We have various copies of The New Yorker lying around and while I try to be disciplined and avoid them, sometimes I lapse and end up wasting my time on an Alice Munro story without an ending or browsing through the ads for horizontal seersucker suits, gold broaches in the shape of endangered turtles, and German dancing clogs. And some times it gets really bad: I read David Denby’s film reviews. Which reminds me of Barnett Newman’s greatest artistic contribution—his saying that “Artists need critics like birds need ornithologists.”
I think too often judging—or “criticism”—has no real productive purpose. For instance, Why is Denby reviewing “Poseidon?” Is that the sort of film that the typical New Yorker reader will see? Unlikely. Then again, I don’t have good information on the target demographic for the magazine. But I thought it aimed higher.
An acting of judging always has to use some criterion. The cat is judged small relative to the fridge; the fridge is judged small relative to the house; the house small relative to the office building. But what is the point of judging if not to narrow the differences between the thing judged and the criterion? And if there is no possible way to narrow the gap, then what is the point? Is there one—a point that is productive?
Judgment seems valued almost for its own sake. How many times do we judge this or that thing—our car, the neighbor’s hairstyle, the weather—when we have neither the intention nor the ability to move things closer to the criterion against which we are judging? Such cases often seem like a waste of emotional energy.
Sure, judgement needs to be practiced or tuned. This is not a bad thing. But it seems to me there should be some purpose to the judgment. There’s no real reason to judge, say, paintings as good or bad, subversive or progressive, if you aren’t planning on creating one or helping someone else to do so, as far as I can see. You likely have no productive goal in such a case.