Criticism and Popular Culture

February 20, 1981

Report Outline
Changing Climate of Opinion
Defining the Aim of Criticism
Future Trends in Criticism
Special Focus

Changing Climate of Opinion

Obsession With Professional Advice

What is worth thinking? What is worth saying and repeating? What, for that matter, is worth seeing, hearing, wearing and eating? At a time when most Americans can ill afford the luxury of finding out by trial and error, an army of critics stands ready to help with opinions on just about everything. As the value of the dollar decreases, the need to spend it wisely has made the once-lofty art of criticism an indispensable aid to the average citizen. No art, entertainment, or salable good exists without its attendant set of critics and no critic without his or her devoted following.

British sage Matthew Arnold wrote over a century ago that the function of criticism is to “propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus establish a current of fresh and true ideas.” Today, however, Arnold's definition of “the best” has been stretched to include not only ideas but widgets and gadgets of all sorts. In a consumer society such as ours, critics, reviewers and professional experts have become powerful arbiters of mass taste. Yet their pervasive influence also has made them the focus of considerable debate. Does an almost endless access to critical opinion truly elevate public understanding? Or does an overabundance of such advice only serve to dull the sense and sensibility of the populace?

Whether the habit stems from a feeling of cultural inferiority or overweaning pride, Americans are obsessed with rating the quality of things. The “10 best” and “top 20” are categories of value ingrained in the national consciousness. But in spite of this penchant for appraisal, standards of excellence are often misapplied, terms of comparison confused to a point where they are all but meaningless. So it is that “serious matters [are] teased into pop entertainment,” novelist and essayist Wilfrid Sheed wrote in 1978. In this day and age, he lamented, everything is geared to the needs of the busy consumer. Thoughtful advice simply takes too long to deliver and too much time to digest.

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Arts and Humanities
Movies and Entertainment
Popular Culture