The news is bad: Time to shoot the messengers again. Patrick Goldstein's column in today's Los Angeles Times goes over the usual charges of critical irrelevance, IPods versus daily papers, the three percent share newspaper critics get of the youth audience ... you know the drill. Goldstein quotes Sony Corporation Chief Howard Stringer as having once " ... merrily quipped, 'Nobody ever built a statue to a critic.' " Feel like you've read this quote before? You have, if you've got a computer. These discerning cineastes defending Miami Vice claim it was Leonard Bernstein. And this list of catchphrases meant to encourage the amateur painter says the quote is from dancer Martha Graham.
This summer, in one of the many critics-are-doomed articles I've read, I even saw it attributed to Robert Duvall. The actual quote seems to be by Jean Sibelius: "Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic." Over here is a variation on the Sibelius quote. Now, if you're an ace composer and stormy figure of Finnish nationalism like Jean Sibelius, you might deserve a bust in a park. But do you deserve a statue for being the artist behind, say, From Justin to Kelly? IMHO, the Hollywood version of the phrase ought to be, "nobody ever gave a statue to a critic" -- the phrase being short-hand for Oscar. Well, they should have given one to James Agee, but he only got nominated.
And yet here it is, at last: A statue of a critic. And, here's another one: Saint-Beauve, whom the Oxford Book of Quotations credits with creating the phrase "ivory tower," in which all us critics supposedly dwell. (Though most of these 'towers' look more like Miles' musty apartment in Sideways.) Considering these two bona-fide statues, can we never hear this cliche again, already? Incidentally, the great John Ruskin was a gifted and prolific writer about art during the Victorian era, though many of us have never seen more of Ruskin's oeuvre than the cautionary plaque in Baskin Robbins quoting him. And now that turns out not to be Ruskin, after all. That famous plaque may be a rare sight in the ice-cream parlors, sure, but no one can take away the conclusive, irrevocable proof that someone, somewhere, somewhen put up a statue to a critic.