Why We Need Criticism
by Jeet Heer
Monday, July 5, 2010
If you click here you’ll find a podcast of a lively discussion of Ben Schwartz’s Best American Comics Criticism. Panelists include Schwartz himself as well as R. Fiore, Brian Doherty, Sammy Harkham and Joe Matt. Lots of contentious ideas are put forward (and some Comics Comics regulars are insulted) but I want to focus in particular on Matt’s statement that he doesn’t need to read criticism because he can decide for himself what’s good or not. That’s not an uncommon opinion and I think the proper response to this contention depends on what we mean by “criticism.” If we define criticism narrowly as analytical essays on an art form or particular works of art, then it’s true that criticism is a minority interest. But if we define criticism more broadly as any discussion of art or works of art, including conversations and the response of artists themselves to earlier art, then criticism is as unavoidable and essential as art itself. To be more concrete, some of the best comics criticism has come in the form of interviews done by artists like Gil Kane, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, etc. As Joe Matt mentions elsewhere in the discussion, he turns to interviews in The Comics Journal before anything else. Without these interviews, our entire sense of comics would be very different.
The best articulation I’ve ever read about the necessity of criticism came from an essay Henry James wrote in 1884 on “The Art of Fiction.” Here is the crucial part of the essay:
Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints; and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of honor, are not times of development—are times, possibly even, a little of dullness. The successful application of any art is a delightful spectacle, but the theory, too, is interesting; and though there is a great deal of the latter without the former, I suspect there has never been a genuine success that has not had a latent core of conviction. Discussion, suggestion, formulation, these things are fertilizing when they are frank and sincere.
This is perhaps the first and last time Joe Matt and Henry James have been brought together in the same discussion.