“The job of a critic isn’t to evaluate a movie on the basis of its imaginary audience, but to try to discern what kind of story filmmakers are trying to tell, ascertaining whether they succeeded and judge whether the enterprise has merit — in terms of ambition, originality, aesthetic sophistication, technical achievement, implicit values and intellectual depth.”
That’s probably the best summary I’ve ever seen of what good art criticism is.
About all I’d want to add (and I’ve probably talked about this elsewhere) is that a critic’s job isn’t to evaluate the art they wish the artist had made, or the art they imagine they might have made themselves if they were in the artist’s shoes. Hornaday’s quote implies this (“…try to discern what kind of story filmmakers are trying to tell…”).
Good criticism starts from a place of humility, or listening, or even submission.
I can quickly decide, in most cases, if a work is to my taste or not. I’m much slower to decide if something has artistic merit. Plenty of works are full of merit but not to my taste (and experiencing these can be valuable to me, if I prepare for them), and I enjoy plenty of others that play to my taste but aren’t loaded with aesthetic value. These often serve as much or more as entertainment, distraction, or in other functions for me than as capital-A Art. We all do this, and it’s fine.
(Sidebar; WaPo style guide doesn’t include the Oxford comma?!?? Bummer!)
The world would benefit from more criticism like Hornaday’s.