On Criticism by Noel Carroll

The front cover of Noel Carroll’s newest book, On Criticism, portrays Andy Warhol’s famous box of Brillo pads. The cover artwork is intended to remind us of the moment when the meaning of art was entirely upended. The image implicitly warns us that just because the definition of art is no longer something we can take for granted, it doesn’t mean that critics have any less obligation to execute their roles with rigor and consistency.

Ironically, the publication of Carroll’s book coincides with a reshuffling of the definition of journalism. In months after Carroll’s book came out, the role of the critic has been implicitly questioned almost as much as the role of art was during the Warhol era. Many newspapers eliminated their book review sections in the months immediately following the October 2008 publication date. The role of the modern critic seems now to be that of introducing people to art. One might wonder whether audiences truly want evaluation, or simply explication.

But Carroll’s book is firmly based on his belief that it is the critic’s job to evaluate. He is going off a poll that found 75 percent of critics did not believe it was their job to pass judgment on the actual quality of artwork, a statistic Carroll finds perturbing. Many of these critics believe that is simply not their right to call a work good or bad, but the underlying premise of Carroll’s book is that they feel this way because they lack the tools necessary for passing judgment on artwork. His task is to describe these tools.

He immediately stipulates that the role of the critic should not coincide with the role of the art historian: namely, simple interpretation and contextualization. Rather, the sole purpose of critics is to influence the public in making art choices by way of guiding them through an understanding of a work’s value. In order to offer this guidance, a critic must possess the necessary knowledge of art history, but the final piece is—and must be—passing judgment.

That judgment is hinges on determining “success value”. In other words, how closely did the artist come to realizing her own goals and intentions for the work. Then, the critic reveals that value to the audience using interpretation and contextualization, which are essentially but not primary features of criticism. Carroll’s argument of evaluation hinges on establishing success value above all else. He suggests that critic’s reticence to pass judgment could be remedied with a clear methodology for determining success value.

Criticism is not a “simple declaration” and there’s no component of subjectivity. Carroll writes that the value judgment is substantiated with reason revealed in: description, elucidation, classification, contextualization, interpretation and analysis. Carroll’s book is rigorous, and with only a few exceptions, philosophically sound. His biggest problem is the ambiguous territory of “artist intent” or vision. He gives a fine explanation of critical techniques, but these elements are not the ones that are controversial or essential to his thesis. Thus, the meatiest parts of the book show how these components of criticism can be executed using objective reason, thus helping critic to determine success value.

Primarily essential to the evaluation of success is categorization. Carroll suggests that if we properly categorize all works, we get a clear idea of what the artist wanted to achieve. We don’t try to evaluate a mystery novel as though it was intended to be a work of great fiction. This assertion is Carroll’s soundest claim, but also his most obvious. The elements of description and contextualization are also relatively uncontroversial.

But in the areas of interpretation and analysis, there are times when Carroll’s terminology seems a bit slippery. He argues that these are not the main tasks of criticism, but they need to be done well in order to support the evaluation. At the same time, these are the areas of criticism that we intuitively believe contain some element of subjectivity.

For Carroll’s book to have its own success value, he must show that even these elements are matters of reason. But he is fighting an uphill battle, and it shows in his examples. He says George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an instance when an interpretation is objective: the book is about totalitarianism. Since Orwell was quite clear and open about his intentions with the book, this doesn’t seem to be a matter of “interpretation” at all.

Ultimately, Carroll’s attempts to show that there are objective matters of interpretation fall short. And if the element of interpretation is subjective from critic to critic, his method fails to be entirely reason-based, as well.

These questions of subjectivity of the interpretation and the importance of artists’ intent are probably the most significant questions on the subject of criticism to date, and Carroll discusses them interestingly, but cannot quite resolve them. He does give us a strong, clear opinion on the matter and in this way, he has certainly realized his own intention.

The book is a solid piece of reference material, more of an introduction than a real revelation. We end feeling that we have a stronger foundation, but we’ve still unresolved curiosity about the truly elusive questions.

RATING 7 / 10