Critics

Critics. These are the folks who tell you what movies to go see and what music to listen to. (Aren’t you lucky?)

Except that, if you listen much to the critics, you find that, as often as not (or perhaps more), they’re wrong. There are lots of famous examples. A few years back, VH1 did a rock retrospective, asking musicians and DJs which was the greatest rock band of all time. For fans, the answer shouldn’t have been surprising: Led Zeppelin. Yet, for most of Zep’s career, the critics hated them.

So why are critics often so at odds with the buying public? I can only offer my opinion, which comes from my education and experience, not from any scholarly study.

When I was a teenager, my best friend and I read a lot of books. (We didn’t have much in the way of video games back then. His father being a university professor, would have considered gaming as a pastime an utter waste of one’s intellect.) I tended toward sci fi, and he tended toward fantasy. My friend took this reading a lot more seriously than I did. So much so that he ended up being a university English professor. His “analytical engine” peeked out every once in a while when we would discuss our reading choices.

When I got to college, my third semester I took a course in English which involved “literary criticism”, the same thing my high school friend would go on to specialize in. I hated the course. I confessed as much to my professor. I couldn’t stand deconstructing stories and analyzing them to death. I really didn’t care what the author was thinking at the time, their background, their upbringing, their history of alcoholism or whatever. I didn’t care what was going on in the world around them at the time, and how it shaped the tone of the literature. I read books for the stories. And I just wanted to enjoy the stories. Or not. For my part, a story was forwarded as a completed work all on its own. Not as a work of art dragging all its author’s and society’s history and context along with it.

I still view books and stories that way, and music similarly. (And no, I still don’t play video games that much. I’ve played my share of Doom, Duke Nuke’Em, Quake and Halo, but nothing beats a good book or song, as far as I’m concerned.) But critics don’t see things as I do. They deconstruct art, place it in context, and turn it inside out. And that strongly affects their opinions about the art.

But here’s the real point. Let’s say a movie comes out that critics hate, but the viewing public buys tickets to see it hand over fist. How do you, as a critic, reconcile your disagreement with the movie-going public? Do you consider that most of the people going to the movie are just uneducated rubes, unlike yourself? (Incidentally, this explanation gets my vote.) Do you go back and re-evaluate your criticism based on the box office of the film? (Doubtful. Again, my opinion.)

I think critics are born elitists. As people elected to pass judgment over art, I think they consider themselves superior to the rest of us, and not beholden to our standards. And yet, if your job is to offer your opinions about art and thereby steer the consuming public, wouldn’t you consider it your job to be right most of the time? (“Right” meaning your evaluation matches that of the viewing public.) Apparently not.

And that’s what’s odd about the whole field. If you were a meteorologist, engaged in predicting weather, so that people would know if it was a good day to go fishing or stay home, wouldn’t you want to be right most of the time? A meteorologist who couldn’t accurately predict the weather most of the time would be sort of useless, wouldn’t he? (Yeah, I know.) How about a sports handicapper who couldn’t predict which teams would win? Or a stock broker who was weak at being able to predict which stocks would go up and go down?

I realize that the professions above are called upon to predict things, and the critic is not. But what they have in common is that people rely on them all for their opinions in guiding future actions. Or at least they should be able to. Yet if you’ve listened to enough critics, you’ve learned to more or less turn them off. In fact, in a lot of cases, your choice of entertainment is “inversely proportional” to what critics advise. If the critics like it, it probably sucks, and if the critics hate it, it’s probably pretty good.

But that seems to be the paradox of critics. They seem to be perfectly fine with disagreeing with the people who actually consume art. It’s like they live in their own little worlds, and have open contempt for the masses.

Of course, the critic will argue that his job is to offer his opinion, no more. But I’d argue that his opinion is or should be of use to those trying to decide whether to consume a piece of art or not. Otherwise, it’s not worth much, and I question why anyone would pay him to offer silly opinions which are usually wrong.

Odd. But there you have it.