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  Criticism (from Greek krites, ‘judge’) is an activity about which diametrically opposite opinions can be held. It can be seen either as an essential component of human thought, a major guarantor of our cultural existence, or as lateral to true intellectual activity, not to say parasitic upon it. Aristotle\'s writings on drama demonstrate the point. Writing in the 4th century  BCE, and seeking not to criticize the writing of plays, but to draw conclusions about the types of plays being written and to extrapolate from them a kind of definition of what the purpose of drama was and how it might be achieved, Aristotle put forward some general opinions, which were subsequently taken as rules by generations of playwrights and connoisseurs of drama. Indeed, they are still mentioned with care whenever abstract discussion of drama is attempted.

On the one hand Aristotle\'s work did enormous (unintended) harm, by closing off avenues of thought and creative exploration. To this day, academic appreciation of ancient Greek drama is straitjacketed by attempts to relate the plays to his comments rather than to any other correlative. On the other hand, attempts by later generations to understand and abide by his ‘rules’ have led to some of the West\'s finest drama. Aristotle\'s work has been a springboard for new creativity of kinds one can hardly imagine without it. This is, perhaps, how what is self-admiringly called ‘higher’ criticism should operate—the activity defined by the 19th-century poet and critic Matthew Arnold as ‘a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world’.

This kind of criticism is a form of scholasticism, and as such has been almost entirely squeezed out of scientific thought. It persists in the arts, and many critics have followed in Aristotle\'s footsteps, with equally dynamic and energetic effect on the creative community. The best of such critics are aware, however, that to ‘endeavour…to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world’ must be a self-correcting exercise, that opinions should be transitory, that humility should be a quality not of creators but of critics. This view is, alas, not common, either in critics or in those who read them. The writer Eduard Hanslick, in 19th-century Vienna, saw himself (and was seen by others) as a kind of Napoleonic music critic, leading the armies of rational common sense against the Wagnerian enemy. In the UK during the 1930s, T.S. Eliot spoke like Moses delivering the Ten Commandments, articulating views about ‘high’ culture which have bedevilled English literature ever since. (Eliot himself, a creative artist as well as a pundit, came to deplore and repudiate his own views in later life.) The worst example of all, also in the UK, was an attempt, in the early 1970s, by the art historian Kenneth Clark to define ‘civilization’ in a series of television programmes entitled Civilization. He defined it quite emphatically as the paintings, buildings, sculptures and (grudgingly) music, theatre and literature of western Europe between about 1400 and 1900. The problem was not the programmes, but the title and the fact that millions of people throughout the world took it at face value, and formed a ludicrously distorted, exclusive and patrician view of what ‘civilization’ is.

Clark\'s programmes, an egregious example of a flea setting out to describe the elephant it feeds on, are symptomatic of what is wrong with much of the ‘criticism’ currently practised throughout the world. (The rest of the world has accepted the Western view of what criticism is and how it should be done. Even in countries whose culture is precisely not prescriptive and definitive—India and China spring to mind—the search for fundamental principles in artistic creation, and the fundamentalist propagation of orthodox opinion in the matter, are as common as in countries used to precriptivism, whether social, religious, political, or, as in this case, artistic.) We have transformed critics into soothsayers, and hang on their every word. There is nothing wrong with reading X\'s views on the death of tragedy, at the ‘high’ level, or Y\'s opinion of last night\'s harp recital, at the ‘low’ level so long as we never mistake them for a branch of the activities they seek to describe. KMcL



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