“We are all in the gutter,” says the character of Lord Darlington in Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” “but some of us are looking at the stars.” That famous statement begins in good egalitarian fashion, but few lines I know of in literature have such a boffo turnabout contained in them.
By the way, I don’t think that line is meant to be read as a condemnation of those who are “starry-eyed” as we might say, or of those whom we judge to be impractical dreamers. Instead I think it’s a comment that even though life is hard and it’s easy to get monopolized by the grubby and mundane, one can nevertheless choose to look up and see beauty and to embrace as important those things that enrich our lives.
And so for me, the line naturally leads to thinking about the arts and to those who try to turn our attention to things that are worth looking at. A good egalitarian might assert that if we’re all equally in the gutter, why should one self-appointed stargazer be listened to any more than someone else? Yet in the art world informed criticism plays a necessary role. While an art critic is by no means someone who just complains, one also has to be able to say unpopular things if in fact we’re agreed that popularity isn’t the summum bonum of the arts.
The late Christopher Hitchens once explained to an interviewer that quite often the job of the public intellectual — in which category I would include art and culture critics — is to be willing to say in the midst of public debate something along the lines of “it’s more complicated than that.” That is, to warn us away from the populist simplifiers. To be the one willing to speak against tides of public opinion, however heated, and point out there’s more complexity to a subject than people are noticing.
Likewise, the art critic is the one who takes a stand for standards and holds to it, remaining true to his or her convictions even when they run against public opinion. To say in response to the skeptical dismissal of a piece of public art as junk, “it’s more complicated than that.”
But being good egalitarians these days, we’re made uncomfortable by the outspoken voice that dares to say that public opinion is wrong. Yet if one notices anything in the chaotic sea of our political debate, it’s that there’s a vast gulf between opinion and informed opinion.
I’ve written before about how hard it must be to be an art critic in a small or midsize community when your analysis of, say, a concert performance may offend or antagonize a friend, colleague or just someone who feels invested in the scene. But while “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” may be a good guideline for interpersonal relationships, in art (certainly the professional art world if less so the world of the earnest amateurs) such a sentiment is far less valuable and even less constructive: Few good teachers would ignore mistakes by their pupils.
Art critics and public intellectuals, if they’re to do their jobs, can’t shy away from being thought of as an elitist simply because their informed opinion runs against the tide of everyone else’s thinking.
If preferring informed opinion to uninformed opinion is elitist, then perhaps we could do with a lot more of that sort of elitism mixed into our egalitarian society. Perhaps we’d be better off if more of us learned how to look up at the stars.