From its beginning criticism has concerned philosophers. Plato raised the question of the authenticity of poetic knowledge in the Ion, in which both poet and performer are forced to admit ignorance about the source of their inspiration and the function of their craft. In his Poetics, Aristotle focused on tragic drama to discover its effect—the purgation of the audience's emotions (see tragedy). Roman civilization produced two critics who were poets rather than philosophers. Horace declared in the Ars Poetica (c.13 BC) that poetry must be
dulce et utile—
sweet and useful. In his On the Sublime (1st cent. AD) the Greek Longinus presented the view that poetry must be the divinely inspired utterance of the poet's impassioned soul. Interestingly, each of these pronouncements was an accurate description of the author's own work rather than a set of rules for all poetry. Thus, the ancients can be credited with delineating the two major types of criticism: theoretical, which attempts to state general principles about the value of art (Plato, Aristotle), and practical, which examines particular works, genres, or writers in light of theoretical criteria (Horace, Longinus).
Textual criticism, the comparison of different texts and versions of particular works with the aim of arriving at an incorrupt
master version, has been perhaps most familiar over the centuries in biblical criticism. Textual critics of note include St. Augustine and St. Jerome (the Bible), and later, Samuel Johnson and H. H. Furness (Shakespeare).
Renaissance critics ignored their recent heritage—the medieval attitude toward art as a form of prayer—and looked to the classics, Aristotle's works in particular, for usable models. Philip Sydney maintained in his Defense of Poetry (1595) that poetry must engage and uplift the emotions of its audience with
heart ravishing knowledge. In his Poetics (1561) the Italian critic Julius Caesar Scaliger transformed Aristotle's description of the dramatic unities of time, setting, and plot into exigencies, which were strictly adhered to by the neoclassical dramatists of 17th-century France and England. In his Essay on Criticism (1711) Alexander Pope added an important section on the criticism of critics: those who do their job best always
survey the Whole, not seek slight faults to find. Because the general tone of criticism of this period was prescriptive, it is called judicial criticism.
Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets (1779–81) was the first thorough-going exercise in biographical criticism, the attempt to relate a writer's background and life to his works. The revolution from neoclassicism to romanticism is seen in the works of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who emphasized the importance of emotion and imagination in literature. In his Preface to the Second Edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800), Wordsworth described the lyric as
emotion recollected in tranquility, and Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria (1817), defined imagination as
the repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation, rather than as a mere mechanical flight of fancy. The radical shift in emphasis was further delineated by John Keats in his letters and by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his Defense of Poetry (1821)—
poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Some critics celebrated
art for art's sake, with no moral strings attached, such as Arthur Symons in The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899). Henry James, an important novelist and critic of the novel, stressed the possibilities of point of view for further developing the narrative form in his essay
The Art of Fiction (1893). The emphasis in criticism of this period on the reaction of the critic to the work under scrutiny led to the use of the term impressionistic criticism.
The 20th cent. has been called the Age of Criticism. Such major disciplines as psychology and anthropology, and such ideologies as Christian theology and Marxist dialectic, were found to have valid application to works of literature. Freudian analysis became a tool for literary biographers. Carl Jung's theory of the collective unconscious also became a tool, along with anthropological methodology, for critics like T. S. Eliot (in The Sacred Wood, 1920) and Northrop Frye (in Anatomy of Criticism, 1957), who sought to trace similarities of pattern in literatures of disparate cultures and ages. By means of the so-called New Criticism—the technique of close reading, which largely ignores biographical and historical concerns—such critics as Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, and Lionel Trilling revived the notion of a poem as an autonomous art object. Notable among academic and journalistic critics who used a combination of critical approaches to enlighten their readers are Edmund Wilson (in such works as The Triple Thinkers, 1938), W. H. Auden (in The Dyer's Hand, 1962), and George Steiner (in Language and Silence, 1970). Feminist and multicultural literary criticism also were important forces throughout the second half of the 20th cent. Structuralism in its literary critical form was a dominant theory from the 1960s into the 1970s, largely due to the work of French theorists Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. During the 1980s and into the 1990s deconstruction, influenced by such figures as Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, dominated academic criticism. In addition, the historical approach of such New Historicists as Stephen Greenblatt also found a number of adherents. In general, a critical eclecticism characterized literary criticism at the end of the 20th cent.
There have been a variety of critical trends in music and art criticism also. The approach has ranged from practical to theoretical, from G. B. Shaw's music reviews in the London press of the 1880s to treatises like Alfred Einstein's Mozart (1945) and Charles Rosen's Classical Style (1971). From the 1960s to the end of the 20th cent. new genres of music criticism emerged that took for their subject jazz, rock, ethnic, and other specialized forms of music. The spectrum of art criticism includes such works as Robin George Collingwood's Principles of Art (1938), André Malraux's Voices of Silence (1952), the writings of Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, and the more recent criticism of such figures as Michael Freed, Barbara Rose, and Adam Gopnik. Newer areas for critical scrutiny include film, architecture, and urban planning. Notable film critics include James Agee, Andre Bazin, Pauline Kael, and Janet Maslin. Architectural criticism by Ada Louise Huxtable and others and studies of the city by Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs broke new ground for critical scrutiny.
See G. Saintsbury, A History of Criticism (3 vol., 1961); R. Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism (4 vol., 1955–65); W. C. Greene, The Choices of Criticism (1965); P. Barry, Issues in Contemporary Literary Theory (1987); B. Bergonzi, Exploding English (1990).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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