“Good” vs “Big”: A litmus test for critics


How do you choose what art to check out? Usually by asking around. You might peruse a critical forum like this one; you may chat with friends on the internet; you may just casually cruise a party asking, “Has anyone heard…? Has anyone seen…?” Newly emboldened by open review forums like Twitter and Yelp, everyone is willing to offer opinions—but how do you choose whom to believe?

Here’s a rule that has rarely failed me: Believe “good;” beware of “big.”

When a would-be critic deems something “good,” that expresses genuine enjoyment and appreciation, and I’d go ahead and check it out. But when somebody says, “big”—or especially, “big right now”—I’d advise you to slowly back away.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not inherently bad for an arts entity to get “big.” Ideally, “big” status is attained through merit, when enough people have enjoyed an artist’s work that he/she bobs to the surface of the name-recognition pool. However, when a critic chooses to describe art in terms of general power and popularity rather than specific appreciation, it’s hard to trust that person’s priorities. In my experience, saying “big” betrays a craven “who’s who” calculation that remains as odious in adult life as it was in high school. When a critic is thinking this way, he or she ceases to be a tastemaker and turns into an arts politician or a bookie, playing the odds rather than seeking higher truth.

When you hear a “big” statement, you might press the speaker: “Do YOU like it?”—or you may just prefer to excuse yourself to the loo, which is usually less full-of-it than the person who says “big” about art.

Further sapping the relevance of the “big” distinction are those who conspicuously demonstrate mainstream recognition without talent (Hi there, dynastic celebrities and reality stars!). With money, luck, shamelessness or all three, it seems any cow can jump over the moon. There’s even a publicity machine that tries to superficially pin “talents” to the more lackluster faction of top-feeders after the fact, in an attempt to reverse-engineer opportunity into merit. Because there’s a lot of money to be made in that racket, the people on that payroll love to bandy about “big” to justify their oft-cockamamie priorities. To them, it’s a given that we should pay attention to whomever and whatever is already “big,” because that’s where the money is—inspiration be damned. Of course, “big” and “good” can coexist, but there’s not the cause-effect relationship that you, I, or Charles Darwin might wish. You may be able to take “big” to the bank, but you must never take it to heart.

Gonzo critic Chuck Klosterman (“Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs”) draws his pet distinction between two other keywords: “cool” and “great.” He cites Billy Joel as the perfect example of a pop-culture figure who isn’t cool, but is great—and it’s easy to ascertain what he means. Joel’s pop song catalogue is undeniably strong and resonant, but the man himself exudes a certain lack of command or mystique. Alternately, numerous people who possess so-called rock star personalities have never written songs as meaningful as Joel’s.

Somewhere between the idealistic “good,” the cynical “big” or “cool,” and the grandiose “great,” lies the objectively observant “interesting because…” When critics—armchair or pro—begin a discussion with “[A given arts entity] is interesting because…” it means they’re acknowledging that entity’s wider power or prominence, but they may have to step outside their own preferences in order to appreciate what the wider world apparently enjoys. To me, this seems fair enough. Once a YouTube video racks up a few million views or a musician is invited to play Carnegie Hall, it may be time to admit that art’s victory and scry to find its meaning, whether you personally like it or not. At this point, though, the art commentator dabbles in sociology and breaks faith with recommendation. “Interesting” does not necessarily mean “worthwhile”—so proceed with your own best discretion.

Words, words, words can never express what art actually is anyway. But they offer a clue about whom to believe.


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