Jeet Heer has a post up about Why We Need Criticism. His basic premise, as near as I can tell, is that criticism is just people talking about art — so whether or not we “need” criticism, we’re unlikely to get away from it.
I don’t have any problem with that per se, but…well, look at this:
If we define criticism narrowly as analytical essays on an art form or particular works of art, then it’s true that criticism is a minority interest. But if we define criticism more broadly as any discussion of art or works of art, including conversations and the response of artists themselves to earlier art, then criticism is as unavoidable and essential as art itself. To be more concrete, some of the best comics criticism has come in the form of interviews done by artists like Gil Kane, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, etc. As Joe Matt mentions elsewhere in the discussion, he turns to interviews in The Comics Journal before anything else. Without these interviews, our entire sense of comics would be very different. (my emphasis
For Jeet, the ultimate justification for criticism seems to be that artists do it. A second post privileges the criticism of artists even more strongly when Jeet says “you can learn more about art history by listening to Gary Panter and Art Spiegelman talk than from reading a shelf-full of academic books”.
I don’t deny that artist interviews can be interesting and valuable. And some artists, like James Baldwin and T.S. Eliot, were first rate critics as well. But…looking to interviews and artists for criticism is like looking to critics for art. It’s not totally crazy, but it’s not the best strategy either.
Criticism is a genre of writing. It’s a craft and an art, with its own history and its own integrity as a discipline. That doesn’t mean it has to be professionalized — on the contrary, I’d prefer that it weren’t. But it does mean that to write criticism, it does help to be interested in criticism, just as to write comics it helps to be interested in comics. When Gary Groth conducts a long interview in which he nails down where artist x was and who he worked with for every month of his life over the past four decades — that’s great and worthwhile work, but the result is not exactly criticism as criticism is generally understood. When Alan Moore makes some off the cuff remarks about Steve Ditko, that’s cool and Alan Moore is an insightful guy — but it’s not the same as an actual essay with an actual thesis which actually attempts to engage with a critical tradition.
So…who cares anyway? If folks wants to read interviews instead of criticism, where’s the harm exactly? If Jeet thinks people will get more from a Comics Journal interview than form one of his own essays, why should I kick?
Well, two reasons. The first has to do with this, again from Jeet:
“The simple fact is that because of the intellectual poverty of most writing on comics, infected as it is with fannish boosterism and journalistic glibness, the interview form has been the crucial venue for comics criticism and comics history. ”
For Jeet, then, interviews fill a critical gap. Comics journalism is so bad that we need interviews to save us.
Unfortunately, Jeet has this exactly bass ackward. It isn’t interviews that are saving us from critical poverty. It’s the fetishization of interviews that has led us into this critical difficulty to begin with. Critical comicdom is obsessed with interviews not because there’s nothing else, but because, historically, critical comicdom comes out of the fanzines. The reliance on interviews as critical touchstones is the result of “fannish boosterism” — and it’s also a cause, as critics scuttle around gathering up pearls of wisdom from the horse’s mouth rather than kicking the horse in the teeth, prying off the skull, and making out of it a thing of horror or beauty or ridicule of their own. And as for “journalistic glibness” — substituting five or ten sentence sound bytes by famous artists for an “analytic essay” seems to me to fit the bill.
And the second reason that substituting artists for critics is not ideal is that, besides being bad for criticism, it’s not especially good for art. One of the things criticism does is open up the conversation, both directly, by making artists communicate with people who have different interests and backgrounds, and indirectly, because ideally critics are connected to other critical communities, which are connected to other artistic communities. If you are always turning inward to have artists interpret themselves for an rapturous audience, you end up with a closed circuit — a world in which R. Crumb is not just a talented cartoonist, but a major Biblical scholar; a world in which a shelf full of books about, say, Buddhist ink painting won’t teach you as much about art history (or about the right art history?) as a few hours listening to Gary Panter.
I’m not saying that people should respect criticism. Criticism, like art, deserves not respect, but unremitting hostility. The real problem with Jeet’s discussion is not that he elevates art over criticism, but that he allows his fannish enthusiasm to cast a nostalgic glamour over both. Unless art and criticism are separated, it’s impossible to hate either with sufficient malice. Clubby amity is for interviews; what we really need from criticism and art is more and higher quality loathing.
Update: In reply to some comments below, I have a follow-up post here.