The business of judgment

“Let us start with…the pleasure of pronouncing an unfavourable verdict. ‘A bad book,’ someone says….and he appears to be saying something objective. His face, however, betrays his enjoyment of his words…We constantly catch friends, strangers, or ourselves at this business of judgement, and the pleasure of an unfavourable verdict is always unmistakable.

“It is a cruel pleasure…there is no mercy in it and no caution and it accords best with its real nature when it is reached without reflection. The passion it conceals is betrayed by its speed. It is quick, unconditional judgements which excite the pleasure visible in the face of their author.

Gavel Clipart 31006.jpg“…It consists in relegating something to an inferior group while presupposing a higher group to which we ourselves belong. We exalt ourselves by abasing others. The existence of two opposing kinds, different in value, is assumed to be natural and inevitable. Whatever the good is, it is there to be contrasted with the bad. We ourselves decide what belongs to each.

“For it is only in appearance that a judge stands between the two camps, on the borderline between good from evil…he invariably reckons himself among the good…the things he judges are quite definite and factual; his vast knowledge of good and bad derives from long practical experience. But judgement is also usurped by those who are not judges, whom no-one has appointed, and no-one in his senses would appoint to such an office. No special knowledge is thought necessary…

“At the root of this process lies the urge to form hostile packs, which, in the end, leads inevitably to actual war packs…It depends entirely upon circumstances whether one or the other of these groups engenders enough inner heat to become a pack and attack the opposing group…”

From Elias Canetti Crowds and Power (1960 Masse & Macht; 1962 English tr. Carol Stewart)

2 comments on “The business of judgment

  1. Vic Perry says:

    1 All aesthetic judgment is already subjective, so adding “this is just my opinion” or worse “IMHO” to your judgments is redundant at best and passive aggressive at worst. The beautiful paradox about arguing about art is that it is pure: no facts really matter.

    2 Art is very often art criticsm, and artists in their private conversations turn out to be severe critics most of the time. So it is irritating when they start complaining about critics when it suits them.

    3 Joy is necessary for the whole operation, so unless one is truly sorrowful about disappointing art (and so I have often truly been) please do not lie about it. Please be happy when something is bad that you figured would be bad, or especially when something is bad that “everybody” is praising as good but you kind of hoped it would be bad.

    4 All art that is offered to the world is a claim on everyone else’s time, so humility rather than an insistence that one deserves a fair hearing is in order. No, the world does not have time for you. Make them care anyway.

    5. I do have one type of critic in mind who does deserve dismissal: the critic who will not admit to loving any art, or cannot be bothered to go into detail about what it is they love. The critic really risks when loving and saying why, not so much when hating. The critic fears always that when risking love some other critic will say “you like THAT?” It’s normal — don’t you feel more anxiety recommending a book or movie to a friend, that they won’t like it? So critics who are unwilling to risk that are totally not worth a damn.


    • Thank you for a thoughtful response, especially as concerns art criticism, about which I do sometimes blog! Yet I posted this Canetti excerpt actually as a kind of analogy, Vic…more about judges (of groups of people) than about judgment of objects/images/performances. I find Canetti’s Crowds and Power quite relevant this particular year.


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