What is the Role of The Critic? Posted on November 16th
When I was in my first year of graduate school, I signed up for a literary criticism class, assuming this would be one of the opening questions to the course. I had my answer already prepared: “A critic’s role is to create a complimentary art” I imagined myself saying, to the delight of my professor. However, the class itself asked no such question. In fact, I quickly got the impression that both the question itself and my answer were utterly beside the point. The course soon made everything I valued seem pathetically retrograde: self-searching questions about criticism, aesthetics, beauty, wit, and even literature. We read Foucault, Bahktin, Todorov, Wittgenstein, but literature, too, was too behind-the-times to be discussed in Literary Criticism.
To the professor, it seemed, short stories, novels and poetry were necessary evils one had to engage with to be a critic. The main purpose of a critic, I gathered, was to sharpen up philosophies against the stone of art. The more cutting edge a theory, the more frequently it needed to be applied to literature to maintain its glint. In the literary criticism classroom, every word you used was potentially loaded with a rich history of philosophical implications that you damn well better acknowledge before saying another word. Works cited pages matched the length of essays. Burdened by having to demonstrate a knowledge of theory at every turn, critics seemed to have little left over to engage with the literature itself.
To me, this demonstrates an insecurity within the field. Literary critics today must doubt the rigor of their field if they feel the need to mimic philosophy. But why must we buckle under the burden of proof that philosophers must shoulder? Couldn’t literary criticism–and all arts criticism, for that matter–create rigorous standards without philosophy as its model? But this of course begs the original question. What is the role of criticism, anyway? Towards what end should this rigor be applied?
Some Responses to “What is the Role of the Critic?” :
1. Visual art criticism is equally infected with “philosophy”, “politics”, and various forms of “advocacy”. All real criticism needs to do to attain “rigor” is shed light on whether the work is good or not. And how good. And so on. Explaining or interpreting the work is OK too. But as a springboard for philosophy, “criticism” sort of sucks.