Homo Sapiens as a biological organism has a fairly basic twofold purpose. Like all other life, it exists only to survive and profligate its genetic material. If it happens to craft objects which lack utility or assign arbitrary meaning to them, it does so merely out of a psychological or pathological compulsion fairly far removed from its primary purpose of survival and reproduction.
But Man as a spiritual creature has an altogether different purpose, though it is likewise twofold. The first half is what Tolkien called “Sub-Creation.” Man looks upon the artistry of the cosmos and becomes a co-participant in its adornment, giving form to Ideas, not through the generation of the material world, but through the skillful rearrangement of its materials: shaping pigments into paintings, stone into sculptures, sounds into songs, and even pixels into play. Man’s highest purpose is to officiate the marriage of Matter to Meaning.
His second highest purpose follows from this. It is the appreciation and enjoyment of all the wondrous works begotten by this union, not merely by the individual artist involved in the production, but by all Man. It is for this purpose that paintings are put on display in galleries, films are shown in cinemas, video games are released on consoles, cuisine is served at restaurants, and architecture displays exterior designs. Art is not finished when the painter puts down his brush or writer his pen, but when the reader comes to the last page. And not then even.
To fully and truly appreciate and enjoy a work of art, one must mine all the meaning it inheres, whether by the artist’s intention or by happy accident. One must understand the context in which it was created, the references and allusions it contains, the artistic devices it employs, and the message it conveys. That search for the meaning in all art is the work of criticism. Every man ever to live who’s witnessed a work of art – whether the cave paintings sketched by our remote hominid ancestors or the digital doodles in a game of Drawful – is already an art critic, just as every man ever to contemplate that work which we name Nature is already that special subset of critic called a philosopher and theologian.
As professional philosophers exist to aid amateurs in thinking more clearly and consistently about the nature of Nature, so too is the task of professional critics like ourselves to aid the public in the appreciation and enjoyment of the art with which they engage. A critic is not a consumer advocate; when he considers the “value” of a given piece, it’s never in the monetary sense. Nor does he make a recommendation as to which works others should spent their money on. He makes no such exhortations, but rather exegetes the works with which they’re already familiar. Nor does he advise the artists themselves; his criticism exists not to aid the artist in improving his portfolio in the future, but to aid the public in enjoying that portfolio in the present.
If there is any additional labor to the vocation of professional critic, it is in aiding all men in becoming better critics for themselves. There are few other self-improvements that have quite so edifying an effect on an individual. Sustenance merely for survival is a simple matter, but from an early age we seek out food we find flavorful because we want enjoyment in life. As we mature, the presentation of a plate, the ambiance and décor of a restaurant, even the story told by the server as to the provenance of the ingredients and the preparations by the chef all serve to further enhance our enjoyment of the simple act of eating. But if we want to enchant our meal even more, we must turn to professional critics – to the sommelier who will instruct us as to how to drink our wine, which aromas to be mindful of, its dryness, its acidity. But better yet is when we ourselves come to each meal with the same skills as a sommelier, or a brew master, or a cheese monger.
And best of all – the Summum Bonum, the good life – is when we approach not merely the culinary arts, but all art with the same critical eye towards full appreciation. A stroll down a city sidewalk becomes an outdoor gallery whose artwork is architecture and whose sculptures are skyscrapers. Playing a puzzle-platformer imparts increased empathy for the victims of history’s most horrific tragedy. Watching a film about a smack down between spandex-clad strongmen becomes a contemplation on divine theodicy.
In this sense, criticism is nothing short of a superpower, an X-ray vision of sorts by which we see through the veil of material reality to gaze upon the invisible meaning behind it. Philosophers use this special sight to stare directly at the Form of the Good itself. As critics, we witness the True, Good, and Beautiful refracted across all of Man’s artistic achievements.
The day may come when through technological and social advancements homo sapiens need no longer labor to survive. But the absence of work will not entail a loss of dignity. For as long as men are Man, every individual will always retain the vocation of critic, our one and only job in life to appreciate art and enjoy engaging with such. We current day critics are futurists, forerunners to the rest of the human race, racing ahead to that happy day when the whole of humanity engages wholly in the Humanities.
Criticism is not important. It is all-important. It is central to our very identity Man. We are creators and characters alike, living in a cosmic comic book even as we make comics and games and films of our own. Creation itself, no less than our sub-creations, is brimming with meaning. As above, so below. By learning to read the meaning behind our own works of art, we learn to better read the meaning behind God’s art as well, and our place in it.
Originally published January 12th, 2017