H.L. Mencken and Pixar’s RATATOUILLE on criticism

January 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

I remember after I saw Ratatouille in 2007, I was thinking a lot about criticism and the role of critics in the art landscape. Without spoiling much, a pivotal character in the film is Anton Ego, the food critic who is known to be impressed by nothing but holds Parisian attention hostage on the matter of the best food in Paris. Ego (a moniker that deserves consideration in itself; Is he consumed by his own conception of himself? Were the writers commenting perhaps on Freudian concept of the ego, or maybe even Lacanian concepts? Who knows) is vilified throughout the entire film but ends up being the final release we get as an audience, when he falls in love with our chefs Remi and Linguini’s cooking.

At the time of viewing, I remember thinking – what in the world gave Ego (or critics at large) such power that he gets to decide what is or isn’t good art? Why isn’t art democratic? What about the hundreds of people who love the art that Remy and Linguini (or artists) create? Since then I’ve had a number of conversations with friends about the role of criticism in society. And I’ve even had periods where I’ll only read a particular film or literature critic, or swear off of criticism all together, or some combination in between.

Today, I ran across this essay by H.L. Mencken (who, in interest of full disclosure, I was first introduced to because of the ending quote on the last episode of THE WIRE). In it, he introduces a pretty compelling definition of and case for criticism. This snippet summed it up well for me:

It is [the critic’s] business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.

I don’t know if I’ve come across too many such critics, at least in the areas of art that I access all the time (books, films, music). However, when I do come across such critical works, they become very meaningful very quickly. I don’t know if Ego in Ratatouille ever gave us this, but perhaps the sequence of him remembering his childhood and his mother’s cooking was the closest we got.

In the controversy surrounding the Allen Ginsburg poem “Howl“, one critic on the witness stand when asked about the meaning of specific words or sentences in the poem said something like “well, that’s why poetry is poetry. It’s not prose. It can’t easily be explained in prose.” I think that’s what a good critic can sometimes do. S/he can turn poetry into prose.

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