The best scene, I think, in Whit Stillman’s arch but amusing movie Metropolitan is when the youthful, Marxist-leaning protagonist assuredly tells the girl he’s interested in that he only reads criticism—not the actual works being criticized.
What a kohlrabihead, right? The film even suggests he’s misguided … and, if I remember correctly, he goes against his own mantra later on in the movie to read a classic, non-criticism book.
We can learn something from this character. Though it’s not that great literature’s more important than great criticism (which we already know it is).
It’s that we have the freedom and ability to talk about works of art without experiencing them—just based on commentary, hearsay or whatever’s in the air. Expert criticism can prevent you from wasting time at a bad movie. Or from reading a horrible book. It’s preemptive … and you don’t have to feel guilty about not taking in something you know you’ll dislike.
Is there a chance you’ll miss something you would’ve enjoyed because the review indicated it’s bad? Sure. All reviewers have different perspectives, varying tastes. Yet our capacity to evaluate criticism means we can gravitate toward the ones who fit our own sensibilities best, giving us a framework for opinions without the burden of assessing the experiences in person.
Laziness? Nope. It’s a necessity–especially when it could prevent you from spending 15 bucks on a lousy film … and get you instead to drop that amount on a great one.
And yes, we can still think for ourselves. Critics aren’t mirror images. They are, however, useful when you want to familiarize yourself with something before you try it. It’s like a background check for entertainment. I don’t think we could do without it.
Perhaps the young protagonist in Metropolitan learned the error of his ways. We do need art in our lives, and criticism alone can’t fulfill that requirement. But it can help you avoid stuff that isn’t entertainment, and if that comes with the price of being opinionated about works you don’t see, I’m not gonna quibble. There’s so much in the world to experience these days, it’s helpful to pare things down to the necessities.
And I give props to the critics for that.