What Critics Are Good For, by Jacques Barzun

This is an essay from The Culture We Deserve: A Critique of Disenlightenment by Jacques Barzun

This paragraph introduces the idea of the essay…

The artist’s rejoinder to the question implied in the title above is absolute and consistent through the ages: critics are good for nothing. Swift long ago summed up the artist’s case: “Critics are the drones of the learned world, who devour the honey, and will not work themselves.” Other great artists have filled out the indictment: critics are ignorant; they corrupt public taste, attack and destroy genius; they are failed artists or they would not be critics; they belong (said Swift again) with the whores and the politicians. The only writer I have come across who had a good word for critics was Josh Billings. He was a humorist and may have been ironic: “To be a good critic,” he said, “demands more brains and judgment than most men possess.” A modest claim, but it leaves untouched the artist’s grievance: What need for critics at all? [pg. 64]

In discussion the idea that the best, and essential, critics must be artists themselves, Jacques writes the following,

Since artists and critics are a feature of our unexampled pluralism, the notion of an ideal critic, one who is not only certified perfectly balanced mentally, but also capable of judging art exclusively as art, is a mistaken ideal. It springs from that other mistaken notion, the autonomy of art, and its twin belief in something called the aesthetic experience. This last term is a t best a prideful synonym for the alert perception of art; for what is felt and perceived in art is not really separable from preexisting mental and emotional attachments. The intake does not cause a distilled state of mind cut off from the rest. As the pleasures art affords differ from the sensual while relying on the senses, they likewise partake of all other pleasures-intellectual, affectional, and spiritual. In short, the phrase “pure art” does not correspond to any reality. [pg. 69-70]

A complaint of Jacques is that the English language is being destroyed by misuse.

As a result, the language of criticism sounds identical with the prose of the advertisers of fashions: vague images create the illusion of moving among luxurious things. The word metaphor itself typifies the vacancy of mind. It has been so debased as to qualify even what does not exist. Thus in a review of a singer whose upper register had faded we read: “She turned this to her advantage, using it as a metaphor for the uneasy yearnings of the Mahler songs.”

Now, metaphor implies a comparison among four terms. If one says “the ship plows the sea,” the meaning is that just as the plow in its forward motion divides the soil, so the ship moves and divides the sea. Without four terms, no metaphor. Hence there is no discoverable meaning in praising a sculptor for “his way with three-dimensional metaphors” or in saying that in literature the mention of food “serves up many metaphors..” We may wonder why critics, who are certainly educated people of uncommon ability, have adopted this reverse English, which destroys integrity and beauty at one stroke. They cannot all be simply perverse. Rather they have succumbed to certain widespread social attitudes. They have, on the one hand, aped what everybody now does with language, and, on the other, they have yielded to what everybody thinks criticism is. [pg 70-71]

What does Jacques think art really IS?

I prefer to say that art is an extension of life. Art uses the physical materials of ordinary experience-words, pigment, sound, wood, stone or anything else-and puts them otgether in such a way that the sensations they set off arouse our memories of living, add to them, and thereby extend our life. [...]

If this is true, we can understand why criticism cannot capture the being and ultimate meaning of art, why there can be no consensus about art, artists, and works of art. For no agreement is conceivable about Being and the ultimate meaning of life. Art and life are kindred kaleidoscopes, shifting even as we look at them; they do impose a uniform pattern on all minds but may be “taken” in a myriad ways. In re-forming our view of experience through order and clarity, art brings out novelties and ambiguities no one suspected: it is a second life and extraordinary one. That common words, and patches of oil on canvas, and vibrating strings are able to do this is a mystery, and though we “cannot hope to know what art is,” we know that it somehow captures and holds up to our gaze the mystery of existence. [pg. 74]