Criticism and the age

Terry Teachout must be one of the finest working critics in America today. He is the regular theater critic for the Wall Street Journal and the regular music critic for Commentary; he blogs at About Last Night. His Journal column on his preference for Billie Holiday over Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan provoked a torrent of intelligent responses from Power Line readers here. Check out his post today on the late, great cabaret singer Nancy Lamott.

Terry writes to note ArtsJournal’s group blog — Critical Edge — on the future of criticism in the age of new media. Terry is a participant in what he calls the group grope and quotes ArtsJournal guru Douglas McLennan on the rationale for the site:

Everyone’s a critic. And now that anyone has access to an audience through the internet, our computers have become a cacophony of people with opinions. Clearly not all opinions are equal. Traditionally, the influence of an opinion was closely tied to the venue in which it was published—how widely it was disseminated or how prestigious the publication was thought to be. With a growing flood of opinions available to all, some suggest that the influence of the traditional critic is waning, that the opinions of the many will drown out the power of the few. But in a time when access to information and entertainment and art seems to be growing exponentially, more than ever we need ways to to sort through the mass and get at the “good” stuff. The question is how? Where is the critical authority to come from? Some suggest that new social networking software that ranks community preferences and elevates some opinions over others will supplant the formerly powerful traditional critics. So what is to be the new critical currency? Stripped of traditional legitimacies, how will the most interesting critical voices be heard and have influence?

Missing from the roster of prominent participants is Stefan Kanfer, the fine historian of popular culture who writes frequently for City Journal. Looking for Kanfer’s new site, I found his timely 2002 City Journal essay on Noam Chomsky, “America’s Dumbest Intellectual.” (Kanfer’s City Journal essays are collected here.)

Thinking about the subject of criticism and the age, we inevitably recall Randall Jarrell (as in the review by Brooke Allen):

“Unless you are one critic in a hundred thousand,” Randall Jarrell once said, “the future will quote you only as an example of the normal error of the past.” This was probably a little harsh — a more generous estimate might be one in 5,000 or 10,000 — but the principle holds true. How many critics from the past do we still read with admiration? Who from the present day will still have anything to say to readers 100 years from now? Good critics, as Jarrell knew and pointed out, have turned out to be far rarer than good poets or novelists.

For more on Randall Jarrell’s criticism, don’t miss Dana Gioia’s essay, available (where else?) at Dana Gioia Online. And if you have the URL for Kanfer’s site, please let me know!


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