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There’s a humorous scene near the beginning of Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part I. Presented as the birth of the art critic, it depicts a caveman relieving himself on a cave painting. While clearly intended as a joke, it speaks to the conflicting nature of artistic critique and how that conflict is escalating in the Internet Age. The problem with critiques of anything, but especially art, is a disconnect between what a critic is able to offer and what audiences want.

A critical assessment of something necessarily includes the critic’s subjective impressions of that thing. Even for a consumer good, for example a car, includes the critic’s opinion on feel of the car, handling, ride comfort, placement of dashboard controls, etc. With art, subjectivity is really all the critic can report—there’s no objective way to experience artistic work.

Meanwhile, the audience for critiques increasingly demands objectivity, despite the fact a purely objective critique will be boring, and, in the case of art, impossible. This clamor is further complicated by the fact art has essentially become a consumer good. All consumers want to know is: is the product (even if the product is art) worth my money? But, no individual critic on Earth can answer that question “correctly” for everyone.

Since critics cannot “get it right” for everyone, everyone becomes a critic of the critics. This has been the case ever since “Letters to the Editor” first became a thing a few hundred years ago. Modern media accelerated the dissemination of “reader opinions.” I remember reading critical letters in nearly every issue of the comics I subscribed to as a teen[1].

Along comes the Internet, and not only is it that much easier to vent your spleen to the “rotten critics,” but everyone now has a platform to broadcast their opinions. Furthermore, the Internet is revealing a nasty undercurrent of psychopathic personalities who viciously attack other people rather than merely debating opinions. The result is a barrage of “opinion pieces” from every corner of the globe masquerading, in some cases, as critical reviews.

Real critiques are an in-depth examination of the subject. Artistic critiques, especially, should be about the reviewer’s experience. What does it mean? How does it make one feel? What questions does it raise? Why are these questions important? Even reviews of consumer product need that human element rather than a rote listing of “features” and “bugs” and “does it work.”[2]

True critiques are diminishing as the rise of loud, often vulgar, and frequently hostile, “review” sites take over the Web and engage in abusive battles of words with their readers. And those types of “click-bait” writers are only increasing. In Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” villain Syndrome says, “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”

When everyone’s a critic…

[1] ROM: Spaceknight, Micronauts, and Star Wars in case you were wondering.

[2] For that kind of review, rating aggregators and e-tail “review” systems are a wonderful replacement, allowing, at a glance, what other consumers judge to be a product’s worth.