"Critique is concerned with the truth content of a work of art, the commentary with its subject matter.
The relationship between the two is determined by that basic law of literature according to which the work’s truth content is the more relevant the more inconspicuously and intimately it is bound up with its subject matter. If therefore precisely those works turn out to endure whose truth is most deeply embedded in their subject matter, the beholder who contemplates them long after their own time finds the realia all the more striking in the work as they have faded away in the world. This means that subject matter and truth content, united in the work’s early period, come apart during its afterlife; the subject matter becomes more striking while the truth content retains its original concealment.
To an ever-increasing extent, therefore, the interpretation of the striking and the odd, that is, of the subject matter, becomes a prerequisite for any later critic. One may liken him to a paleographer in front of a parchment whose faded text is covered by the stronger outlines of a script referring to that text. Just as the paleographer would have to start with reading the script, the critic must start with commenting on the text.
And out of this activity there arises immediately an inestimable criterion of critical judgment: only now can the critic ask the basic question of all criticism—namely, whether the work’s shining truth content is due to its subject matter or whether the survival of the subject matter is due to the truth content. For as they come apart in the work, they decide on its immortality. In this sense the history of works of art prepares their critique, and this is why historical distance increases their power.
If, to use a simile, one views the growing work as a funeral pyre, its commentator can be likened to the chemist, its critic to an alchemist. While the former is left with wood and ashes as the sole objects of his analysis, the latter is concerned only with the enigma of the flame itself: the enigma of being alive. Thus the critic inquires about the truth whose living flame goes on burning over the heavy logs of the past and the light ashes of life gone by."
Walter Benjamin on the role of art criticism in “Elective Affinities,” quoted in Hannah Arendt’s New Yorker essay that introduces his collection Illuminations.