“The unexamined life is not worth living” or so the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates supposedly said–and I am willing to bet that if he were alive today he’d add something like, “and bitching doesn’t count”. Socrates was a proponent of critical thinking, which is often confused with criticism.
I’ve been pondering the topic of critical thinking because I am currently involved as a mentor in a critical art writing project organized by CARFAC Saskatchewan. Decades ago, when I first starting writing art criticism there was much more of a cult of the critic. Print media encouraged coverage of the novel and the controversial and that certainly rubbed off on art critics. “Painter paints picture” is hardly news nor were most journalists trained to analyze fine art. What happened is that we ended up with human interest stories about artists, often with a regional slant, or articles that focused on the financial aspects. It was a narrative approach or story telling, if it was an outrageous story or an extraordinary event all the better. Think of finding a Maude Lewis at a flea market for a fraction of its market value.
What troubles me most is that the negativity that is sometimes attached to criticism has morphed into something more potentially sinister. Ranting is replacing reviewing. The well reasoned argument has changed into a seductive sound byte or a punchy tweet. Now that we are equipped with phones that rival professional video and audio capacity combined with near-immediate access to digital broadcast platforms there is little to hold back the unfiltered “really, really stupid” comments. Everyone can become a critic of almost any topic–and one without an editor. We live in a visual culture and unfortunately lots of finger waving and fast paced, loud talking mixed in with animated exclamation marks can be convincing to a surprising number of people.
Perhaps we are vulnerable to caustic ranting because we live in a society that is equal parts anxious and distracted. We are over-stimulated and our attention span is splintered. We consume flashy headlines but not balanced debate. The more uncertain the future becomes the more attractive is a romanticized version of a slow-motion past. We are bombarded with tragic and frightening events both at home and globally. A dose of gallows humour may relieve stress but it is no match for the roar of the rant.