Summary Judgment

Criticism by Numbers

Who’s the most influential art critic of them all?

Art Critics. In the New York Observer, Hilton Kramer snarks at a Columbia study titled The Visual Art Critic: A Survey of Art Critics at General-Interest News Publications in America—calling the findings “academic twaddle” (but taking particular note of how he’s ranked in comparison to, say, Sister Wendy). In the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Knight is troubled by the project’s conclusion that journalistic art critics consider themselves educators, not judgment-makers: “The goal sounds benign, but its courtly arrogance is actually astounding. … Criticism is a considered argument about art, not a priestly initiation of the unenlightened into a catechism of established knowledge.”

Meanwhile, in the Village Voice, Jerry Saltz dishes up a portrait of the critic as a young man, harking back to a time when “everything I wrote was positive. I was like a cheerleader or a mascot.” He also makes this wry confession. “As with many critics, I began as something else: a painter. But I was always angst-ridden and blocked. I attended art school (never graduated), exhibited my work, sold it, was reviewed in Artforum and Art in America, and even got a National Endowment grant. But that’s just the failed artist in me shamelessly trying to convince you I could have been a contender.”

Music Critics. Jason Gross’ roundup of the best music writing of the year praises Terry McDermott’s Los Angeles Times piece on NWA (“Smart, well-researched, and endlessly readable”); Eric Idle’s funny, unsentimental eulogy to George Harrison; and Gerald Marzorati’s Slate piece on Beck. (“He’s wrong—the record’s bad Nick Drake—but what an argument he makes nevertheless.”)

The Pianist (Focus). “Haunting, violent, melancholy, The Pianist is a beautiful story, told in measured cadences by a master of old-timey narrative compression and expression,” writes the Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter. “It’s really not a movie that can be missed.”Nearly every major critic agrees with him. In The New Yorker, David Denby is less enthusiastic about Roman Polanski’s portrait of a disengaged musician caught up in the Holocaust, arguing that “an unconscious man cannot be a great movie character” and calling the film “not a work of great originality or imagination.” (Buy tickets to The Pianist.)

Just Married(Fox). Critics are charmed by Brittany Murphy and “cuddle-bug pinup” Ashton Kutcher but find this lame romantic comedy “unrelenting in its tediousness.” The New York Times’ A.O. Scott usually has a soft spot for dopey comedies, but even he says this “fluffy little doodad” is irredeemable, dryly quantifying the humor as follows: “the flatulence of the elderly, the smallness of European cars, and characters whose names happen to be slang terms for genitalia.” And in theVisalia Delta-Times, high-school senior Jessica Delgado is shocked (shocked!) by the film’s dark vision of honeymoon chaos: “I was disgusted at what was being projected on the screen, but little kids were laughing their heads off,” she moans.(Buy tickets to Just Married.)

Reality Television Renaissance Week! In the New York Times, Joyce Millman coins the term “Celebreality” to describe the new breed of where-are-they-now-and-why-are-they-eating-bugs shows, musing, “You have to admit, there is a certain French Revolution allure to the concept of stars at the mercy of the harsh whims of the common folk.”

Which brings us to Fox’s Joe Millionaire. On Throwing Things, blogmaster Adam is pleasantly surprised that the show’s prize schmo (a penniless bachelor who impersonates a fancy-pants heir) is “cognizant of the moral thicket he has willingly waded into.” On Television Without Pity, Miss Windy sounds the by-now classic refrain: “I believe I’ve just either watched the finest hour ever televised, or the beginning of the steep and rapid decline of Western civilization. Possibly both.”

On the less tawdry ground of PBS, the creators of An American Family (the pioneering ‘70s reality TV show) memorialize its gay trailblazer Lance Loud. Salon’s Carina Chocano questions the documentary-makers’ judgmental undercurrent toward the genre they created but ends with the acknowledgment that “if your baby grew up to be The Real World: Las Vegas you’d probably want to kill it, too.”

But, hey, for superlosers like me who merrily imbibed MTV’s smackdown-packed Real World Battle of the Sexes, check out these juicy reviews by the Web-savvy participants Hawaii Colin  and New Orleans enemies  Julie  and Melissa, and increasingly Real World-weary Lori from NY2.

The Joy of Sex, by Alex Comfort (Crown Publishers). Funniest review of the week goes to Christopher Buckley in the New York Times, who recommends that readers “peruse these mauve, titillating pages” for giggles—as well as glimpses of the famous naked hippie and his partner, a “comely raven-haired lady who just can’t seem to stop smiling, and little wonder, though she’s surely going to have a crick in her neck after all this.” Buckley ends the review with a pun for which he should be thoroughly lashed. ( The Joy of Sex.)

A Winter Marriage, by Kerry Hardie (Little, Brown). This “dark vision of the ties that bind” impresses several reviewers with its “psychological acuity, fresh phrasing and acerbic sense of both gloom and comedy.” To others, it’s more of big downer: Hardie “plunges, galoshes first, into the gloom,” snarks Catherine Lockerbie in the New York Times. ( A Winter Marriage.)

When the Women Come Out To Dance: Stories, by Elmore Leonard (William Morrow). Raves for Leonard’s collection praise “the aerodynamic form of his minimum-drag prose” (Arthur Salm, the San Diego Union-Tribune). Several critics suggest the lowlife chronicler has been wrongly neglected for his genre roots; in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Marc Schogol notes that Leonard’s craftsmanship is so subtle as to be invisible to readers, “the highest compliment one can pay.” In the New York Times, Charles Taylor flips that observation over, warning readers not to underrate Leonard “simply because we enjoy him.” Meanwhile, in the Detroit Free Press, contrarian Marta Salij paranoically suspects that the book’s release was delayed to avoid (nonexistent, it seems, other than her own) negative reviews. ( When the Women Come Out To Dance: Stories.)