Roger Ebert and the Social Value of Criticism

On Friday, April 5, 2013, I saw something I would never expect to see: the passing of a critic reported as front page news in the New York Times. The critic in question was, of course, Roger Ebert, the celebrity film critic who passed away presumably (the obituaries aren’t clear on this) due to complications relating to his thyroid cancer.

The purpose of my post is not to lionize Roger Ebert. Anyway, I’m hardly in any position to do so. I may have seen an episode or two of At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert in the 1980s, and I don’t recall ever reading any film criticism that he has written, except for maybe by accident at Rotten Tomatoes. About the only thing that sticks in my mind about Ebert’s critical writing is the controversy he stirred up with his half-baked claim that video games can’t be art, though to his credit he did subsequently engage the objections raised, finally concluding, “I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place.”[1]

No, my purpose is to reflect on the social value of criticism on the occasion of one of the world’s most famous critics’ death.

Professional criticism is in crisis. The decline of newspapers and magazines—hitherto a bastion of critical writing (including Ebert’s 46 years of writing for the Chicago Sun-Times)—has had dire implications for one of the few remaining paying professions for critics. But critics (who else?) have suggested that criticism has been in decline for decades, long before print began to founder. Problems identified have included the rise of consumerism, the decline of readers, critics’ own postmodernist refusals to take definite (or even polemical) positions, left- and right-wing influences that make art about politics instead of about art, the replacement of professional criticism with other metrics (e.g., sales figures, Nielsen ratings, download counts, and Amazon customer reviews), and plain old bad writing.

With such a pessimistic picture, Ebert’s obvious success as a critic offers an optimistic counter-narrative. It occurred to me that it would be a good exercise to identify some clear statements about the potential of criticism to contribute to society, to consider ways that Ebert provided such value, and turn more speculatively to the question of the possible roles of criticism with regard to interaction design.

What is good criticism? And what is its social value?

The School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York city is offering a relatively new MFA in criticism. Their web site has the following to say about the degree: “This program is not involved in ‘discourse production’ or the prevarications of curatorial rhetoric, but rather in the practice of criticism writ large, aspiring to literature.”[2] I like this formulation: “the practice of criticism writ large.” It reminds us that criticism can be more than Macworld reviews of the latest iPad app or hundreds of ranting customers of the latest version of Turbo Tax in the App Store. The SVA web site continues, “The practice of criticism involves making finer and finer distinctions among like things, but it is also a way to ask fundamental questions about art and life.” Thus, criticism is an ambitious and literary practice that is about (a) making distinctions and (b) taking on the big questions, presumably prompted by works that help us see or frame them in a new light. It is not fundamentally about saying yeah or nay to individual works, but rather a practice that stages an encounter between reflective thought and emerging works to educate our perception and cognition (i.e., making distinctions) and to take on the most important questions in life.

“In the best of circumstances,” cultural historian Maurice Berger writes, “the critic serves as a kind of aesthetic mentor.”[3] Certainly Ebert served as an aesthetic mentor, as the New York Times writes, “Not only did he advise moviegoers about what to see, but also how to think about what they saw.”[4] The last part—how to think about what they saw—suggests the pedagogical (or mentoring) dimension the critic’s work, specifically in its role of cultivating a sensibility for film appreciation and inculcating a demand for better works. Berger fleshes out his characterization of aesthetic mentoring by characterizing “the strongest criticism” as

capable of engaging, guiding, directing, and influencing culture, even stimulating new forms of practice and expression…. The strongest criticism uses language … as a means of inspiration, provocation, emotional connection, and experimentation.

The strongest criticism also helps the reader to move beyond the surface details of the cultural artifact…. By connecting the artifact and its institutions to the bigger picture of culture and society, the critic can, in effect, help readers better to understand the process and implications of art, the importance and problems of its institutions, and their relevance to their lives.[5]

I want all that for interaction design. I want a technical vocabulary that lets us make the sorts of distinctions that critics of paintings, lyric poems, and ballet have. In criticism of interaction design, I don’t merely want to know what the “must-have” app of spring 2013 is; I want my thinking to be challenged about what the role of tablets, of apps, of social media is or ought to be or could be. I want to see beneath the surface—to see the ideologies, skilled craft, subtle beauty, technical innovations, creativity, and social consequences—of individual interaction designs and, more fundamentally, interaction design as a medium. I want disagreement, no holds barred critical debates about what a design means, what makes a design good, what makes an innovation creative—precisely the sorts of vigorous and sometimes cantankerous debates that Siskel and Ebert—professional enemies before thrown together on TV—became famous for.

I also want the sort of criticism that takes the role of critical judgment as a part of its rationality; as James Elkins writes,

I find myself engaged by critics who are serious about judgment, by which I mean that they offer judgments, and—this is what matters most—they then pause to assess those judgments. Why did I write that? such a critic may ask, or: Who first thought of that? Art criticism is a forum for the concept and operation of judgment, not merely a place where judgments are asserted, and certainly not a place where they are evaded.[6]

Ebert’s writings were popular, not academic, and presumably do not aspire to levels of reflexivity that one might expect of an academic critic. Nonetheless, I read in one of his obituaries that, “In 1997, dissatisfied with spending his critical powers ‘locked in the present,’ he began a running feature revisiting classic movies.”[7] This is a reminder that films have, and are shaped by, a history, and that our “critical powers” require an ongoing engagement with that history lest they be limited. Is interaction design any different? Where are our design histories (let alone histories of interaction design criticism)?

Though Ebert is known for “two thumbs up,” there is no question that his reviews provided much more than a final evaluation; he “passionately celebrated and promoted excellence in film while deflating the awful, the derivative or the merely mediocre with an observant eye, a sharp wit and a depth of knowledge that delighted his millions of readers and viewers.”[8] In other words, Ebert provided reasons to justify his judgments. Several obituaries also noted his advocacy of lesser-known films, films that challenge viewers, films that raise our expectations of what films can be. This included his “Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival,” an annual gathering in which he curated quality films that audiences and the media overlooked. Philosopher of art Noël Carroll summarizes the social role of criticism as follows:

For me, the primary function of the critic is not to eviscerate artworks. Rather, I hypothesize that the audience typically looks to critics for assistance in discovering the value to be had from the works under review…. [T]he critic also occupies a social role. In that social role, the primary function of criticism is to enable readers to find the value that the critic believes that the work possesses. It is the task of criticism to remove any obstacles that might stand in the way of the reader’s apprehension of that value.[9]

For five decades, Ebert helped film audiences appreciate value in film, and his passing is a loss for film culture. But perhaps the greater loss is the decline of serious criticism in general, including its relatively weak showing in interaction design, which arguably occupies the same place in the twenty-first century as film did in the twentieth: the century’s dominant cultural form. Interaction design needs a forum for serious aesthetic and evaluative judgments, a forum that incorporates the history of design, that is aware of the history of its own judgments (and theories of judgment), and that supports living and passionate debates about what is good, what design is for, and what it all means.

[1] Ebert, R. (2010). “Okay, Kids, Play On My Lawn.”

[3] Berger, M. (1998). Introduction. In Berger, M., ed., The Crisis of Criticism. New York: The New Press, p.8.

[4] Martin, D. Roger Ebert, 1942-2013: Film Critic of the Mainstream. The New York Times 5 April 2013, p. A1.

[5] [5] Berger, M. (1998). Introduction. In Berger, M., ed., The Crisis of Criticism. New York: The New Press, p.11.

[6] Elkins, J. (2003). What Happened to Art Criticism? Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, p. 84.

[7] Steinberg, N. Roger Ebert 1942-2013: The Balcony is Closed. Chicago Sun-Times, 5 April 2013, p. 2.

[8] Steinberg, N. Roger Ebert 1942-2013: The Balcony is Closed. Chicago Sun-Times, 5 April 2013, p. 2.

[9] Carroll, N. (2009). On Criticism. New York: Routledge, pp. 12-14, 45.

1 Comment

  1. caseyaddy

    I also agree that building a language for design, and having an open an honest dialogue about it can be extremely helpful. This type of language would diffuse can help take out bring a polite and professional forum to engage with our fellow designers and practitioners to figure out what is good and what is not good about a design (aside from usability testing). The only language I get to use in critiquing on-the-job relates to style guides, UI conventions, and asking questions about the users. Being able to add a language of critique to improve the designer and the reviewer is something that I would appreciate, as the only critique I get to do is about the video games I play.


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