The “Death of the Critic” panel, with NOW‘s site on the screen.
Though North by Northeast has always been a music and film festival, it was perhaps inevitable that we now see the addition of NXNEi, the festival’s new web component. After all, the internet now permeates all facets of life, whether art, commerce, or popular culture, and anyone looking to make sense of the contemporary can’t afford to ignore what’s happening online.
If it’s this analytical drive to understand that NXNEi looks to serve, one of most intriguing and ambivalent aspects of the web is how it gives anyone at all a platform to speak—whether they are informed or not. Given that everyone can now offer their opinion, what purpose, if any, do arbiters of taste still have? This was the question at the heart of Wednesday’s “Death of the Critic” session.
Moderated by NOW‘s Josh Errett, the panel consisted of Kevin Lee of Yelp, Jacquilynne Schlesier of Chowhound, Ben Kaplan of the National Post, and Norm Wilner of NOW. (The Star‘s Ben Rayner was a mysterious no-show.)
Lee and Schlesier, who both represent websites that specialize in amateur criticism, convincingly argued that the sheer mass of people offering their opinions of restaurants and bars in their hometowns provided a net good. While professional food criticism always focused on the high end, people could now get a range of tastes, from the dive bar down the street to the hole-in-the-wall with amazing food (Gandhi’s, anyone?) to the upper echelon of dining. By opening the playing field, people have more access to information and opinions about the places in their neighbourhoods.
But as Wilner argued, much internet chatter focuses on the mainstream and popular at the expense of more niche, challenging work (the comparison that came up a few times was Transformers 2 and Police, Adjective). The function of the critic was both to shine light on the lesser known and innovative, while also providing history and context for readers who may be unfamiliar. What’s more, Kaplan added, the more opinions out there online, the more necessary the critic: it’s only the professional who can not only offer an informed opinion, but do so artfully.
Still, in the nineteenth century, writers like Matthew Arnold argued that the function of criticism was to assert what was good and true. Because reading had then become a mainstream rather than specialized activity, the point of criticism was to teach the “unwashed masses” what was the right thing to think about art. It might have been nice if the panel had addressed how this aspect of criticism—and critics themselves—are being changed and challenged by the web.
But change and challenge took on a far more optimistic tone with the final session of the conference, “At the Heart of It: Struggling to Connect in a Virtual World,” by noted web personality Ze Frank.
Over the years, Frank has become known for a series of whimsical, absurd, but often inspirational projects he puts together over the web. Though many can seem aimless—getting his considerable audience to dress up vacuum cleaners or creating eccentric games such as Atheist—he suggested he does such projects to learn something about networks of human behaviour.
What Frank says he’s discovered is that much of online activity is motivated by a kind of childlike id that seeks instant reward and feedback, and that the hard, grown-up work of internet life is to produce intimacy between humans rather than just fleeting connections and the satisfaction of superficial desires.
As an example, Frank ended his talk with a project called “The Chillout Song.” The track was put together in response to a letter by someone named Laura, who felt overwhelmed by life and asked if Ze might somehow make a song to comfort her. By putting up the beginnings of an idea on his site, Frank was able to solicit his fanbase to contribute layers of the song, which he put together into a finished product.
Frank played the song so the audience could hear the result (you can listen to it here), and when it ended, he concluded with a simple “thank you,” and stepped off the stage. Rather than mere polite applause and the usual scramble to leave and catch the subway, the audience clapped enthusiastically and then remained in their seats, as though they were hoping for something more. Others hurried up to where Frank was standing, shaking his hand, some going so far as to hug the appreciative speaker.
If creating moments of intimacy and connection truly is the “work” of the web, it seemed that Frank had done his job admirably.
Photos by Andrew Louis/Torontoist