Criticism is the analysis and judgment of works of art. It tries to interpret and to evaluate such works and to examine the principles by which they may be understood. Criticism attempts to promote high standards among artists and to encourage the appreciation of art. It also helps society remain aware of the value of both past and present works of art.
Criticism plays an important part in every art form. This article emphasizes literary criticism.
Kinds of literary criticism. Criticism can be divided into four basic types. They differ according to which aspect of art the critic chooses to emphasize. Formal criticism examines the forms or structures of works of art. It may also compare a work with others of its genre (kind), such as other tragic plays or other sonnets. Formal criticism is sometimes intrinsic–that is, it may seek to treat each work of art as complete in itself. Rhetorical criticism analyzes the means by which a work of art affects an audience. It focuses on style and on general principles of psychology. Expressive criticism regards works as expressing the ideas or feelings of the artist. It examines the artist’s background and conscious or unconscious motives. Mimetic criticism views art as an imitation of the world. It analyzes the ways that artists show reality, and their thoughts about it.
The four types of criticism can also be combined. For example, a critic who looks at the form of a work might also study the way this form affects an audience.
History of literary criticism. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato was the first known literary critic. He accused poetry of imitating the mere appearance of things. Aristotle, his pupil, defended epic poetry and tragic drama. In his Poetics, Aristotle said that poetry is an instructive imitation, not of things but of actions. Other essays on criticism tended to be rhetorical handbooks that taught writers how to achieve certain effects. They included Art of Poetry by the Roman poet Horace and On the Sublime by the Greek writer Longinus. During the late 1500′s, such critics as the English poet Sir Philip Sidney praised literature as the image of an ideal world.
During the 1600′s and 1700′s, critics turned their attention to defining the rules by which they thought works should be written and judged. The three most important English critics during this period were John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, and Alexander Pope.
In the early 1900′s, the poet T. S. Eliot argued for a criticism that would be the servant of poetry, not of society. I. A. Richards, an English critic, developed methods of close reading. He asked readers to pay attention to the exact meaning of the text, not to impose their own ideas on it. In the mid-1900′s, a movement called the New Criticism was popular in the United States. Such New Critics as Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom analyzed a work of literature as a self-contained whole, without reference to its historical period, the author’s life, or other external influences.