work.
The Explorer sets out to push the boundaries of what we know, not only about a work of art, but also about the context in which it was made or the details of what it depicts. The hidden danger is that the exploration of details surrounding the work can sometimes end up obscuring the work itself.
The common perception of medieval alchemy is that its practitioners were obsessed with the material aim of transmuting lead into gold. Scholars of the history of alchemy, however, present a different view of the field. The psychologist C.G. Jung and the historian of religion Mircea Eliade have both represented alchemy as having a psychological and ethical facet. The transmutation of base metals into gold had an allegorical function, representing the transformation of human experience into a purer substance. That is more or less the sense in which Keats spoke of the world as “the vale of soul-making.”
For some critics, art serves a similar function. The Alchemist sees the work of art as a unique tool. Each tool allows us to work directly on the self, effecting a moral, aesthetic, or spiritual change. The goal of criticism, in that respect, is to illuminate the transcendent possibilities of any given work of art.
There is, naturally, some degree of common ground between the Alchemist and the Exegete. The difference is that the Exegete sees meaning as something discovered in the text, while, for the Alchemist, the work is a portal through which we follow experience into a realm of heightened significance.
The danger for the Alchemist is that their pursuit of transcendence may turn into a facile mysticism. The intensity with which some critics pursue transcendence all too easily lends itself to the construction of false idols. Some works capitalize on the eagerness of the Alchemist by presenting cliche or doggerel in the place of the sincere effort.