Like any other love, love of art is safest left unexpressed. Once expression occurs, one can hardly plead, "I didn't mean to influence your feelings." Still, some expressions seem more responsible -- forgivable? -- than others.

Art itself can be the expression of an amorous assertiveness similar to that which expresses itself as criticism. Samuel R. Delany's novel Triton is a response to novels of Heinlein, Asimov, and LeGuin, but it's far richer than Delany's critical work. Terrence Malick's movie Badlands responds to Nicholas Ray's movies They Live by Night and Rebel Without a Cause, but Ray's are left untouched; at worst the parasitic imitations which Yeats called "fleas" are scoured away. It seems unlikely that an essay would have been as selective.

I've sometimes thought that the critic is just a member of the audience, talking to other members of the audience. Other times, I've thought that criticism should be judged as art, as art whose "subject" just happens to be an artifact, rather than, for example, a landscape, or deceit. Both thoughts were cop-outs. Writing about Wang Yuan-Chi is also writing about landscape; writing about Dashiell Hammett is also writing about deceit. The differences between the critic and the artist lie not in their subjects, but in their assumed risks and assumed responsibility.

For the critic, the criticized work serves as crutch, and whipping boy, and handy place to bury the questions too difficult to answer. [Afterthought: Is this different in kind from fiction's burying those questions under "characterization"? Or poetry's burying them under "form"? At least one writer, Laura (Riding) Jackson, thought that any aesthetic position evaded responsibility. Perhaps it's simply a matter of how much is swept under the dirt.] The critic is shielded by the targeted work. The critic takes hostages.

Or, to shift the metaphor again to match the shiftiness of power, critics are dependents. Like precocious eight-year-olds, they hover on the stairs, listening to adult conversation, occasionally forced to pipe in by some mix of engagement, curiosity, and ego-assertion. I'm not sure that the desire to join the dialogue should be repressed. It's an understandable impulse, and its results are often entertaining and instructive. There are times I'd rather read a Delany essay than read a Delany novel. But criticism is an interruption, and, having interrupted, can certainly be politely ignored rather than responded to.

Copyright 1995 Ray Davis