In Defence of Criticism

JustcomiX has been around for just over a year now, and it feels like a good time to give some thought to the raison d’etre of a site devoted to comics criticism.

“Critics are waiting like vultures to tear you apart for mistakes” said someone to me recently. My first reaction was of mild outrage since it vilifies the role of the critic, turning it into something that is mindless and bloodthirsty. I find the simile very potent here, as a vulture indeed scavenges and eats on others’ kills, but is also a silent guardian to a community’s health. But its ill-repute has pushed it to the margins of society, and indeed maybe to extinction.

Yet, one cannot defend the fact that many critics do pass unfair judgment, often basing their verdict on tertiaries, instead of the primary text. I think it is a critic’s duty to assess a text in its entirety, without disregarding effort and hard work. Many, I am sure, fall asunder of these moral obligations and are predatory and opportunistic.

But to disregard the function of criticism is too much a sleight of hand. One should not confuse a part for the whole, or in more poetic terms, borrowed, one should not miss the woods for the trees.

To me the duty of the critic is three-fold:

  1. A critic is a defender of the rights of the audience. He/she must think of what is best for the audience (in this case, reader), and this includes voicing expectations, calling to attention poor craftsmanship in content or production, and encouraging creators who in the longer run will be safe bets to entertain readers. By corollary, a critic is not the creator’s friend, unless the creator is good for the audience.
  2. A critic has to be an aggregated audience. He/she cannot be a layperson and just project his/her expectations as the general opinion. It has to be nuanced by serious study and a multi-dimensional approach to the text. One has to be able to be elected to the role of a critic if such is called for. Again, by corollary, a tempered approach can at times mean the critic’s opinion is at odds with general opinion. So be it.
  3. By dint of the above, a critic should attempt to contribute a body of studies of the chosen art. He/she should try and catalogue processes, and/or record history, and/or point to future directions the art might take. A critic should have an interest in catalysing the growth of the medium, not just  passively observing and exuding opinions.

I can speak for myself and say I have come down harshly on texts, and create strong opinions against books that might even have withstood initial tests of reception. I am impatient with words and patient with intentions. But, by this I also put myself in the dock, open to the same cross-questioning as I have subjected upon others. But that’s the risk of criticism. An opinion for an opinion is fair, as long as it isn’t an eye for an eye. One can always critique a critic, if it is in defence of ideology, and not just of ego.

I honestly feel that arguments and defences are like vitamins and anti-bodies for the cultural corpus, it builds inner strength. It is absolutely valid to express doubts over the relevance to criticism to a reader, because often puerile and sophistic statements can be miles removed from a reader’s likes. And yet I would hold that criticism is not always directly assessable. We may not see its effects, but shouldn’t condemn it to ignominy either. Criticism has a greater probability of educating the creators, and this in turn benefits the audience. Like admonishments from teachers and elders in days of our youth, criticism can often return to us years later a gentle guidance to our actions. A right time and place for everything.

Criticism is almost a foul word to us now, because critics have often been foul. We become resistant to opinion when it is offensive or unjust, and a critic must avoid both deathly. A spirit of questioning, a repartee, disagreement and defence, these are what keep the fire at the heart of the arts alive.

‘The Critic’ by Tihanyi Lajos (1916)

3 thoughts on “In Defence of Criticism

  1. You have really got me thinking on this one. Was wondering if the discomfort or rejection is more because of that word – judgement – it somehow has a ring of finality to it. But you are right. The task of opinion making is a difficult and often thankless one

  2. Critics use a reference point/model based on their knowledge (understanding and assimilation of the history, current status and new thinking) of the subject under review. Not all critics use the same reference. Truth is the same event evokes different reactions from different critics. Just check Rotten Tomatoes website for a movie you most recently saw and you’ll know what I am talking about. One can make the argument that our having different opinions is the reason human society works, markets work. That’s not my point today.

    We all have our viewpoints. Not all of us are knowledgeable enough and most of us who know, aren’t brave enough to voice it. As a critic you made a conscious decision to make your viewpoint public. Kudos to you!

    As with any courageous act, a little trepidation, a little doubt is natural. One is often the only, the lone voice. Nobody else seems to be doing it. Don’t let people who cannot step forward, hold back those who have the courage to do so.

    Key is to understand your own motivation to be a critic. Understand your audience and your own motivation to be a critic. Stay true to that. Ignore the rest.

    Finally, critics evolve and so shall you. Do not be harsh on yourself when that happens.
    -Reader

  3. Very nicely written piece – for genuine critics who do the job as you describe it, I have nothing but respect.

    There are of course many who fit the ugly ‘vulture’ and ‘parasite’ mold but that is an unfortunate reality in most any profession, just more obvious and glaring in area’s such as this one.

    Keep at it my friend and be a true critic and with more like yourself the comic Industry in India might start to learn from its mistakes and become what it could be someday, hopefully soon!

    Cheers…

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