Is it really all that fun to be a critic?
Anton Ego says “yes”
Ego is one of the villains of Pixar’s Ratatouille. You know the film – it’s the story of a kitchen rodent who has an uncanny gift for culinary achievement. It’s about a rat who is a chef. Among the many challenges our furry hero has to overcome is hiding his identity while working with a human who can serve as his hands and feet in the kitchen.
Ego comes to the restaurant, ready to pounce on the slightest lapse in creativity. However, our hero surprises Ego by preparing Ratatouille, “a peasant dish.” With one bite, Ego was transported back to childhood memories of his mother’s kitchen. Anton Ego came ready to receive haute cuisine. Anton Ego received comfort food.
I’m fascinated by what Ego writes of the experience. He begins with an admission that criticism is fun:
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.”
I’ve found that this is generally true. It is a lot of fun to snark about, to nitpick, to sneer at earnestness, to deflate pomposity, to joke at the ridiculousness of others. How much Christian discussion is fueled by delight in criticism of the theological offenses of others? How much political discussion is fueled by an enjoyment of demonizing the other team?
Yet Anton Ego continues:
“But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
Criticism is always reactive. Criticism needs something to criticize. Criticism, while necessary for improving creative work, always is subservient to creativity.
Then Anton Ego changes his posture. He writes:
“But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”
Ego lays down his acid. In its place, he offers roses.
This reminds me of something Andy Crouch talks about in his work Culture Making. We have default postures that we can take toward culture at large. Crouch suggests that rather than taking the posture of the critic, it is far healthier for Christians to adopt the posture of the artist or the gardener”
“The postures of the artist and the gardener have a lot in common. Both begin with contemplation, paying close attention to what is already there. The gardener looks carefully at the landscape; the existing plants, both flowers and weeds; the way the sun falls on the land. The artist regards her subject, her canvas, her paints with care to discern what she can make with them.
And then, after contemplation, the artist and the gardener both adopt a posture of purposeful work. They bring their creativity and effort to their calling. The gardener tends what has gone before, making the most of what is beautiful and weeding out what is distracting or useless. The artist can be more daring: she starts with a blank canvas or a solid piece of stone and gradually brings something out of it that was never there before. They are acting in the image of One who spoke a world into being and stooped down to form creatures from the dust. They are creaturely creators, tending and shaping the world that original Creator made.”
Ego loses his critic’s job. So, he partners with the rat to open a new restaurant.
The critic became a creator.
He moved from pedantry to possibility.
He discovered that, while it is fun to be a critic, it is far more satisfying to be a creator.
Might this be a lesson for the church? We who were told to “be fruitful and multiply”? We who were told that we are God’s good workmanship “created in Christ Jesus to do good works”? Could it be that it is time for us to lay down the mantle of critic for a time so that we might learn what it is to create?
Andy Crouch gives us this challenge:
“People who consider themselves stewards of culture – guardians of what is best in a neighborhood, an institution or a field of cultural practice – gain the respect of their peers. Even more so, those who go beyond being mere custodians to creating new cultural goods are the ones who have the world’s attention.”
Soli Deo Gloria