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Modern Criticism Culture, or: Commentary on Pope’s Criticism of Criticism

In my first entry I have decided to focus on Pope’s “Essay on Criticism” as it relates to my experience with taste, and relying on criticism and praise to discover art. The age we live in is one in which critical reviews are of extreme importance to any artistic expression. Before you try a restaurant, you will most likely pull up a review on your phone from one of the numerous services available. Peer sourced reviews judge the restaurant, giving the “experience” a finite, mathematical rating. It is worth an inquiry as to whether such a common practice is worthwhile or even accurate, taking into account Pope’s comments on proper criticism.

I have always believed that there is always a certain level of objectivity in the judgement of art. While I agree that taste can be attributed to man’s independent nature, there are certain definable qualities in any object of judgement that are measurable. Pope argues criticism should look back to classic works, and be dictated by the “authorities” in that field. He also provides a commentary on the critic himself, stating that to properly judge another’s work, he must have a full understanding of his own tastes.

Pope’s ultimate conclusion, however, is similar to my own. There are the “irrational qualities and nameless graces” which can separate a work of art, whether it be a dish of food or a piece of music, that do not fit within classical boundaries. Therefore, a rigid interpretation of a piece of art based on classic rules will not always provide an accurate judgement of art, in particular, artistic genius. If the boundaries of art are to be pushed, the rubric of artistic judgement will always change, and yet I also agree one should exist.

As Pope notes, this is a fine and difficult balance to achieve. A 9 out of 10 rating, for example, will never fully capture the emotional depth I have experienced from an album. It is an application of a mathematical judgement to human expression. And yet, there are measurable qualities of such an album that merited it that rating in comparison to other works in that field.

In my day to day life, I rely heavily on reviews before I go out to each, download a piece of music, see a film, or attend a concert. While it has more often than not lead me down the right path, the criticism or praise of others should not be taken as full guidance. I love art that others have disparaged, and cases of this have certainly been documented to the chagrin of the artists and the detriment of the critic. The classic example of this is Rolling Stone, the authority on rock music journalism at the time, giving a low rating to Led Zeppelin’s first albums. They are now considered to be some of the defining works in that genre, and to have inspired generations of musicians. As Pope would describe it, the critic could not understand the genius behind the work to properly analyze and criticize it. While reviews help me select from the vast amount of art that is immediately available to me through the internet, I do fear that this development of our culture could lead to a loss of exploration of the fringes of artistic culture, which I believe are necessary in developing the artistic canon of society as a whole.

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4 thoughts on “Modern Criticism Culture, or: Commentary on Pope’s Criticism of Criticism

  1. I really liked your take on Pope’s essay. I didn’t make the connection between reviews and his essay like you did, but I really enjoyed reading it. Why is it that we rely on others opinions and reviews of things so much? Have we became that much of a following society that we are uncomfortable or unable to make decisions without the approval of our peers? I personally enjoy being the one that goes and try’s new things and listens to new music that other people haven’t yet and then be the one to present it to my friends or the population that I work with. I enjoy being the one to research and pick out what will be the next “big” thing, whether it be a restaurant to a song to movie. I do believe that our mathematical scale of grading does affect how we see things as well, making things seem better or worse than they may actually be.

    • Thanks – it was certainly wordy and poetic so I hope I didn’t misconstrue Pope’s message. There are and will always be “opinion leaders” in a market, ie. the friends you go to when you’re making a selection. For example, I live with a few film buffs who I’ll consult before I check out a new movie. On the other hand, I’ll contribute to reviews of live shows online (since my friends and I have wildly different music tastes!) via threads of commentary. I enjoy the format because of its informal nature, and I’m usually commenting alongside others with more knowledge than I have, learning from them in the process.
      I completely understand your enjoyment of seeking out the “next big thing.” It just requires a higher level of dedication and time than most people are willing to commit, which is why I believe “review culture” is so prevalent. After thinking about it, there are bands, films, etc. that I’ve latched onto early before they became popular. But I can’t think of an instance where I tried something where I wasn’t tipped off by a friend, a formal review, or something else.
      One exception to my statements about “Review culture” is the television show Arrested Development (Which I’m fanatic about, by the way…) It was lauded by critics, had awards heaped upon it, but America didn’t really pay attention, so it was not profitable and got cancelled. As its been said, “everyone caught on 6 months late” and it became a cultural phenomenon. I actually remember watching one of the first episodes on Fox myself while I was much younger and thinking “meh, just another Fox comedy.” I don’t have an explanation for why this happened in our review culture, and it serves as a counter point to my thesis.

      PS – Someone mentioned that you were working for Red Rocks this summer? That’s awesome – I worked for Bus To Show last summer and saw a TON of shows. I’d be interested in hearing what you’re doing over there!

      • I completely understand about the film buffs. I used to be a film major and a few of my coworkers still are so they follow the film scene heavily and let me know when one of my favorite directors come out with a new film (and most of the time if it is worth seeing or not). Having online blogs has contributed to a much more in depth review board in my opinion, since there are so many opinions out there now and are easily accessible. This can both help and hurt art because the easily swayed will be turned off by people who are reviewing that should not be taken seriously, whereas others can see the different opinions and create their own!
        It does take a little more effort than most people are willing to put in researching for new music or food or movies, but it is well worth it in the end, especially with music when you are able to follow their career as they increase in success.
        I too had the same first impression for Arrested Development, and currently feel the same way about Orange is the New Black. I eventually became a fan of AD, but can’t seem to get into Orange is the New Black. However, I have been a fan of It’s Always Sunny since day one. Our opinions are created so that we feel awkward saying that we don’t like something that someone else likes, for the most part.

        I do! I work for the production company that does most of the lighting and sound up there. Shoot me an email and we can chat! Kelsey.Gonzalez@Colorado.edu

  2. I think you’re take on Pope’s essay is really interesting. I don’t know if he was trying to suggest that critics are extremely important in today’s world, and I’m not sure they were that important back then. What I got from this was that we are the critics of our lives, what we like and who we are is a basic result of our judgments in life. I think he was trying to talk more about the critics that exist in all of us. Today some people take this and turn it into a career, but really they are just informing people of their opinions and the rest of society seems to agree with their ideas. Something that is good in someone’s mind may not expand past a certain group of people. The old saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is something that critics can’t get passed.

    wc 179

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