Barriers to Aesthetic Criticism

I think there are two barriers to having valid critical appraisals. One is having an opinion, and two is having a disposition to a view. By the term critical appraisal, I shall consider cultural artefacts as the object of criticism. By the term criticism, I take to mean the act of praising the merits or demerits of a work on the basis, or at least on the guise of an informed and considered view.
Lately I’ve been reading quite a bit of critical thinking on cultural artefacts. Some things are very evidently laden with feeling, perhaps praise or perhaps derision. I myself have been writing quite a bit of critical prose on music, film, comics and television within and without NR.

The ad hominem

Sometimes I wonder if for instance, there is any worth in engaging in criticism of culture when one makes a name prior any given opinion, if they have already tied their flag to the mast. If for example I were to go on a diatribe about how Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj represented everything that was ill and sick about a culture, many may agree or disagree, but maybe not for the reasons elicited. It may be that the assent to a view is sufficient to assent to an identification of a feeling, or an identification to a clan. There is no criticism in the activity of assent or dissent to a conclusion. This kind of clade behaviour defies thinking, but appeals to feeling, namely, the feeling of approval. When appraising critism works in this way, or the sole materials of our critical framework is to be based on a feeling, it would seem prima facie difficult to make this communicable. All we can communicate is how it feels, and whether others or not have felt similar or the same before is not up to us.


Similar, but not the same to the ad hominem of simply holding to a view and stating it in writing, or as a spoken utterance, for example: ‘Nickelback is aweful, overly-produced generic rock for the masses!’; the notion of a disposition poses a similar challenge to aesthetic criticism .To have  a disposition is to hold to a family of views that you are inclined to agree with on the basis of something (that may not need to be specifed).

I wonder for instance what the worth of reviewing books one has an inclination to hate, if they are speaking from the dispositions they have. A Christian may dismiss all books by anyone who claims to be an atheist, and whether or not as an explicit speech act, may harbour tacit biases and may be primed against any positive (or negative) view against a given cultural artefact. Dispositions can come from many things, habit, a limited pool of experience and familiarity, or even something like cultural context and orientation. Some dispositions are by choice, or have been developed over time, and some things are not. Many cultural prejudices we don’t even know we have sometimes.


Why are these things important? Lately, as part of a book review, I’ve been reading an anthology on children’s literature (and its relation to philosophy). One of the things I have noticed is a distinction between what I might call ‘good’ and ‘bad’ criticism. I thought I would try to elucidate something general to highlight what I thought was problematic about some of the articles I read and where the perspectives were coming from.

Criticism is lazy when it is simply a mouthpiece for a point of view. However, sometimes being a mouthpiece for a point of view is a very important thing, An example of this is the discussion of Lana Del Rey in early 2012. My favourite such example was in (I think) Spin magazine.The criticism was directed not so much to the music of Del Rey, but the packaging of her music, and the preferred ways it had been described, as well as the iconography and multi-media nature of her celebrity presence. As a cultural critique this communicated a lot, and it also gave a more systematic treatment to what essentially is what one may consider a cynical reaction to a cynically produced cultural product.

Criticism is poor when it serves as a front for one’s own views. A good example of this would be the way in which Slavoj Zizek appropriates many things, such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I think that the activity of eisegesis has its merits, but to put it forward as criticism is unwarranted and lazy thinking. Of course, it should be said that when Zizek appropriates cultural references he does not (I think) take it to be a form of literary or film critcism. I also think that even the hallowed Adorno may be guilty of skirting on this kind of prejudice at times. To appropriate a cultural artefact as an accessory to your own views is different to criticism. To take the cultural artefact sui generis, to take it on its own merits, as its own object, and not necessarily in relation to other things (although this may be relevant if we are in a discussion of say, genre), is to give a more sensitive view of the work. In a sense it may seem contradictory to consider how our own prejudices are a barrier to an appraisal of a work of culture. I also see these barriers to criticism as a neat way of framing aesthetic appraisal in terms of the role of disinterest.

Destre and Michael