The Test of Time Discussed in The Atlantic and the NYT

August 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve written before about the Test of Time and what a toxic, stultifying idea it is. Recently I saw two different articles that, directly and indirectly, take up this eternal debate on how to discuss whether a creative work is any good, so I thought it’d be worth recapping their arguments here:

First off, The Atlantic had an article called “The ‘Greatest Films Ever’ List Includes Nothing From the Past 40 Years? Good”, written in response to the latest “Greatest Films Ever” list from Sight and Sound magazine, in which Vertigo displaces Citizen Kane at the top for the first time ever. The argument from The Atlantic is typical middlebrow timidity:

Yes, there are present-day works that could stand next to past cinematic greats…but they need to not just pay their dues first — they need to prove they are as good, if not better.

As always whenever anyone argues for the Test of Time, this author defers to an imaginary objective sifting force in the universe, as if films don’t rise to “greatness” because of human beings’ opinions. The term “pay their dues” is also a disgusting apology for meekness or wrongness in critics of the current generation — the notion of a work paying its dues means readers or filmgoers or critics today shouldn’t feel compelled to be insightful or right. They can, apparently, just keep their mouth shut for a few decades when it comes to challenging or strange work.

Second, the New York Times (whose articles on writing I generally can’t stand) has a much better take on criticism, entitled “A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical”. The article praises perceptive and rigorous panners and bemoans the general bland cheerleading or sheepishness of contemporary criticism. The author quotes (to disagree with) Dave Eggers, who in a 2000 interview stands up for not having opinions:

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you…Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a [expletive] of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, this is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

Eggers’s argument, I suspect, is motivated by a similar condescension as that in the Test of Time: honesty and rigor are hard, and you might not like the places they take you. So don’t bother with them — it’s easier and safer to keep your mouth shut.

The NYT piece goes on to defend good hard criticism, positive or negative, that’s founded on serious insight and consideration. Nothing really matters in criticism except the pursuit of the truth.

I’m glad to see that there are still people out there defending honest criticism, but articles like the one in The Atlantic will pop up every now and then to the end of time, extolling reserve and restraint and quietly trying to instill in us that we aren’t fit to look closely at the world. And they’ll go unquestioned because they seem so nice. The price of a free mind is continually being made to feel bad about it.

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