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What is the Purpose of Criticism?

Updated on June 8, 2009

Purpose of Criticism

The most important function of criticism is to make the casual reader or spectator aware of qualities and values in a work of art that he may have overlooked. Certain great masterpieces might be puzzling, dull, or even unknown to the general public unless there were critics to point out their value and significance. Criticism also stimulates discrimination between good and inferior works.

The function of the critic is particularly important in the 20th century, when works of art often seem obscure and difficult to appreciate. Many of the leading American poets and painters also write criticism to clarify their intentions or to explain the difficult elements in their work. As a result of the complexity of modern art, most contemporary critics are interpreters of particular works rather than general theorists.

Kinds of Criticism

The various types of criticism may be denned as objective, subjective, relativist, and theoretical. Objective criticism focuses on the work of art and seeks to analyze it in terms of observable features. Paintings are broken down into lines and colors, novels into structure, theme, setting, and imagery, and music into theme, counterpoint, and resolution. By the detached and careful examination of parts, the objective critic arrives at a general evaluation.

In the 20th century, objective criticism of literature is referred to as the new criticism. Among the well-known new critics are T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, I. A. Richards, and John Crowe Ransom. The new critics are especially concerned with verbal analysis and the precise use of language. The examination of Italian Renaissance paintings by Berenson is an outstanding example of objective criticism in art.

The subjective critic is less interested in analyzing the work of art than in expressing his personal reactions to it. He depends on feeling and impressions rather than on set standards, and he often writes in poetic and imaginative language. Famous examples of subjective criticism include Walter Pater's description of Leonardo da Vinci's Mono. Lisa and Thomas De Quincey's essay On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth. In contemporary criticism, the newspaper reviews written by music, art, and drama critics are considered subjective because they emphasize personal reactions and opinions.

In relativist, or historical, criticism, the work of art is analyzed in relation to the author's life and the social conditions of his period. Such factors as the artist's intentions, his other works, and the influence of other artists are considered necessary to an understanding of his work. A well-known example of relativist criticism is the frequent attempt to relate Shakespeare's tragedies and so-called dark comedies to an unhappy and bitter period in his life. Similar attempts have been made to explain the works of Beethoven, Michelangelo, Charles Dickens, and others in terms of psychological traits and personality. An outstanding contemporary relativist critic is Edmund Wilson.

The theoretical critic emphasizes the importance of general rules and values rather than the qualities of any particular work. However, he may base his theories on what he has learned from the study of particular works. The Greek philosopher Aristotle in his treatise Poetics established definitions of tragedy and comedy as the result of his study of Greek plays. In the 17th century many critics insisted on an exact observance of Aristotle's theories. A century later the great German critic Gotthold Lessing challenged the 17th-century critics and formulated his own ideas about the visual and literary arts.


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