Books

On Criticism by Noel Carroll

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 -- they must pass judgment.


On Criticism

Publisher: Routledge
Subtitle: Thinking in Action
Author: Noel Carroll
Price: $19.95
Length: 210
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0415396212
US publication date: 2008-01
Amazon

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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.