Of what good is a Critic?

Perhaps I’ve begun to take myself too seriously at Travel Site Critic. After all… all I do is mull over travel websites and write my opinions about them. What’s the harm in that? Am I really benefiting anyone, and of what good is a Critic?

You see, I can’t stand critical people. Those people that gripe about every little thing as if they themselves are perfect really get under my skin, and I’m starting to wonder if I’ve become one of them. After all, our critical reviews have royally ticked off a few people and sparked some healthy criticisms themselves. I take some comfort in knowing that Critics have historically been despised, called out as hypocritical snobs and haughty ignorants to say the least.  On the other-hand, Critics have also been respected and commended for their views.

Going back to my grade school textbook, I see that a Critic properly defined is anyone who observes and expresses their personal view of the rightness, wrongness, or usefulness of something. A value judgment. That definition leaves something to be desired. Can we all call ourselves a Critic in some sense of the word?

Critics don’t need a license to do what they do. A Critic doesn’t even need to be a skilled in the art or accurate in their judgments, though it’s generally a good idea for a Critic to have thorough knowledge of the subject he is writing about. Irish writer Brendan Behan put it amusingly, “A critic at a performance is like a eunuch at a harem. He sees it done nightly, but is unable to perform it himself“. Yep, anyone can print out some business cards and Whala… they are a certified Critic, but he’s no expert. Although any Tom, Dick and Harry can call themselves a Critic, I believe good Critics follow a certain code of conduct which set them apart from average commentary writers.

Most debatable is the subject of good vs. bad, or right vs. wrong. A Critic’s judgments cannot be classified as right or wrong. Objective facts can be measured with tools and gadgets. Judgments are simply opinions, and they always carry a strong degree of subjectivity, which are themselves subject to critical analysis. Critics are most obviously human beings that carry a set of values and prejudices that infiltrate much of what they write. Just because a huge following of people believe that Led Zeppelin was the best rock band ever, that doesn’t make it so. Led Zeppelin has been called the “most commercially successful group of the 1970’s“, yet there are thousands who hate them for that very reason. That’s not to say I’m not a Led Zeppelin fan, but who’s right and who’s wrong?  The answer is highly subjective. In fact, no one is the best rock band ever and a good Critic will help prove that.

Those pesky value judgments that Critic’s make, whether good or bad, should be balanced. Praise is freely given where praise is due. If something is found good it should rightly be acknowledged by a Critic. Likewise, negative opinions shouldn’t be hidden in the closet for fear of retaliation. This doesn’t mean that Critics shouldn’t explain themselves.  It is not enough for a Critic to dislike something, but a Critic must be able to defend his reasons behind it.  A Critic should know why they hold such an opinion and help others to form their own opinions.

“In the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so – Food critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille

Critics should be honest. I believe people universally want honesty. What good is a Critic’s review if it gives in to excessive pandering? Respected French food critic François Simon doesn’t succumb to being friendly with France’s top chefs, and continues to challenge the status quo. Critics shouldn’t give the expected, mundane observations. It is impossible for a Critic to review something that will please everyone, and often those who don’t agree will categorize the Critic as stupid. Why, for stating something against the popular belief? An opposing belief doesn’t prove stupidity. I expect a good Critic to be real. They should help others to examine commonly accepted notions and help discover new greatness within their industry.

Of what good is a Critic, but to annoy those whom he criticizes? I read in Roger Ebert’s blog that if we are lucky, we sometimes come across new things, and that all a Critic had to do is look at what was before him, and describe what he sees. He went onto say, “They discover the new. A critic can defend it, publicize it, encourage it. Those are worth doing”. I believe that he was saying that a Critic does not merely tear down through criticism, but they build up through praise and discovery of new talent.  Their discoveries help bring to light hidden gems that may not otherwise be recognized.  A good Critic is a teacher without all the answers. He notices things that perhaps others would not, and causes individuals to examine whether those things that are popularly perceived as “The Best” in their industry are rightly so.

So now that I’ve gone on my rant, I’ll get back to mulling over travel websites and write my little opinions of them. Does that mean my views are right and that you should listen to me? Probably not. But, perhaps I’ll help you discover a travel website that you haven’t before, and you’ll save a bit of money, hassle, and time booking your next trip.

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