As the 1980s drew to a close, literary scholar George Steiner proposed a thought-experiment that, to many, sounded more like a dystopia: “Imagine a society in which all talk about the art, music, and literature is prohibited.” (Steiner 1991: 4) In this “counter-Platonic republic” of authors and artists, from which reviewers and critics had been banished, only “dispassionate summaries” of newly released works would be permitted. In this city, to interpret would mean to perform: in the way that an actress interprets Ophelia or a violinist interprets Bach.
Such a parable, as a meta-critique of the critic’s trade, is quite generally unsettling. In part because it would seem to attack a central achievement of Western culture—an achievement that Adorno, for one, held in the highest esteem: “Critique is essential to all democracy. […] Democracy is nothing less than defined by critique. […] He who equates the modern concept of reason with critique is scarcely exaggerating.” (Adorno 2005: 281–282).
May we, in light of such an assessment, permit ourselves to reject criticism? And would, absent criticism, the endeavours of art, music, and literature lose their social functions and degenerate into randomness and irrelevance?
Such debates flare up about every ten years and are owed to a fundamental misunderstanding—or, better: to a certain homonymy. One in which different meanings of the word criticism intermingle, their differences planed flat.
As a term and a concept, criticism (re)appears during the 17th century as part of a novel type of hermeneutics. Known as “critica sacra”, this was a method of textual criticism that was used for reading the Holy Scriptures. It served purposes such as determining the authenticity of a text, comparing historically differing interpretations of words, and an author’s own ascertainments—fully in the spirit of the term’s original meaning: the Greek krinein means to divide, to separate, to decide, to judge, to accuse—and to argue.
The pursuit of criticism soon spread like wildfire, “extended from the classical texts and the Bible to cover all areas of society and the state”, and “from the evaluation of texts’ authenticity to the Enlightenment as such” (Röttgers 1982: 655). The second half of the 18th century saw functional departments begin to form. The Encyclopédie article “Critique” by Marmontel, for instance, distinguishes between “criticism in the sciences” and “criticism in the liberal arts or the fine arts”. And later on, at the beginning of the 19th century, three major areas crystallised: alongside art criticism there blossomed a “philosophical” sphere, characterised as the critique of reason or critique of knowledge, above all in the German language. And the immediately political, on the other hand, came to be generally referred to as social criticism.
In view of this trend toward diversification, Enlightenment philosophers attempted to construct a notional “bracket” of sorts that was intended to henceforth connect all areas of critical activity above and beyond their differences: criticism as the human ability to distinguish between, examine, and judge things and human works. It is to this bracket, surely, that the aforementioned homonymy is owed.
Commentary and Criticism
These days, one also sees differing hermeneutic processes portrayed as a single whole, subsuming them under the moniker of criticism. But commentary and criticism are not the same thing, and what’s more: for quite some time, there existed brutal competition between these two secondary discourses for the dominant role in the reception of texts.
Commentary has a paradoxical mission. Texts that are assumed to contain timeless truths—the Holy Scriptures, for instance—must themselves stand above the temporal. But since they are ultimately children of their respective eras simply by virtue of their language, with the number of obscure passages increasing from generation to generation, they must be rendered understandable and legitimised in their functions again and again. The commentary, therefore, has the mission of placing a given text within the current era in such a way that its timelessness is not impaired. This process, referred to as transmission, has by no means vanished in the modern era.
Commentary wasn’t and still isn’t used exclusively in the exegesis of religious texts. Secular texts highly significant to a given culture are likewise passed on and legitimised via commentary—as one sees in the interpretations produced by Homeric scholarship in ancient Greece, the virtually infinite number of commentaries on works by Shakespeare and Goethe, and the countless work interpretations by “anachronistic” philosophers such as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. And the transmission of visual and performance art takes place via discussion and evaluation: paintings, installations, “artistic stances”, dance performances, symphonies, stage productions, and concerts are—analogue to texts—“read” and reviewed (i.e., literally viewed anew) in catalogues, programme booklets, and opera guides as well as in the culture sections of daily newspapers.
It may be that criticism has, now and again, crowded out commentary as the dominant hermeneutic process. But in doing so, it never eliminated commentary’s function of shoring up tradition; it much rather took it over. A whole conglomerate of hermeneutic discourses takes on artistic output, determining its market value along with whether it should be added to the educational canon, and speaking about its “silent truth” or “true core”—and also about its status and role in society. Being commonly referred to as criticism, this meta-discourse itself remains immune to social criticism.
What commentary and criticism have in common amidst their rivalry, so much so that it can even temporarily make the two seem indistinguishable, is their relationship with one of the pillars of Michel Foucault’s “knowledge-power complex”: the canon.
The Will to Canonise
“A canon defines the proportions of what is beautiful, great, or important, and it does so by pointing to works that embody and exemplify the relevant values.” (Assmann 2012: 102).
The (educational) canon as a cultural and hegemonic pillar of the existing order is no doubt a significant factor in social power relations and power struggles. What has to be known, what norms are educationally relevant, and above all the necessity of there being a list of names and works with which one has to be intimately familiar in order to be considered educated—all these assumptions uphold a cultural order as well as the associated political and economic ones. But when existing names and works are exchanged for new names and works, it can cause an existing order to be overturned—for which reason every canon is a constant bone of contention.
That which makes an object into an artwork, a sequence of notes into music, and a series of sentences into literature is a dispositive of power that one might refer to as the “will to canonise”. Every canon arises because commentaries focus on certain creations, and it is by the respective canons that the art-critical discourses are “nourished”. So in this way, art criticism legitimises the canon and continuously reproduces itself.
But this is not the entire truth. For art criticism quite naturally also has a pedagogically and educationally important function. Artistic activity, even just the merely “amateur”, requires craftsmanship, mental and manual skills, knowledge that can be called upon—and the acquisition and refinement of such competencies can only succeed through constantly drawing distinctions, through evaluation, and through corrections. And in this, criticism—as a didactic tool—is once again shifting toward what it once was, what it occasionally still is when of the social variety, and what distinguishes it from commentary: the intent to assess and to effect change. So the more that art criticism—in the sense of George Steiner—unfolds in the form of artistic interpretation, as performance, the more it will once again truly be criticism.
Adorno, Theodor W. (2005): “Critique”, in: ibid.: Critical Models. Interventions and Catchwords. New York: 281–288
Assmann, Jan (2005): Cultural Memory and Early Civilization. Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination. Cambridge
Röttgers, Kurt (1982): “Kritik”, in: O. Brunner / W. Conze / R. Koselleck (Eds.): Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-soziologischen Sprache in Deutschland, Vol. 3. Stuttgart: 651–675. Quoted passage trans. Christopher Roth
Steiner, George (1991): Real Presences. Is there Anything in What We Say? London
is a philosopher and adult educator. You can find further information on him and his publications as well as online texts at:
- www.hakanguerses.at (in German)