The Good and the Great

The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones offers a brief but impassioned defense of the importance of the critic in an age of overwhelming cultural production. With so many new films, books, art exhibitions, and music releases vying for our attention, Jones claims, “indifference is the most likely effect of so many competing images. If we do make an aesthetic choice it is likely to be a consumerist one, a passing taste to be forgotten and replaced in a moment.”

According to Jones, criticism

is not about distinguishing good from bad; it is about distinguishing good from great. There’s plenty of terrible art around, but it usually finds its level in the end. The curse of our time, in the arts, is mediocrity and ordinariness: the quite good film that gets an Oscar, the OK artist who becomes a megastar. Truly remarkable art is rare and to see it when it comes, to fight for it, to hold it up as an example for the rest – that is the critic’s true task.

I agree that criticism is more important than ever; however, I don’t think Jones’s Arnoldian criticism is the only function of criticism–or even its primary one. Distinguishing between the good and the great is merely a more refined version of the primitive yes/no of the palate. 

It’s hard to quantify, but I would venture to guess that I’ve learned more from mediocre works than from exemplary ones. I don’t think Hannah Takes the Stairs is a remarkable film, but I think it can tell us something about how we live today

This is why I believe Walter Benjamin is an important critic, and why I think his approach to criticism is worth exploring at length. He was interested in an immanent criticism, not an evaluative one. By immanent criticism he meant revealing something hidden within the work, a quality that reveals something about its time. Benjamin’s writings on Baudelaire and nineteenth-century urbanism are the best example of this type of critique. Instead of trying to discern if something is great, the critic should ask why it appeared in the first place.

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