Reflections on Cultural Commentary and Creative Criticism


Yosef Wosk, OBC, Ph.D., dD.Litt., Th.M


Reflections on Cultural Commentary and Creative Criticism

Most people resent criticism. Creative criticism, however, is an act of generosity. It helps to improve both the form and content of the art, the person, or the phenomenon being critiqued. It adds a dimension of creative tension and a breath of perspective. Not all know how to criticize; fewer understand how to accept it; but ultimately everyone benefits.

Being the recipient of criticism is even more difficult than being the critic. We are all trying to survive and when threatened—whether by nature, personal doubt, or a considered enemy—we respond in complex ways.[1] What the artist sometimes forgets is that cultural criticism is not the same as moral rebuke. It is not bullying nor an exercise in public shaming but rather a gift and a challenge.[2] Anyone can use criticism as a weapon but only the mature critic wields the pen like a skilled surgeon using words as a healing balm.

On the other hand, the one being critiqued does not have to accept the review. After all, it is only someone else’s opinion and the playwright could declare with the inimitable Oscar Wilde: “The play was a great success, but the audience was a total failure.”

Effective criticism is as remarkable as it is rare: it reminds us of the ideal when the mundane doesn’t live up to its potential. Its light scatters shadows[3] and awakens the reader to an expanded sense of reality. The critic must have the courage to see what exists and speak its name but should not seek to humiliate the one being critiqued. The artist and the critic compliment one another: one acts, the other reacts; one sounds, the other echoes; one offers, the other receives.

The critic is part of a vast cultural ecology. The authentic critic does not offer critique to stand apart from the art or artist—although detached objectivity is imperative. Creative criticism is humble, not arrogant. It may be confident, daring and bold but ultimately it remains subservient to art, culture, and creation. The highest calling of the critic is as a force of nature, a mentor, and, if permitted, as a co-creator. Constructive criticism is an indication that the writer or broadcaster is aware that they are a cell of a larger organism and have regard for both the artist’s struggles and achievements.

Criticism is not always harsh. The critic also fulfills another role: that of cheerleader and champion, of one who reports ovations, thrills and transcendent triumph. In its finest expression, cultural commentary is as noble an art as the craft itself.

The critic evaluates better than most of us, for we are too diffident or polite to reveal the thing as it is in itself—das Ding an sich. We tend to become apologists for mediocrity. We subjugate our warrior eye to a timid heart, exchange cultured taste for manufactured irrelevance, refute the Music of the Spheres for a cacophony of urban noise, and sacrifice perfection in the name of compromise. Without critics to charge us, we gravitate to lower standards and become like false idols that have mouths but cannot speak and eyes but dare not see.[4]

Critics, however, are not afraid of expressing themselves. As one who is both blessed and burdened with a multisensory palette of impressions, the cultural commentator partakes of acute observation and exquisite discernment. The critic is an objective ambassador, beholden to no one. The critic stands between the art and the public, a representative of both artist and audience. The critic must be able to see clearly, listen intensely, imagine prophetically, and render reviews with the animated authority of a judge called to sit on the bench of Public Perception.

Max Wyman is a mentsch among us who lives his life as if it were a poem enveloped in an aura of romantic idealism. He brilliantly fulfills the demanding criteria of a master critic. As a soulful expression of friendship, he invites us to join him on the immense journey into the human heart of universal creativity.

[1] A fundamental aspect of human consciousness is self-reflective awareness. Everywhere we go, our inner critic—along with a hundred other characteristics—is there. This faculty comes with a warning, for if we critique ourselves too obsessively we may descend into darkness and paralyzing anxiety.

[2] In addition to training critics, we also need to educate society on how to react to others’ opinions. When we recover from our wounds-disguised-as-words, we may realize that the purpose of criticism is to enlighten and advance us. Initially it may be painful but the Wisdom Traditions suggest that any love that does not include correction is false and that a thoughtful person appreciates appropriate criticism because it leads to improvement (Proverbs 9:8).

[3] Cf. In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki, Vintage Books, London (2001): originally published in Japan, 1933; first English translation, 1977. This classic essay on Japanese aesthetics is a paean to dim light, shadows and darkness. It juxtaposes “the collision between the shadows of traditional Japanese interiors with the dazzling light of the modern age”.

[4] Psalms 115: 5-7.