Last night, the German ZDF network broadcast one of those award shows, this time the German Television Prizes. It was said to have been interminable, and gauged carefully to a lowest common denominator of entertainment, like award shows everywhere, but perhaps with a touch of that special teutonic knack for endurance and exhaustion thrown in (e.g. a technique unique to German comedians appearing in such evenings is that of telling a joke, then explaining the joke, and then repeating the joke very carefully while explaining again at each step why the joke is funny). The token intellectual high point of the evening was to be an award for life's work to the critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki. The 88-year-old Reich-Ranicki, though once associated with the progressive Gruppe 47, is now a conservative figure and — through his publishing connections — an assembler of to-be-dreaded-canons. Theory and analytical depth are not his strengths, but he is, nevertheless, an important figure in post-war Germany as a gifted advocate for literature to a broad public via both newspapers and television and, increasingly and most usefully, someone who is willing to play the role of the crotchety old neighbor (in a country which lost too many of its crotchety old neighbors) who is always willing to call BS when appropropriate. Which is exactly what Reich-Ranicki did last night. After sitting through far too much inanity, and threatening to leave the even early, his award was rushed to an early part of the program. The critic came to the podium to turn the thing down, and then did exactly what a critic should do: criticizing the evening's program („Blödsinn, den wir hier heute Abend zu sehen bekommen haben“) and the current state of network television in general, leaving a very uncomfortable audience full of folks who make good livings from the status quo of German television. (A video of Reich-Ranicki's appearance is here).
Readers of this page know that I don't have much use for the viewpoint that holds that critics need be associated with staff positions in newpapers or tenure tracks (as that tends to lead to the viewpoint that the only good critics are those with these particular professional associations), but criticism itself is essential and thus, critics, in whatever employ or via whatever media — in print, broadcasts, classrooms, blogs (yes, even blogs), or just plain conversation among friends in the bar or donut shop in the wee hours after the concert has long finished — are essential, too. In our world, such as it is, we're in desperate need for our crotchety old aunts and uncles willing to call BS when BS is on display, to make suggestions about matters that might be improved, and, maybe, to dote a little when someone does something well.