Roger Ebert and the Beauty of Art Criticism


At The Movies

This week, we lost one of the greatest film critics to ever live.

Roger Ebert was a legend in the world of cinephiles, and even casual movie fans know the iconic ‘Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down’ review that he and the late Gene Siskel made famous on their seminal review show, “At The Movies.”

The man who once famously wrote that “Video games can never be art” and reviewed movies pretty much up until the day he died at 70-years-old might be an easy target for accusations of being ‘out of touch,’ but the truth is Ebert embraced new technology and the changing face of cinema, and even when cancer forced him to leave television and stole his voice, the man continued reviewing movies and writing online think pieces at a prodigious rate. (Not only do I admire the man for his art criticism, but also because he was a staunch rationalist who had no place for hooey like Creationism.)

If you want to read a eulogy of the man, there are plenty of great ones out there, as well as a wide collection of online film critics discussing how Ebert influenced not only their tastes in film, but their understanding of the medium as an art form. My aim here is a little different.

I want to step back and discuss a topic that a man like Roger Ebert embodied perfectly.

The Beauty of Art Criticism

I love reading reviews of art, whether they are of movies, books, television shows or just about anything else. If it’s a medium I’m well-versed in, it’s fun to see what others have taken from a particular piece of work, to either see if I agree or disagree and to often get a fresh perspective on something I already made up my own mind on. Sometimes I read reviews of art forms I have little knowledge about (dance, cooking, etc.) just to learn something new.

Art criticism is a tricky occupation, and while we might not always agree with the critic’s opinion, a well crafted work of criticism demands respect. In fact, art criticism can be a form of art in itself.

But we’ve all had our Jay-Z moment when we’ve thought, “fuck critics you can kiss my whole asshole.” Maybe a critic trashed a movie or band you loved, maybe they’ve trashed you. Maybe you’ve been subjected to one too many of Pitchfork’s unbearably smarmy gimmick reviews. Whatever the reason, at some point in pretty much everyone’s life, we all spend at least a day being an art relativist.

The Emptiness of Art Relativism

Longtime readers will know that I have no respect for relativism. Moral and philosophical relativism are intellectual wastelands, and art relativism is no different. The moment you say “There are no standards,” you have incapacitated yourself from having any meaningful input. Go get yourself a cookie and sit down.

I’ve recently engaged in this debate with someone who, quite articulately, argued that art criticism is meaningless because we (meaning humanity) made up the standards. In other words, because people devised what we do and don’t like about art, and because lots of people can’t agree on any given standards, we shouldn’t even bother trying to hold art to a standard. The only criteria for successful art is if you, personally, enjoyed it.

Now, on one hand, that is absolutely true. I don’t care that the NPR music critic hated JT’s new album, I love “The 20/20 Experience” (of course, plenty of other critics have received the album positively so it’s all a wash). Personal reactions to art are an indefinable and unimpeachable human experience and no amount of intellectualizing will change that.

But this sort of thinking confuses what art criticism is about. When a master such as Ebert reviews a movie, he’s doing it with knowledge and experience. Yes, art has an emotional effect that can, on rare occasion, completely overwhelm the mind (even great art critics will admit to admiring some particular work but being unable to explain why), but that isn’t the only way we experience art. Art, while highly emotional, is also the product of the artist’s mind, and that being the case it should be possible to dissect it intelligently, with reason.

Anti-Intellectualism

The Bush presidency coincided with a strong anti-intellectual movement in this country, and while I could make arguments for why that was (both serious and snarky) the only relevant factor to this conversation is tragically ironic: The Internet. The single greatest technological achievement in the history of mankind (take that sliced bread) is, in its ideal form, a completely democratic global network of shared knowledge and wisdom. In reality, it’s a tool for masturbation, both literal and figurative.

The internet blew up just as we were coming out of the ‘politically correct’ 90s, that era when everyone’s beliefs had to be respected and we were all supposed to be slow to judgment because no one’s experiences were more ‘valid’ than others. This PC mindset spurred two reactions in the following decade: First, it basically got adopted by every group to pretty much say, “You can’t judge me for my opinions, no matter how stupid, vile or hurtful they are.” Secondly, people were so sick of being relentlessly nice to each other (or, at least, being expected to be) that they were looking for a way to unleash the wrath of their pettiness.

In walked the Internet.

While every half-evolved ape with a dial-up connection was commenting on videos and blogs and Amazon reviews, decrying everything as the worst thing ever and the creator as a total ‘FAGLOLZ,’ the line between genuine criticism and aimless hating was being blurred. The anonymity of the internet provided the perfect environment for baseless critiques and vicious ad hominem attacks. It became harder to take any criticism seriously when there was just so much rubbish out there.

You take the heady mixture of the “No one can tell me I’m wrong” mindset with the “Everything sucks” reactionary critique and you’ve got yourself a fertile breeding ground for an anti-intellectual relativist free for all.

Defending Art Criticism (and Intelligence)

At some point in the last decade, having a college education became a bad thing.* It’s not just that college graduates tend to be more liberal (though that’s a facet), it seems to be assumed that anything a person learns in 4 (or more) years at university could be gleaned just as easily reading a few random articles online every other day. This misrepresents the true purpose of a college education (though, to be fair, some universities seem to forget the true purpose of a college education).

You go to school to learn how to think. And no, I don’t mean, learn to think like a dirty liberal. I mean, you are supposed to be rigorously taught how to approach topics, how to question in a way that isn’t merely didactic but is in fact revelatory. The are many things that set an educated person apart from a non-educated person, and while those include a fuller literary experience and higher mathematical training, such benefits are secondary to the heightened appreciation of art that an education can provide.

You don’t have to go to university to become an intelligent appreciator of art, but you do have to have an education. Maybe that takes place in your family living room or at the local cinerama, but wherever your education takes place, it cannot be done in a vacuum. Because, while you can be a solitary math or science genius, there’s no such thing as an Art Critic Savant.

Art is a conversation. Between artist and audience. Between audience and audience. Between teacher and student. Between artist and artist. When we say we can have no standards because everyone experiences art differently, we’re only half right. Yes, we all experience things differently and we all come to art bringing our own thoughts, emotions and memories, but that doesn’t mean that the art itself doesn’t have inherent meaning or merely exists in a black hole absent of all other art.

It’s like four people sitting on opposite sides of a puzzle, all working on the same jigsaw puzzle. They all have different perspectives, and when they complete the puzzle, their individual views are going to be different, but the completed puzzle still exists as a definitive shape and image.

To say that we can’t have standards because we don’t all agree on what those standards should be is absurd. Cultures all across the world rose up with different religious and philosophical underpinnings for what should define morality, and yet pretty much across the board we all managed to agree on some very basic tenets (no murder, no stealing). This suggests that standards, man-made or not, are going to exist whether we want to acknowledge them or not.

We might not all agree on what is beautiful, but should that mean our pursuit of creating or discovering it is meaningless? Absolutely not.

Art is Beauty, and finding the beauty in art is the role of the critic.

R.I.P. Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert Thumbs Up

*I’m a student of history, so I know this isn’t the first time anti-intellectualism has taken root in the culture. But this moment in history does seem particularly precipitous for America because other nations are poised to take advantage of this weakness.

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