The pathos of critics—and don’t they know it—is that their particular opinions, and even their general systems of belief, are usually doomed to quick oblivion. They observe the canonical, but they publish in pages that wilt. They write from a position of developed taste, but they also have to turn around pieces on deadline.
The seductiveness of criticism is that this doesn’t necessarily matter. If critics are exceptional, and exceptionally lucky, their manner will endure as a personal style, a way of describing and feeling a historical situation, that is available to others for imitation. Lionel Trilling’s liberal ambivalences made self-doubt glamorous for a generation of undergraduates coming of age at the high noon of American empire. Susan Sontag’s cool high-modernist cosmopolitanism and Pauline Kael’s hot populist enthusiasms established a set of coordinates for making sense of culture in the age of mass media. From the art criticism of Walter Pater to the reviews by Eileen Myles, the particular tenets of taste—works reclaimed, schools or movements endorsed, new authors celebrated—finally matter less than the critic’s attitude, or what was once called “sensibility.” With criticism, it’s best to reverse D.H. Lawrence’s famous motto: Trust the teller, not the tale.
But where can one find a good enough teller these days? What venues can play host to a critical sensibility that is both distinctive and imitable? What institutions can afford to supply the cultural critic with a steady income and a stable intellectual home? These are embarrassing questions to ask. It is unlikely that such a figure would emerge today from print journalism, as the walls close in on the handful of venues that still bother with criticism at all. It is even less likely that the Internet, each corner of which is constantly undergoing mitosis, can nurture a voice with the necessary kind of consistency and economic stability. Least likely of all is the university, which is presently too engaged in a struggle for legitimacy to speak for a public. Suggest any one of these sites and you can hear the laughter in advance. Too commercial, too hurried, too rarefied—and all of it too partial: Any setting that might give the critic a connection to genuine, generalizable experience is virtually out of reach.
Or so it seems. But the fact is that, in one sense, criticism is doing better than ever, appearing with great frequency in the pages of high-circulation magazines like The New Yorker, online in publications like the Los Angeles Review of Books, and in the single columns of little magazines like n+1, The Baffler, and Dissent. Unlike in previous eras, however, criticism’s renewed vitality has come with a disturbing new register of anxiety and self-consciousness. Once, critics like Trilling, Sontag, and Kael commanded the attention of a large audience and were expected to shape and challenge a still roughly homogenous public opinion. Today, many critics struggle to find a unified culture to interpret and criticize and a public to address. As A.O. Scott insists, the critic’s role is “to disagree, to refuse to look at anything simply as what it is,” and yet in an age in which critics often are forced to set their sights on films like Avengers: Age of Ultron, it appears that the critic can be nothing other than “the vanguard of pointing out the obvious.”