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The critic's job is to 'open the unlocked doors'

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(Leo Cullum cartoon/The New Yorker)

The online edition of The New Republic features an essay by a critic on critics. It is 91 years old and, luxurious and male-centred language aside, the issues Clive Bell puts forward are as relevant as ever.

Here are three little highlights, including the reason why a critic matters. For the whole essay, click here.

Bell on the good critic:

A critic should be a guide and an animator. His it is, first to bring his reader into the presence of what he believes to be art, then to cajole or bully him into a receptive frame of mind. He must, therefore, besides conviction, possess a power of persuasion and stimulation: and if anyone imagines that these are common or contemptible gifts, he mistakes. It would, of course, be much nicer to think that the essential part of a critic’s work was the discovery and glorification of Absolute Beauty; only, unluckily, it is far from certain that absolute beauty exists, and most likely, if it does, that any human being can distinguish it from what is relative. The wiser course, therefore, is to ask of critics no more than sincerity, and to leave divine certitude to superior beings – magistrates, for instance and curates, and fathers of large families, and Mr. Bernard Shaw.

The “impressionist critic”:

[This] critic clears his mind of general ideas, of canons of art, and, so far as possible, of all knowledge of good and evil; he gets what emotions he can from the work before him, and then confides them to the public. He does not attempt to criticize in the literal sense of the word; he merely tells us what a book, a picture or a piece of music made him feel. This method can be intensely exciting; what is more, it has made vast additions to our aesthetic experience. It is the instrument that goes deepest: sometimes it goes too deep, passes clean through the object of contemplation, and brings up from the writer’s own consciousness something for which in the work itself no answerable provocation is to be found.

Why a critic matters:

… though books, pictures and music stand charged with a mysterious power of delighting and exciting and enhancing the value of life; though they are the keys that unlock the door to the world of the spirit—the world that is best worth living in—busy men and women soon forget. It is for critics to be ever jogging their memories. Theirs it is to point the road and hold open the unlocked doors.

John Terauds

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