The Critic as Artist

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I think it’s about time we’ve re-navigated the line between the critic and the artist. It’s commonplace today for artists to bemoan the critic and to complain of their lofty ideals and petty taste. In movie after movie, the protagonist often shakes their fist at the nefarious critic, accusing them of derailing their big break — their one crucial moment in the sun.

In Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Dermot Hoggins, a man intimately familiar with the thug life, publishes a novel inspired by his experiences called Knuckle Sandwich. At an awards event, Hoggins comes in contact with Felix Finch: a classically renowned critic who pens Mr. Hoggins a harsh critique. Hoggins, then, in a moment of blinding fury picks up Felix and throws him off the side of a high-story building. From this moment forward, Hoggins is revered as the man who “showed it” to the hideous critic and literally put an end to the bane of all artists everywhere.

This is a prime example of the endless war as seen in film and literature against the critic. Here is the one person who derails the success of all artists, writers, and poets. They proclaim, “Not good enough. This is trash.” They are displayed as snobbish drinkers of champagne with long blue scarfs and pointed smirks and blue eyes.

In the Critic as Artist, Oscar Wilde challenges the traditional relationship witnessed between the artist and the critic. During this dialogue, one of the characters, Ernest, proclaims, “Each new school, as it appears, cries out against criticism, but it is to the critical faculty in man that it owes its origin” (Wilde 230). Here, Wilde lays the framework for cultivating a new interpretation of the critic. Through his main character Ernest, Wilde presents the critic as a person central in the creation and later cultivation of the art and the artist as the art and artist appear to be inextricably women to one another; their fate and livelihood is simultaneous in this regard. In this manner, Wilde is cognizant of the nature of the critic and how their image and identity will always be bemoaned and critiqued. Even so, Wilde lays a case for the critic as seen throughout this dialogue.

As Ernest and Gilbert, the two main characters of the dialogue continue their discussion, they both arrive at a new understanding and interpretation of the critic. Dare I say it, they consider the artist as critic, or if you prefer, the critic as artist. (I’ll explain more later). During a pivotal scene, Ernest remarks, “The highest Criticism, then, is more creative than creation, and the primary aim of the critic is to see the object as in itself it really is not; that is your theory, I believe” (Wilde 240). This moment is crucial as Ernest argues here that the role of the critic occupies a critical, creative liminal space. In this manner, there is a kind of creativity, which weighs on the critic as they observe and account for the open space of the artist and their subsequent art. The artist cannot see their work’s shortcomings or even their unconscious contribution to the space of art, but the critic can. A thoughtful critic can. A discerning critic can. A compassionate, fair critic can.

I would argue that Wilde considers the role of the critic to be paramount to the creation, cultivation, and dissemination of art, for it is the critic who uncovers new beauty and “fills the [art] with wonder . . . [in a place] in which the artist may have left void, or not understood, or understood incompletely” (Wilde 240). This, then, solidifies the critic as crucial to the welfare of both the artist and the art. The critic celebrates the art, challenges the art, and disseminates and cultivates dialogue and discussion about the art. Moreover, if done well, the relationship between the critic and artist ought to be symbiotic and not parasitic.

As “the critic will [always] be an interpreter” it is necessary for the artist and critic to make peace with each other and set about forging a healthy, collaborative and cooperative relationship with each other, holding respect for the work each role serves in its place (Wilde 245). There is an air of respect Wilde leaves the reader with when in contemplation of the critic. In the text, through the mouth of Gilbert, he declares, “[The critic] may seek rather to deepen [art’s] mystery, to raise round it, and round its maker, that mist of wonder which is dear to both gods and worshippers alike” (Wilde 244).

In a strange roundabout way, I return to contemplating if the critic and artist will ever find peace within their relationship — if the artist will ever feel strong enough in their ego to accept the critic’s criticisms and if the critic will look upon their role of judgment with a kind of collaborative compassion and wonder. I wonder if the space in which the critic and the artist lie will ever be a peaceful place.

I suppose, then, I’ll leave you with this final point of inquiry.

Is not the work of the artist the same as the work of the critic?

Do we both seek out and observe beauty?

Do we cultivate it?

Do we tend to it?

Do we honor it from an honest space?

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