The Crisis of Criticism

review by Susan Raffo

The Crisis of Criticism, Edited by Maurice Berger,
The New Press, New York, (172 pages, $13.95)

That there is a crisis in criticism would be the only thing each of the contributors in this book agree on. The role of criticism, the language of criticism and the intent of criticism are as contested as the variant perspectives each critic gives to a piece of art. This is not surprising.
The arena of criticism is not separate from the larger war on cultural meaning currently waged within every aspect of American life. The critic, according to these contributors, is on the frontlines of this battle and is unwillingly the focus of this battle. These essays, selected by Berger, act as a kind of marker, a moment of pause in which some of the larger discussions around cultural meaning, identity politics and art, and the role and meaning of criticism and the critic in the late 20th Century can be documented.
Berger starts the book with Arlene Croce's controbersial essay, "Discussing the Undiscussable," (The New Yorker, December 1995) on the work of Bill T. Jones and what Croce calls "victim art". Croce's essay and the discussion it generated (some of the response essays are included in this volume) is, for Berger, testament to "the perilous state of criticism itself." This perilous state of criticism, explains Berger, sets up a confusion as to whether or not critics are actually needed, let alone respected, as contributors to American cultural life.
After the initial discussion prompted by "Discussing the Undiscussable," the remaining essays provide a range of studies on critical forms such as: film criticism as a part of film studies, or film criticism in the line of Sisket and Ebert; academics and literary criticism; and the culture of classical music at the end of the 20th century. In an arts world increasingly driven by corporate money and corporate marketing, the role of the critic acorss all art forms seems increasingly confused, a wavery line between the educated observer or cultural worker and the public relations copy artist for hire. In The Crisis of Criticism, Berger doesn't offer the reader strategies for defining criticism or understanding the critical role into the 21st century. It is the questions and the clash of perspectives raised in this book that are important, and out of these questions and their many responses will likely come numerous relationships between arts communities and critical work.

Susan Raffo is a member of Center for Arts Criticism's Board of Directors. She is a writer and edited the anthology Queerly Classed: Gay Men and Lesbians Write About Class, published in 1997 by South End Press.