Some critics seem to know instinctively, to feel it in their very critical bones, that the death of the critic-as-authority is the birth of another kind of criticism.
I call that other kind of criticism, the kind that doesn't rely on authority and judgment, Romantic criticism. I call it that because of what I learned, long ago, from that melancholic and suicidal German, Walter Benjamin. Early in his career, Benjamin wrote a typically esoteric and maddeningly impenetrable essay called "The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism." There is much in that essay that I take to be wrong. There is something in it that I suspect to be crazy. But there is an important idea in it, too, an idea that took its first form in the ramblings of men like Friedrich Schlegel and the poet Novalis. The idea is that criticism does not stand outside the work of art, but stands alongside, maybe even inside, the work of art, participating in the work in order to further express and tease out what the artist already put there. In this theory of criticism, we don't need the critic to tell us what is good or bad, to tell us what to like and dislike. We need the critic, instead, to help us experience. We need the critic in the way that we need a friend or a lover. We need the critic as a companion on a journey that is a love affair with the things of the world. Benjamin once referred to this form of criticism as "the first form of criticism that refuses to judge." The primary virtue of this kind of criticism is its inherent generosity. It wants to make experience bigger, it wants to make each work of art as rich as it can possibly be. Its sole medium, as Benjamin put it, is "the life, the ongoing life, of the works themselves."
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Morgan Meis, The Smart Set: