Most people associate faculty with criticism, that is, analyzing their own areas of knowledge, adding to that knowledge, and assessing what others have contributed to it. There is, however, a whole other field of criticism, one that operates far outside of the academy and one that many perceive to be in trouble. A. O. Scott, a professional critic, provides us a view of this filed in his Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth (New York: Penguin Press, 2016). Scott discusses the history of criticism, debates about its purpose, and its decline (at least as many assess it). It’s a book worth reading.
However, I just want to highlight a few observations Scott makes along the way. Scott mentions the “brand” nature of cultural institutions: “If they are to survive – if they to remain relevant instead of fading and crumbling – venerable institutions like museums, symphony orchestras, opera companies, and theaters will have to pander. The Louvre may be place, a relic, an archive, and a bazaar, but it is also, and maybe preeminently, a brand” (p. 112). The question we might ask is whether many archives have played on its brand or sought one. I seem to remember a decade ago the appearance of many items – paper, desk objects, and reproductions – attributed to the Vatican Archives, but I can’t remember many other instances of such marketing.
In his consideration about the decline of outlets for critics to express their views, Scott makes a comment reflecting the typical stereotype about archives: “This is not simply an august and ancient tradition fading into quiet, archive-bound oblivion, but rather an ethos of thought and writing that at its best could be speedy as well as rigorous, accessible as well as learned, passionate and irreverent as well as serious” (p. 222). In fairness, Scott is by no means the first nor will he be the least to equate archives with oblivion, but still. . . .
And finally, here is an observation by Scott about the digital future and the future of criticism: “The shape of the digital future is hard to predict – which will hardly deter self-appointed prophets and well-paid consultants from doing just that. What is certain is that there will be no shortage of words” (p. 250). And it is words that archivists and their allies can depend on.