A Statue Has Never Been Set Up in Honour of a Critic

Zig Ziglar? Jean Sibelius? Bengt de Törne? Martha Graham? Agnes De Mille? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When the famous motivational speaker Zig Ziglar died last year I saw a list of ten quotations ascribed to him. One was about criticism:

There has never been a statue erected to honor a critic.

I thought this was first said by a prominent music composer or dancer. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this saying known to QI appeared in 1937 in “Sibelius: A Close-Up” which discussed the life and works of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. This book was authored by another composer named Bengt de Törne, and he described an exchange he had with Sibelius. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Then his voice changed in tone as he told me that he wanted to give me some good advice. ‘Never pay any attention to what critics say,’ he proceeded, and expatiated on this theme. When I ventured to put in the remark that their articles might sometimes be of great importance, he cut me short. ‘Remember,’ he said, ‘a statue has never been set up in honour of a critic!’

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1942 the popular widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell presented a version of the quotation to his readers. The words were ascribed to Sibelius though the phrasing was slightly altered: 2

Sibelius: Never pay any attention to what critics say. Don’t forget there has never been a statue set up in honor of a critic.

In 1950 a Marietta, Georgia newspaper printed an instance while crediting “Jan Sibelius”: 3

Somewhere or other I ran across a statement by Jan Sibelius. He said, “Pay no attention to what critics say. There has never been set up a statue in honor of a critic.” Most always you will discover that the faults your critics find in you are multiplied many, many times in their own lives.

In 1952 dancer and choreographer Agnes De Mille published the memoir “Dance to the Piper”, and she mentioned her unhappiness when the powerful dance critic John Martin wrote a hostile review of her work. De Mille credited modern dance pioneer Martha Graham with an instance of the saying: 4

The Times was blistering. I was distraught. I threw myself despairing into Martha Graham’s arms. “They never raised a statue to a critic,” she said cheerily.

In 1955 the influential music critic Olin Downes of the New York Times died. A laudatory article in a Nebraska newspaper reviewed his career and alluded to the saying without attribution: 5

And, doubtless, he was little concerned in reading of some performing musician exultantly proclaiming that no statue of a music critic had ever been made.

In 1979 a Baton Rouge, Louisiana newspaper reported on a politician who was unhappy with criticism aimed at one of his tax proposals. During a Prayer Breakfast he invoked a variant of quotation: 6

“No monument has been built to critic. . . . No statue has ever been built to a fault-finder,” Dumas read, from a book of quotations.

In 1986 “One Minute Wisdom” by Anthony de Mello was published. The book used a format based on a dialogue between a master and a disciple. A reviewer in a New Jersey newspaper printed the following excerpt: 7

ACCEPT CRITICISM: The master told a disciple overly conscious of critics: “Listen to the words of the critic. He reveals what your friends hide from you. But do not be weighed down by what the critic says. No statue was ever erected to honor a critic. Statues are for the criticized.”

In 2004 a version of the saying appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal as a freestanding quotation credited to the well-known self-help author and speaker Zig Ziglar: 8

“There has never been a statue erected to honor a critic.” — Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar

In 2006 Alex Ross, the music critic of The New Yorker, discussed the saying on his blog called “Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise”: 9

Sibelius famously remarked to his fellow composer Bengt von Törne: “Never pay any attention to what critics say. Remember, a statue has never been set up in honor of a critic!” Not quite true. Commenters at Felsenmusick point out that the Canadian artist Joe Fafard made a statue of Clement Greenberg, and that there is a statue to the literary critic Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Also, I seem to remember seeing a statue of the Russian critic Vladimir Stasov — dedicatee of Pictures at an Exhibition, subject of several extraordinary portraits by Ilya Repin — in St. Petersburg. These, however, are obviously the exceptions that prove the rule.

In 2012 the New York Times book critic Dwight Garner provocatively lamented the etiolated state of current literary criticism: 10

Critics take a beating, especially in popular culture. Jean Sibelius’s observation — “No statue has ever been erected to a critic” — seems to be cited somewhere weekly. As well-known quotations go, this one strikes me as especially banal. It implies something disheartening about our culture.

The best work of Alfred Kazin, George Orwell, Lionel Trilling, Pauline Kael and Dwight Macdonald (to name just a few of the past century’s most perceptive critics) is more valuable — and more stimulating — than all but the most first-rate novels.

In conclusion, QI believes that Jean Sibelius should be credited with the statement given in the earliest citation above. Zig Ziglar may have helped to popularize the remark, but it was already in circulation before it was attached to his name.

(In Memoriam: Thanks to my brother Stephen who asked about the quotations used in Dwight Garner’s article.)

Update History: On May 18, 2018 the 1952 attribution to Martha Graham was added.

Notes:

  1. 1938, Sibelius: A Close-up by Bengt de Törne, Quote Page 27, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Massachusetts. (An edition from Faber and Faber, London was published in 1937) (Verified with scans in 1938 edition)
  2. 1942 June 16, Augusta Chronicle, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 7, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1950 March 19, Marietta Journal, No Statue Ever Erected to a Carping Critic by William A. Tyson, Jr., Quote Page 6, Column 6, Marietta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1952, Dance to the Piper by Agnes De Mille, Chapter 21: American Dancer Comes Home, Quote Page 218, An Atlantic Monthly Press Book: Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1955 September 11, Omaha World Herald, Speaking of Music: Critic Aided Music World by Martin W. Bush, Quote Page 5-F (GNBank Page 82), Column 4, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1979 February 1, Morning Advocate (Advocate), Politics Creeps Into 3rd Annual Prayer Breakfast, Quote Page 6-B, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1986 July 18, The Record, Section: Lifestyle, Religion in Suburbia: Minute A Day Keeps Sin Away by Wilma Supik, Page a23, New Jersey. (NewsBank Access World News)
  8. 2004 July 20, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Section: City, “New reporter has interesting history” by Norm Clarke, Page 3A, Las Vegas, Nevada. (NewsBank Access World News)
  9. Website: Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise, Article title: Statues of critics, Date on website: March 19, 2006, Website description: Books, articles, and a blog by the music critic of The New Yorker. (Accessed August 4, 2013) link
  10. 2012 August 15, New York Times, Riff: A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical by Dwight Garner, New York. (Accessed August 4, 2013 at nytimes.com; online archive of New York Times) (NYT statement: A version of this article appeared in print on August 19, 2012, on page MM42 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: ‘Not Everyone Gets, or Deserves, a Gold Star’.) link