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Clune: A Defense of Judgment (2021) | featured image

Judge – or Let the Market Be the Judge

Michael W. Clune argues that a popular mantra about art – everyone’s judgment is equal – impedes our ability to imagine a world outside of the capitalist marketplace.

A Defense of Judgment
Michael W. Clune
University of Chicago Press
April 2021

Judgment’s Gatekeepers

This concern of Clune’s in A Defense of Judgment stands to reason, but at the risk of overstating anecdotal experience, I found myself surprised by his certitude that judgment has been bracketed in literary studies. While he correctly notes that much literary scholarship “bend[s] the aesthetic toward more traditional scholarly ends and see[s literature] as a way of generating knowledge”, when the conversation veers toward “capitalism”, in my classrooms and in the classrooms in which I was a student, few professors or fellow graduate students express hesitation about the aesthetic value of the text at hand.

I, like many high school and college students before me, was taught King Lear not because my instructors simply liked it, but because – building on the legacy of the play as a monumental achievement in the genre of tragedy – they and other critics have deemed it a uniquely compelling depiction of suffering. To use Clune’s phrasing, King Lear appeared in classes I took because my instructors felt that I would learn something about suffering that I would not learn from other texts. I make a point at the start of each semester to let my students know that they are free to ask me why I have assigned the texts on the syllabus, and several have taken me up on that offer. The purely private notion of judgment that A Defense of Judgment positions itself against does exist, including in the university, but I question how insistently this anti-judgmental stance is held, or how widely it is believed.

But while A Defense of Judgment may not provide a systematic or numerical account of the “judgment is subjective” view’s presence in university education, it does provide an important impetus for scholars and critics in a time when the humanities remain under perpetual threat. Human beings love to judge, and they judge for all sorts of reasons, but when it comes to sustaining institutions of criticism, “let people judge as they may” cannot suffice as the standard.

“Ideally,” Clune writes, there should exist “an ecology of judgment” – one which also includes “editors, producers, curators, professional reviewers working for newspapers, magazines, and websites, and the amateur criticism that gathers around and sustains various genres and mediums.” As one might imagine with such a diverse collection of individuals, Clune does not systematize this “ecology”, being that it would be institutionally impossible to coordinate every single academic, writer, and critic into the same discourse.

However, A Defense of Judgment does maintain that every one of those individuals, whose work will invariably require judgment, must make judgment a central and self-conscious part of their practice. If one fails to do this, there will exist no buttress between the sphere of market valuation – which already has a stronghold on judgment – and aesthetic appreciation.

The core facet of Clune’s conception of judgment is the notion that judgment involves receptivity to an artwork’s ability to create its own criteria of assessment. Clune addresses several legitimate concerns about the role of university professors in aesthetic education, including the charge that literature curricula recycle non-inclusive, narrowly conceived canons, and that professors can wield an undue influence in determining the aesthetic categories that matter when passing judgment on an artwork. Clune does not spurn academic expertise; obviously, he showcases plenty of such expertise himself, which strengthens his argument and his appeals for change in the way literature is taught. But he does acknowledge that “consensus” and “expertise” can veil subjective biases and institutional discrimination.

Clune’s vision of judgment works its way around these problems by not positioning the literature professor as one whose judgment ought to be adopted by all. “Artistic judgment,” Clune writes, “requires that we place our existing values in suspension.” Critics will always approach the evaluation of art with some criteria in mind; a critic will want music to have compelling melodies and well-executed strong structure, just as another critic will expect a literary artwork to have a sophisticated or perhaps innovative form, and use language in ways that are beautiful. A good critic, however, does not limit themselves to the aesthetic criteria that are taught in classrooms.

Clune argues, “Expertise consists precisely in the capacity to encounter the work as constitutive of subjectivity. The expert approaches the work as the bearer of subjective qualities and capacities. She sees through the work’s forms; she thinks with its concepts.” The result of this openness to an artwork’s ability to create its own capacities for judgment is not a stodgy canon of texts that have been written about a million times over – though that’s not to say that the classics have been sapped of all value. (Emily Dickinson and John Keats make up two key case studies in A Defense of Judgment.) When it comes to the arts, “consensus”, Clune reminds us, “refers less to a singular decision than to a spectrum.” By avoiding rigid, top-down approaches to judgment, scholars and critics can allow not just their individual reading of a given work to be transformed, but also their whole notion of aesthetic value in general.

The first half of the bipartite A Defense of Judgment outlines Clune’s dissatisfaction with the status of judgment in literary studies and wider culture and presents his solutions to a revivification of judgment. The three chapters of the second half, most of which originated in Clune’s peer-reviewed scholarship in academic journals, are presented to exemplify the kind of judgment Clune wishes to see practiced in the university and beyond. Each of those final three chapters begins with a broad question that is then explored through analysis of particular texts.

“What does literature know, and how does it know it?” (It turns out that if you read the poems of Dickinson and Keats, you may learn something about death that only literature can teach you.) “What would a commitment to art that has passed through the post-modern critique of art look like?” (The novels of Thomas Bernhard and Samuel Beckett create a vision that is at once aware of postmodern critiques of art, and yet at the same time point to a vision beyond postmodernism’s cynicism and irony.) “What would we see in a world where race had become invisible?” (If one pays close attention to select poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, she will find that “race makes class visible”, rather than, as is often argued, race obscures class.) In each case, Clune’s question touches on matters of aesthetic judgment and moral import – for example, Dickinson and Keats create compelling insights about death with their poetry, which matters because it is worthwhile that we learn about death before the end of our lives.

On the one hand, these second half chapters form a clear ethos appeal on Clune’s part. He will not simply talk the talk of judgment; he will also walk the walk, and show you what he means to do judgment properly. On the other, structurally these latter chapters feel disconnected from the main thrust of Clune’s argument, even as one can see how they model the practices to which Clune hopes that his literary colleagues aspire.

The business of A Defense of Judgment appears in its first hundred pages, when it details what’s wrong with judgment as we perform it now, and how it may be done better. Clune, who throughout the entirety of the book expertly pre-empts numerous criticisms of his central argument, seems to be thinking on the defensive with the inclusion of those last three chapters, and though his textual readings brim with insight – the section on Bernhard’s novel Woodcutters is a highlight of the book – they feel distinctly separate from the larger project of defending judgment.

Still, what Clune argues in A Defense of Judgment’s first hundred pages represents a crucial wake-up call for anyone who takes the judgment, not merely the consumption, of art seriously. In an age when the moment one finishes a TV show, she finds herself staring at dozens of algorithmically-generated recommendations about what other shows she would “like”, an age when your connected device notifies you, “If you bought this, you might also like..” – interfaces feature on Amazon and other sites that sell books – we as readers and viewers of art find ourselves continually primed to receive new art as passive consumers. This position very understandably can drown out our interest or capacity to judge art, not in the sense of “being judgmental”, but in trying to figure out why a given artwork matters, and should matter to others.

Literary scholar Heather Houser calls our present-day condition an “infowhelm“; in this environment of “content” oversaturation, our capacity to become well-rounded critics and appreciators of art faces tall hurdles. There is – especially on television – far too much to take in. But if one can slow down, and take the time to engage with artworks that enrich and edify, we may learn to better find the gems amidst the glut. Whether you’re a professional academic, an up-and-coming cultural critic, or someone looking to deepen their understanding of what goes into great artwork, A Defense of Judgment is a timely and valuable work, an intellectual rallying cry for the arts in the era of late capitalism.


Works Cited

Bradly, Laura. “Taylor Swift Remains Silent as Fans Doxx and Harass Music Critic Over ‘Folklore’ Review”. The Daily Beast. 30 July 2020.

Hume, David. “On the Standard of Taste“. 1757. via California State University website.

Ozzie, Dan. “Is the Album Review Dead?” Noisy/Vice. 29 February 2016.

Pushkar. “Straight Talk: The Adjunctification of American Higher Education”. BrainGainMag.com. 28 September 2015.

Richards, Clare. “Do you want poptimism? Or do you want the truth?” Washington Post. 17 April 2015.

Room 237“. Wikipedia.

This Shot Is Brilliant“. KnowYourMeme.com. 2019

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