Saturday, December 11, 2010

Late to the Party

Back in November, Niall Harrison wrote this post responding to this post by Jason Sanford. This kicked off the annual Reviewers Introspection Week, which I unfortunately missed because of Thanksgiving travels. By the time I got caught up it seemed that the moment had passed. (Sanford also posted a response-to-the-response here.)

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was in Barnes & Noble with a $25 gift card burning a hole in my pocket. I found their essays/lit crit section and a copy of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism jumped into my hands. It's on my list of Books I Ought To Read, so I bought it and started browsing. In the introduction, I found this:

The subject matter of literary criticism is an art, and criticism is evidently something of an art too. This sounds as though criticism were a parasitic form of literary expression, an art based on pre-existing art, a second-hand imitation of creative power. On this theory critics are intellectuals who have a taste for art but lack both the power to produce it and the money to patronize it, and thus form a class of cultural middlemen, distributing culture to society at a profit to themselves while exploiting the artist and increasing the strain on his public. The conception of the critic as a parasite or artist manque is still very popular, especially among artists. It is sometimes reinforced by a dubious analogy between the creative and procreative functions, so that we hear about the "impotence" and "dryness" of the critic, his hatred for genuinely creative people, and so on. The golden age of anti-critical criticism was the latter part of the nineteenth century, but some of its prejudices are still around.

Nothing new under the sun, eh? And here's Frye's take on Why We Critique:

There is another reason why criticism has to exist. Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb. In painting, sculpture, or music it is easy enough to see that the art shows forth, but cannot say anything. And, whatever it sounds like to call the poet inarticulate or speechless, there is a most important sense in which poems are as silent as statues... The artist, as John Stuart Mill saw in a wonderful flash of critical insight, is not heard but overheard. The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with.

1 comment:

Laurna Tallman said...

I think Frye is mistaken. I thought he was when Anatomy of Criticism first was published and I am certain now of why he was mistaken. Like such famously mistaken people as Julian Jaynes, he denied an evident truth that he did not comprehend and built upon it a rationalization for his rationalizations about it. The artist does speak. But Frye does not understand the language. His wife, however, admired my art; she may have helped me thereby to attempt what seemed then beyond reach.
As a graduate student, I set out to do for graphic and plastic arts what Frye purported to have done for literary criticism. Life events turned me away from my studies but also drew me through a labyrinth of the human mind. During our son's last psychotic break, I came to an understanding of how the brain functions that forces us to re-evaluate all that has been said about art and the understanding of art, both literary and visual.
I cannot encapsulate those implications here, but the fundamentals of my discoveries are on my blog at
This conversation is one I would like very much to continue!
Laurna Tallman