Criticism as art

To be able to criticize requires self-criticism – a relentless paradox.

First one needs to be struck by something – in the balls or wherever – then to get involved. At the same time critical distance must be kept. The science of ethology, the study of animal behaviour, calls this ambivalence.

A goose is eagerly stretching its long neck. At the same time its entire body posture indicates imminent flight. The bird seems to be torn in two by the opposing forces of curiosity and fear.



Such an ambivalent animal is the critic.

Often criticism is only seemingly criticism. Someone thinks he offers criticism, yet he is merely ventilating an opinion; or worse, we only have a vulgar shouting match. A renegade after many years leaving his party suddenly bursts into violent and often excessive abuse of his former friends. He merely imagines to have left that social circle behind him, yet he is stronger involved in his ‘object of critique’ than those who are still members of the club. The renegade’s ‘criticism’ is too intense, his forced distance merely camouflages his dire and unwanted involvement.

Sometimes the direction of a critique remains unclear. The mother-hen who prudently watches the ups and downs of her child, suddenly lashes out at the husband because she dares not express her objection to some of the child’s behaviour at that child itself. After all, we’re locked inside the pressure cooker of the Western ‘nuclear family’, that unpleasant oedipal triangle of mommy/daddy/child. In this unsavoury situation the child comes to detest his parents for everything that ‘hurts’ him, while at the same time – and of course – ‘honouring’ and ‘loving’ them.

Resentment quickly becomes a surrogate for criticism. Yet many who spit their gall consider themselves to be serious critics.

The genuine critic flicks an opponent because he is involved in some issue – his life, however must not depend on it, only then can he also keep his distance. More or less like the chess player, who takes his adversary’s pawn en passant – not by banging into it and rudely running the other pawn off the board, but delicately bypassing it at an appropriate distance, in the process pointing out to it the exclusive features of its position.


The curious paradox of distant involvement never results in black/white conclusions, criticism is always ambivalent. While criticizing the other, the critic is highlighting aspects of himself, just like a novelist expresses different aspects of his own personality in the different characters he creates.

Perhaps the novelist, the philosopher and the psychiatrists – each in his or her own way – approaches the ideal-typical critic. They practice the probing of their own bias. The moment they have laboriously mastered a new form of favouritism, they doubt it immediately and ask what may be wrong with it.

Making a chair, in order to saw off its legs while sitting on it.

Although the critic distances himself from both the world and himself, he knows that this task will never succeed completely. However dubious psychoanalysis may be a psychiatrist always performs a small miracle. He must empathize with the suffering other, then – when his patient’s need is greatest and some kind of love is expected – he must keep the sufferer inexorably at bay.

When the distress of this almost schizophrenic process of criticism and self-criticism taxes a novelist, a philosopher or a psychiatrist all too heavily and a need arises for the beneficial criticism of another, they may become one another’s clientele. To appease himself, the philosopher reads novels and poems, the novelist ends up on the couch of the psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist draws soothing wisdom from the philosopher. Now and then, a novelist becomes his own psychiatrist. Or the psychiatrist writes a novel.

The critic is a passer-by, although not in the Benjamin manner. There is a vital difference between the ‘method’ of the rag-gatherer that Walter Benjamin presents and the approach of the critical analyst. The rag-gatherer’s is a kind of surrealistic walk through town, finding objet trouvé after objet trouvé, and putting these with his pricker in his bin – as it were bien etonnés de se trouver ensemble. This is an approach to be recommended to artists, poets and painters. Their manner of mind is one of ‘uncon¬scious scanning’, to use that happy phrase coined by Anton Ehrenzweig‎. This free association may be supplemented by consciously grafting two found ‘objects’ that in ‘normal life’ do not go together that easily.

The same procedure would be pretty disastrous for what is after all critical analysis. Criticism implies the always returning question whether premises and argument do or do not fit the object, whether they are appropriate to it.

Readers of poems or novels, visitors to buildings, listeners to music, lovers of paintings – all of them linger only for a moment. Works of art that we enjoyed, parties we where part of, people we met and lost sight off, these are so many ports of call for our attention, hotels where we spent a longer or shorter time. At each visit the critic runs a risk. The hospitality of people and of works of art may compromise his attention.

Becoming aware of this tension, one easily feels invited to overdo the critique or even try to ‘destroy’ the object of criticism. Unpleasant reviews of books galore.

The great journalist IF Stone found his own solution. He was so afraid of the mildness forced upon him by making contact with others. Personal contact with the interviewee, so he claimed, compromises one’s later report of the interview. Thus, he shunned every interview with power holders. The journalist could better get his material from the archives.

The art critic cannot but come into contact with the works of art he wants to criticise; Stone’s archives for him are no solution. Good criticism of art also cannot do without what Robert Musil so beautifully described as ‘moral tenderness’. The art critic and the literary critic have no safe guard against compromise, thus they should not be too aggressive, nor too meek. After all, nothing is pure, no one is pure – only the puritan lives this illusion.

All is always already compromised. Dilemma seems to be the catchword. Criticism itself is a minor art.

Sierksma, December 1990


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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