The Persistent Myth of Critical Objectivity

For some reason, the idea that there is some overarching standard of “good” and “bad” in culture, that there can be such a thing as an “objective” cultural critic, persists. Yet most of those who have become “great” at cultural criticism — who have become known and trusted arbiters of what cultural artifacts are worth investigating, investing in — have come out strongly on the side of no true concrete standards. Or at least that’s true of those I consider “great”: Pauline Kael referred to “saphead objectivity.” Roger Ebert often quoted Robert Warshow: “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.” And in the brilliant Let’s Talk About Love, Carl Wilson turns a book-length dissection of Celine Dion into a treatise on why “good” and “bad” are irrelevant, why we all like cultural artifacts for personal and idiosyncratic reasons that should not be judged by others.

Cultural criticism is a meaningful endeavor. But only if we relate the work in question to ourselves, then convey that relation to readers who can make their own judgements.

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