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The Critic – Maximizers and Satisficers

By Francis Raven
August 2005

The question of the critic has been with us from the beginning of aesthetics.  Who is the critic? What is her job?  The question is: is the critic’s job to make new taste (therefore exceeding current taste) or is it to generate the standards of current taste?  There is a feeling that great critics will tell us what the absolute best X is.  This feeling undercuts the potential of critics to do their work, which should be to generate standards and criteria with which regular people can judge works.

The purpose of art criticism is to have a rational basis for art appreciation and to avoid the subjective opinions of individual taste.  Art critics describe, analyze, and then judge a work by noting whether various criteria apply.  One way this rational basis is maintained is by instituting criteria, which can then be used to guide criticism.  In fact, the words ‘critic’ and ‘criteria’ are both etymologically derived from the Greek word ‘krinein’ which meant to judge, discern, or decide.  On the surface, this indicates that the critic’s main job should be to generate criteria and help her readers decide whether these criteria have been met by a particular artwork.

A distinction that Barry Schwartz makes in his book, The Paradox of Choice, is particularly helpful for thinking about the role of the critic.  The thesis of Schwartz’s book is that choices have become increasingly complex and that this imposes huge costs on each of us.  To begin understanding how people make decisions such as which car to buy Schwartz divides people into two categories: satisficers and maximizers.

              Schwartz describes maximizers as individuals who “need to be assured that every purchase or decision was the best that could be made.  Yet how can anyone truly know that any given option is absolutely the best possible?  The only way to know is to check alternatives.  A maximizer can’t be certain that she has found the best sweater unless she’s looked at all the sweaters” (77).  Thus, maximizers want the very best and are not willing to settle for less.  However, they often have no method of finding the very best save actually going through and looking at every example of what they are criticizing.

On the other hand, to satisfice “is to settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better.  A satisficer has criteria and standards.  She searches until she finds an item that meets those standards, and at that point, she stops.  As soon as she finds a sweater that meets her standard of fit, quality, and price in the very first store she enters, she buys it—end of story.  She is not concerned about better sweaters or better bargains just around the corner” (78).  Satisficers, it should be noted, are not queens of mediocrity, they merely know what they want, they have criteria for picking out what they want, and they have a relatively easy time picking out what they want.  In terms of people’s personal psychological make-up, the basic idea is that being a satisficer is better for a person’s well being than being a maximizer. 

On the face of it, maximizers appear to be the better candidate for being critics.  After all, we want our critics to find the best artwork, restaurant, movie, etc.  We don’t want our critics to settle, we want them to find something amazing for us.  And even if it is better for a person’s psychological well being to be a satisficer we still want our critics to be maximizers.  After all, we do not care about the well being of the art critic (or any other kind of critic), only about what they can tell us about art. 

However, David Hume’s analysis of the ideal critic, might change our minds concerning whether critics should be maximizers or satisficers.  In his famous essay “Of the Standard of Taste” Hume outlines how a standard of taste is possible.  He believed that the “true judge of the finer arts” possesses five attributes: “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice” (Paragraph 23).  These five attributes are each separately necessary and jointly sufficient for a person to become an ideal critic.  He wrote that the agreement on aesthetic issues between critics with these attributes is “the true standard of taste and beauty” (Paragraph 23).  Thus, ideal critics generate standards; they do not attempt to exceed them as maximizers would.  Hume’s remarks indicate that the group of true critics would generate standards of taste that others might follow.  For what we want our best critics to do is to generate criteria and standards for us so that we can follow them.  We don’t want them to find the best production of Angels in America; we want them to tell us what qualities would make a production of Angels in America good (and possibly even great).

Satisficers have good taste, maximizers are merely insatiable.  Taste is, after all, a systematic feature of human aesthetic experience as opposed to the striving grabbing associated with maximizers and sale-bins.  The satisficer generates criteria primarily so that he can make a decision about what to see and do (given his limited resources).  And if the critic is a satisficer these criteria are extremely beneficial to the critic’s readers because they inform the reader of the reasoning behind the critic’s regard for a particular work.  This enables the reader to begin to do a little critical work by employing the critic’s criteria.

If the maximizer is taken as the model for the critic then criticism would consist only in recommending goods to other people.  The resulting criticism would consist merely of top-ten lists, which are merely laundry list of restaurants, artworks, movies, etc. that the critic subjectively thinks are great.  I’m sure everyone knows what a top-ten list is, but this compendium ( of millennial-type top-ten lists is an exemplar of the form.  It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with top-ten lists, it’s just that they can’t be what we mean by criticism.  They don’t provide us with a rational basis for art appreciation and indulge in, instead of avoiding, the subjective opinions of individual taste.  The main problem with top-ten lists and with criticism as recommendation in general is that anyone can recommend art (or wine or restaurants, etc.).  But this is not what we mean by criticism for if it were criticism could not be great. 

If recommending these things were all that criticism came to then the critic would have no specialized knowledge.  Whereas, to the contrary, in fact, the critic’s knowledge consists in the standards and criteria he generates.  Thus, a critic should be a discerning person not a grail seeker.  Critics should think of earthly delights (of what makes them earthly), not of possible heavenly delights that might or might not exist.  That is, they should live in the actual world and refrain from contemplating the metaphysics of possible worlds. 

One great example of satisficing criticism is in the magazine Cook’s Illustrated.  The magazine is like a Consumer Reports for cooking, aimed at enabling home chefs to know the criteria by which they can perfect a variety of meals.  For example, in a recent issue, one of the featured recipes was for pumpkin cheesecake.  The article on the cheesecake outlined exactly which steps were most important (and which steps could be safely disregarded), these included drying the pumpkin out before mixing the ingredients and having a water bath for the cheesecake while it was baking (which prevented the cheesecake from souffléing).  Basically, the test-kitchen chefs at Cook’s Illustrated make 400 of whatever recipe they’re attempting to critique (and improve) and in the resulting articles outline what standards the home-chef must follow to obtain great results.  The Cook’s Illustrated approach is to test a recipe over and over until the set of criteria for making that recipe are generated.  In fact, in a criticism of their approach, a reader of Cook’s Illustrated cookbook Baking Illustrated wrote, “What may be the best FAST recipe may fall flat on its face for ENTERTAINING or for MOST HEALTHY. The ‘Cook’s Illustrated’ team generally goes for a good compromise between fast and tasty.”  ( ).  This is a criticism of the satisficing approach that Cook’s Illustrated uses.

Another example of satisficing food criticism was a review I saw posted in the window of an Indian restaurant where I once ate (I wish I could remember the name; it’s in San Francisco’s Financial District).  The review read (in paraphrase), “I’d eat there every week if I lived around the corner.”  This reviewer was outright saying that it wasn’t the absolute best, but that it was good enough if you lived around the corner.  He was, in essence, signifying that he was a satisficing critic, not a maximizing one.  And, in this case, his review left a potential patron of that Indian restaurant with a standard to follow, namely that if the potential patron lived around the corner he would not have been disappointed with the Indian restaurant.

One might think, however, that even if the critic should not himself be a maximizer he should nevertheless write his criticisms for maximizers.  This would be another mistake.  Critics cannot write for maximizers because a maximizing strategy exceeds reason (which means that sometimes it is inspired, usually not).  Critics, then, are also looking out for the satisficer, not the maximizer.  They generate the standards for the satisficer.  This focuses the task of the critic: it is not for him to find the best pizza in New York, for this is merely trivia, but to find instead what makes for a good (or even great) New York pizza.

However, critics need not merely be satisficers, but must also be able to write criticism for satisficers (if, indeed, these two things are different).  That is, they need not only to be able to follow standards, but must also be able to generate them.  However, the fact that critics must in some sense be above satisficers might lead some to wrongly believe that they should be maximizers.  This train of thought will inevitably lead to the disintegration of standards in favor of top-ten lists.

What the distinction between the maximizer and the satisficer shows us is that the critic’s job should be seen as one of generating standards for the satisficer to follow.  So critics, stop trying to offer us up the best.  Why don’t you give us some rules for choosing between the objects of your criticism?  Why don’t you bring your systems of choice out into the open for all to see?  Don’t worry, it won’t mean that you will be replaceable; it will only mean that you will be more useful.

(Francis Raven's first novel, Inverted Curvatures, will be published this fall by Spuyten Duyvil and is an incoming graduate student in philosophy at Temple University. He resides in Cambridge, MA).

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