The Perfect Critic


In an essay by T.S. Eliot called “The Perfect Critic” we learn, above all, that art criticism is difficult. For one thing, many art critics don’t make art themselves, and so the criticism they write is shaped by their own suppressed creative urges. An artist is a better critic than a non-artist: the artist spends her creative urges in her creative work, so that they don’t flow out into her criticism. So that when she takes on the role of critic, she is able to put aside her own personal and emotional responses towards the art work, and write criticism that focuses on the object itself.

Conversely, critics can be too cold, by being too “verbal, or philosophic.” They use words that have no meaning that you can trace back to the senses. Hegel reaches the heights of this tendency: every word has a definite meaning in its own right, according to him, and no reference back to the sensible is necessary to define any given technical term. This (mistaken) belief gives rise to dead, empty prose. “Vampiric prose” as William Burroughs calls it: the prose relies on the good will of the reader to feed some sense into it, since all sense is lacking in the text itself.

The key to good criticism is “sensibility”: awareness of the object of criticism – the art work itself – and sensitivity towards it. This is what is lacking in the two inferior kinds of criticism: on the one hand, the critic is sensitive only to his own emotions; on the other hand too detached altogether from any kind of sensible response.

If you have sensibility, then you can describe the work of art with “lucidity.” The reader will benefit from a clear exposition of the work and where it fits into the tradition. And from that plain depiction of the work they will be able to form their own judgement of it, as if they had seen the work themselves through the perceptive eyes of the critic.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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