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On Criticism by Noel Carroll

Carroll, Noel. On Criticism. Routledge, 2009. 9780415396219.

I’ve been trying to read more about criticism lately with some hope of improving my writings for this blog (and potential branch out to writing for other places). What is the purpose of criticism and how is it accomplished? In this short and readable volume Noel Carroll, a philosophy professor, argues his view on criticism, a view that I find reasoned and attractive.

His primary thesis is that criticism, as differentiated from other forms of discourse on art (art history, cultural studies, etc.), is about reasoned evaluation of art, assisting “readers in discovering what is of value in the artwork before them” (8). “Criticism is strong criticism insofar as it renders its evaluation intelligible to audiences in such a way that they are guided to the discovery of value on their own.” (45) In his opinion, while pointing out flaws can be an element of criticism, readers of criticism gain more by seeing the loci of value in art.

Throughout, Carroll avoids any attempt to define any specific values that should be found in artwork, rather the value of art is based on the “success value” of the work. Carroll’s success value is concerned with the artist’s achievement in relation to the his/her intentions in creating the work. The artist’s intentions are gleaned in various ways, in particular, the category the work falls into–that is, we would evaluate a superhero comic based on its success as a superhero comic, not as an autobiography (unless we found reasons to believe the intention was to mix those two genres). One does not base a criticism of a Jackson Pollock painting on the fact that it is not realistic, because Pollock’s intentions were not to make a realistic representation.

All other functions of criticism: description, classification, contextualization, elucidation, interpretation, and analysis (as Carroll sees them) are subservient to evaluation, they work to provide the “reason” supporting the evaluation. Description is, hopefully, obvious, while classification involves placing a work in various categories (from as broad as “a comic” through genres, sub-genres, styles, etc.). Contextualization is the descriptions of external circumstances, “art historical, institutional, and/or more broadly socio-cultural,” (102) relevant to the work (i.e. we might evaluate a comic differently based on its context in relation to the institutional factors of “mainstream”/”independent”). By elucidation, Carroll means the “operation of identifying the literal meaning, narrowly construed, of the symbols in the artwork” (108) Symbols meaning images, words, anything really. Examples of elucidation given include identifying actors in a movie or defining the meaning of an obscure phrase. Interpretation, on the other hand, is about the sense of the artwork, more commonly speaking, the meaning in a broader sense, the theme. Analysis, then, is about how the “work works–of how the parts of the work function together to realize the point or purposes of the work” (111). The difference between these last two is the subject of a longer passage in the book. Interpretation is a subset of analysis, which makes me wonder why Carroll felt the need to separate it out. A formal analysis would be another form of analysis.

Carroll spends most of the book making arguments for his thesis as well as offering counter-arguments, which he then argues against. In the above I have merely summarized his thesis and ignored the numerous arguments he offers. Suffice to say, I found his arguments convincing, thoughtful, and well written, if rather long.

In considering my own critical writings, I know I tend to focus more on analysis (formal) than any of the other elements, and I probably do not back-up what evaluations I make as much as I should. My argumentation skills have never been very good. That’s a skill I never learned. In a lot of criticism I read, the description tends to take over with a large percentage of the piece being used to recount plot and a small evaluation being tacked on at the end.

Something to think about for next time, both reading and writing.