How do we understand art? Matthew Goulish’s essay “Criticism” considers the meaning of art through the art form of criticism. While one might assume a critic would have decided an answer for such a fundamental question, he in no way tries to decisively answer the questions the essay ponders. Instead, over the course of three sections—the main idea of each not crystallizing itself immediately either—he poses open questions, draws connections, and creates a space to explore meaning alongside the reader.
Though the traditional stereotype of critics (perhaps best exemplified in popular culture by Anton Ego in Disney-Pixar’s Ratatouille) is an utterly authoritative, unwavering voice, in this essay, Goulish instead invites the reader to ponder his questions alongside him, rather than crowning himself with the authority to provide a clear answer. Enjoyably, critiquing the very idea of criticism having answers, he suggests we should simply “accept this severe limitation” (Goulish 98). When at one point we find him retooling what most would consider the definition of glass, he concludes, “one cannot conclusively define glass without the inclusion of time” (98). Here and throughout, he embraces the idea that classification, as a critic would often do, is not a panacea; that rigid definitions of meaning, like that of art which his analysis of is the premise of the essay, cannot be constrained by a straightforward outline, much less binary.
Throughout the essay, he flows from one idea into another. His writing includes frequent gaps, breaks, and non-sequiturs. But pay no mind—we were never driving a flat highway toward an answer, but joining a beautiful hike on a part of an insurmountable peak. “We have no choice but to accept this terrain, with the hope of discovering its exhilarating creative possibilities,” he explains (97). As if remembering similar experiences from past hikes, he connects fluidly to art in his own past. While exploring “the example of rain,” he mentions a 1968 essay from an American monk, Thomas Merton. The connection arrives with the spark of the absolutely unexpected, but sheds new light on the discussion, leaving the reader with an additional, future avenue for curiosity. Though he never states it, we learn through his demonstration that when analyzing art, critic or average viewer, one’s personal experiences with art allow connections no others could possibly form. Thus, our analysis, critic or not, is valid and welcome. “Everyone can cook,” or so the saying goes in Ratatouille.
In this way, the form begins to answer the questions he poses. Without clear answers to what art means, there are only new, flowing interpretations and connections. As the polar opposite of Ratatouille’s Ego, instead of declaring singular, decisive judgements, he opens space for himself and his reader to explore an idea together, without omitting false starts, winding turns of the trail, or rough terrain. Presented with art, he explains, we experience “moments of exhilaration, in an effort to bring our own imperfections into sympathetic vibration with these moments” (98). Clearly Merton’s essay created a moment of exhilaration for Goulish, and he felt compelled to include it. As in the essay, where core ideas are not immediately clear, meaning does not expressly communicate itself with a thesis statement at the start, but must be gleaned over time. Any expectation of a quick answer must be abandoned while reading his essay, and as he more broadly, implicitly argues, in all art. We all must hike together to see the direction the trail leads us. Ratatouille, one hopes.