Beyond comparison

In a famous 2002 article, Raphael Rubinstein announced a “quiet crisis” in art criticism. Over a decade later, the quiet has been replaced by a cacophony of voices clamoring to diagnose criticism’s many ailments. No consensus has yet emerged; perhaps the root of the problem is that critics have forgotten their proper task, lost their nerve, been supplanted by market forces, or become distracted and fallen into other pursuits, such as the writerly pleasures of description.

In On Criticism, Noel Carroll presents a theory of what criticism is (or ought to be) that aims to set the field right. Carroll argues that “criticism is, first and foremost, evaluative discourse supported by reasons” (p. 15). Critics do many things, of course, including describing, classifying, contextualizing, elucidating, interpreting, and analyzing artworks. But he thinks all of these tasks are subservient to the larger purpose of producing evaluations of the work. Evaluation is what distinguishes criticism from other forms of discourse that take artworks as their objects, such as art history and theory, as well as arts journalism.

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