Friday, July 18, 2008

Pixar Wisdom

On the heels of my last post, two points and quotations to offer.

Alex Ross, among others, tells of more art criticism cuts. And amidst the furor over at Greg Sandow's page on pop/classical criticism, it's perhaps time to think about the function of critics in general. It seems to me the most important role is to engender an interest in the arts in society at large, not to flaunt one's educated position, but to use that to educate in the most sincere way. Every critic will have their own opinions, they will disagree with each other, with artists, with the general populace (one need only compare the Box office and Rotten Tomatoes if you don't believe me). Is the box office success of a critically panned CD or movie going to kill the arts? Hardly.

So what how does a critic straddle this divide? If you praise it without believing it, there's no point. If you pan it in a way that only makes people believe you're attacking them for seeing it, there's not much point there either. You're certainly not going to win over readers. And there's no point in saying what the audience already knows. Perhaps the solution is less product-driven? That is, don't just throw out reviews of individual products, heap praise on a work that many would pass off as meaningless, because your words aren't going to bring society around by themselves, most likely. I'd like to see more critics tackle not just the work they're reviewing, but broader issues in which that work figures. Movie genres, concert series, events, civic awareness, all that might draw in readers and get them thinking.

I don't really know, and it's frustrating. But maybe Pixar has the answer. The end of Ratatouille is perhaps the best defense of a critic's role, while the film itself finds the artistry in the everyday, blending the popular and the artistic in the best ways. I quote:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau's, who is, in this critic's opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau's soon, hungry for more.

My second bit of Pixar is a quote from Leonard Bernstein, who wraps up precisely the issue subtly under the heart of WALL-E, the necessity of art. It factors into the need for intelligent arts criticism, people who can write not just about the art that matters to them, but why it matters to everyone.

I’m pretty sure that if a complete evolution were possible, and every problem were solved, and man found ways of rectifying everything that was wrong—of supplying all his needs by varying capsules and rays and electronic means—that he might very well not need art anymore. Can you conceive of what a world that would be? Is that a world you’d like to live in? Doesn’t it sound rather sterile?


[EDIT: This is, of course, not to say I don't love reading reviews. I love it, both as a researcher of reception history, and as a general audience member. I especially love scathing reviews.]


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