The art of the critic reviewed

first_imgSomething one of my fine friends said to me a while back has been troubling me. “How could you say that?” she retorted, a look of incredulity darting across her face, after my oh so confident precis of Coldplay’s latest album, X&Y, as being one of the “all-time great recordings”. “Have you heard every recording ever committed to vinyl, cassette or CD?”Obviously not, I protested, trying to qualify the assertion by referring to the record’s staggeringly rare, towering quality. But I sensed myself almost retracting the comment by having to defend it so vociferously. It, in fact, rocked the core of my sensibility as a ‘critic’ more than I would have liked. It actually got me thinking hard about what I had written. Can such a comment ever stand solo as suitable appraisal of any given artwork? What then is the purpose of an arts review if not to compare the piece with what came before it? Far from being a bout of soporific self-questioning that at one point or another has besieged even the best of us, this soul searching was more an attempt to dispel (or indeed reluctantly prove) a criticism levelled at our urbane culture of reviewery.Yet it seems now that the habit is spreading. Vintage, the paperback division of publishing Random House, last month launched a range of fifteen novels entitled Future Classics; the result of a poll which took into account the reading habits of over a hundred book groups from Dundee to Devon.In all earnestness, the campaign does smack of cash cow antics on the part of Random House to bolster sales of their recent, much-debated books. Are we really ready to say that the critically well received, widely read novels of the past few years – Ian McEwan’s Atonement to name but one – will become classics in time to come? The foremost critical issue to consider in all this is that obviously only novels published by Vintage could be considered. So that while Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha made the grade, Zadie Smith’s epic debut, White Teeth, could not. And if the critic’s word is the wisest, why was Louis de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin favoured over his infinitely better reviewed Birds Without Wings? The backlash has already begun.I remember a similar scoffing reaction from many I knew a few years back when Halle Berry won her Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball, and I declared that her performance was arguably peerless in all of screen history (Incidentally I still and will continue to maintain the comment has actuality). There can certainly be no doubt that Berry defines the mould for modern-day tragic heroine in that role.Is that ultimately not the mark of greatness in art? The ability of any given piece, be it a strikingly nuanced performance, a genre-defining novel or indeed a Coldplay album to breathe life past its creator’s intention? I’m always nominating the greatest this or that of its kind. It is deeply satisfying to apply the G word. The recent BBC Radio 4 and National Gallery poll to find The Greatest Painting in Britain did in fact turn up a decent shortlist, with JMW Turner and David Hockney both honoured, but seeing the usage I regularly bandy about deployed by someone else gives me pause. If greatness in art has any meaning, it is certainly at odds with opinion polls and people’s choice votes, even if the survey in question is of an informed audience as in Vintage’s case. Greatness suggests sublimity. Greatness stresses the ability of the work to transcend style and signify the supreme. But alas, it will always be rooted by definition in an opinion formed prior to yours or mine. Perhaps I will never be qualified to judge with such haughty epithets, but I’m not about to kick the habit. We should be careful lest we forget the nature of our art’s purpose.ARCHIVE: 0th week MT 2005last_img