These should be the best of times for critics. The arts in America are exploding, culture has been democratized and just about anything can be called "art."
Who else but the professional critic has the expertise and the perspicacity to go through it all, to determine what is art and what is a masquerade, and to explain why?
Yet in today's highly commercialized society, where distinctions between high culture and low have become blurred, celebrities often hold as much sway as critics, at least in determining popular success.
Book publishers crave a push from Oprah Winfrey or Don Imus, while Broadway turns to Rosie O'Donnell, an unabashedly uncritical booster, to give a show a lift. The fact that Andrew Lloyd Webber collects Victorian art helped revive interest in artists like Edward Burne-Jones (who now has an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). And Hollywood, with help from eager television producers, editors of glossy magazines and reviewers happy to provide gushing ad blurbs, can now generate a flood of glowing publicity that often drowns out serious critiques.
Put that all together with the proliferation of cable television channels, talk shows, Internet sites and magazines that dote on celebrities, and it is no wonder part of the critic's role has been usurped.
But does the rise of the celebrity taste maker, who functions more as booster than as judge, mean the decline of the serious critic? And if critics are less read and less heeded in the commercial arena and perhaps even among the cultural elite, who or what is to blame?
These questions are starting to cause considerable debate among critics who publish in academic journals and those who write for newspapers and magazines. The answers so far focus not only on society's commercialism, but also on the importance of young audiences that disdain authority figures and on the critics themselves.
Much academic criticism, of course, has long been written off as impenetrable and irrelevant. But now a small but growing cadre worries that critics who write for wider audiences are losing influence, too, leaving the mass market in charge of defining what is good and what is bad art.
Certainly, some artists and critics argue, no one wields the influence of a Clement Greenberg, who championed Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock; or Brooks Atkinson, who raised awareness of serious American dramatists like Eugene O'Neill, or Pauline Kael, who made the reputations of directors like Martin Scorsese.
"A lot of critics think they have power, and it's news to them that people aren't listening to them," said Maurice Berger, who recently edited "The Crisis of Criticism" (The New Press, 1998). Mr. Berger, a senior fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School, hopes the collection of articles by writers like Joyce Carol Oates, Bell Hooks and Wayne Koestenbaum, a professor at the City University of New York, will set off alarms.
Morris Dickstein, the director of the Center for the Humanities at the City University of New York and the author of "Double Agent: The Critic and Society" (Oxford University Press, 1992), about literary criticism, would agree. Although he did not believe that there was a crisis, he said that criticism was even more consequential now than in the past precisely because culture and commerce were so intertwined, particularly in areas like film.
"The interest of the people who are doing the marketing is in producing products that are floating on a sea of hype," he said. "Only when you read a serious review do you see the issues underneath. Criticism plays a very important role in keeping people honest. Otherwise things will be hyped out of sight and reduced to the lowest common denominator."
"Criticism is especially helpful with avant-garde art or when the arts are changing," he added. "There are things that don't make sense to people without reviews." Turning to history, he cites George Balanchine, whose choreography made shapes in space, like an Abstract painting, instead of telling a story: "Critics helped expose the public to the subtle things he was doing."
Though he sees no need for hand-wringing, Mr. Dickstein did say that critics had lost some power to influence public taste, as did Michael G. Kammen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who wrote "The Lively Arts: Gilbert Seldes and the Transformation of Cultural Criticism in the United States" (Oxford University Press, 1996), among other books. "There has been," he said, "a steady diminution over the last 50 years."
The slide stems, in part, from demographics and the youth culture. Joe Roth, who as the chairman of Walt Disney Studios decides what movies are made and orchestrates the high-octane campaigns to sell them, has noted a difference among generations. Younger audiences, who go to movies more often than their elders, prefer to make up their own minds based on buzz, not reviews.
Several critics cite the money-driven market economy, which defines a high-quality movie as one that does well at the box office, not one that offers a powerful script or fine acting, as the source of critical malaise. From Nielsen ratings to best-seller lists, a market gauge exists for virtually every arts field.
Other critics think part of the problem is self-inflicted. "The Crisis of Criticism," for example, was at least partly inspired by an internecine incident: Arlene Croce, the dance critic, wrote a piece for The New Yorker in December 1995 explaining that she had declined to see and review a performance by the black, gay, H.I.V.-positive choreographer Bill T. Jones because it included video and audio tapes of people terminally ill with cancer and AIDS. "Victim art," she called it, a prime example of how culture had been politicized beyond recognition.
The article met with swift reaction, pro and con, not only from readers but also from Ms. Oates, who argued that Ms. Croce's article was "a landmark admission of the bankruptcy of the old critical vocabulary, confronted with ever-new and evolving forms of art."
In no time, Mr. Berger was recruiting critics to criticize criticism of literature, dance, art, film, music, even fashion. "It's like a bunch of doctors saying that the medical system isn't working very well," he said. "It's still important even though it's something that patients have known all along."
Mr. Koestenbaum, author of "Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon" and writer of the libretto for the opera "Jackie O," sees a problem with the woeful amount of space available for book criticism and wants critics to use what is available more advisedly. He proposes a radical plan to remedy the "waste of space" given over to "a reviewer's display of spleen," adding "as if there were not hundreds of shipwrecked books that never receive adequate attention." He writes: "I suggest that the exercise of sanctioned aggression known as book reviewing be retired and replaced by passionate acts of advocacy. Writing a review takes enormous work. I cannot imagine summoning the energy if I didn't feel that I needed to save a book from certain death, to wedge it into a crowded marketplace, to support a kind of writing that I esteem." (He did not address the question of who would print only positive reviews.)
Alan Wolfe, a sociology professor at Boston University, is also troubled by book critics, but for a different reason. Writing recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, he took on both academic and popular writers for using reviews to discuss the writers' motive or to advancetheir own political and ideological views. "The actual book -- its craft, its cogency, its energy, its shortcomings -- gets lost," he wrote.
Others, like Sarah Rothenberg, a musician with Da Camera in Houston, and Richard Martin, the curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, fault critics for such sins as using alienating jargon, speaking mainly to one another instead of addressing the concerns of readers, automatically bowing before politically charged and multicultural works for fear of giving offense, and simply, lazily asserting their views, without displaying any reasoning. "There's a certain mentality among critics, that if I say it's good, it's good, and I don't have to say why," Mr. Berger said.
Critics may also have lost power with the public because there are now so many of them, Mr. Kammen said. "As recently as 20 or 25 years ago, there were not as many critics," he said. "Now The New York Times reviews pop culture that it would not have 20 years ago, and there's an incredible number of popular culture magazines that have critics. You see six or more reviews of something, and you feel you're drowning in different perspectives. That's different from when Clement Greenberg could make or break not only an artist but a whole movement."
Yet Mr. Kammen adds that the democratization of criticism is not necessarily bad because the big critic can have too much power: "When Clement Greenberg didn't like something, he absolutely scorned it and it ceased to be an option: even museums didn't buy what he didn't like. He became a tyrant of taste, not an arbiter of taste."
David A. Ross, who just became the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art after seven years as director of the heavily criticized Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan, argues that the arts profit most from a combination of popular and critical response.
In fact, he often tries to ignore critics. "People vote with their feet," Mr. Ross said. "And when attendance is up and membership is up, you know you're doing the right thing."
"The critical dialogue is very important," he added. "But it's important for critics to not just say, 'This is what I like.' We want their opinion, but we want them to educate, to inspire people to go out and look at something. The 'thumbs up, thumbs down' kind of criticism inspires apathy and cynicism. It's a misunderstanding of the critic's responsibility, which is to say, 'Go out and see this, and then let's talk.' "