New Bearings in Esthetics and Art Criticism

A Study in Semantics and Evaluation

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critical position and define what he regards as the functions of art: whether, for instance, art shall convey ''truth" or whether its sole purpose is to present a satisfying surface pattern. Or, working at a somewhat less generalized level, the art critic should explain his attitude, where it is pertinent, toward problems of the following sort: the possible significance of the medium, the place of subject matter in art, the relation of form to content, the advantages and drawbacks of realistic or abstract types of representation, and so forth. Provided the critic defines with great care the meaning he attaches to all such questions, the solutions to them may be formulated as criteria which will be immensely useful; for with these criteria as a basis of artistic evaluations, judgments can be made which will indeed be "relatively objective" relative in that they depend upon deliberately chosen standards, objective to the extent that they can be empirically checked with these by the trained critical expert. The necessity and usefulness of these standards is succinctly explained by John Dryden: "For how was it possible to be decided who writ the best plays, before we know what a play should be? But, this once agreed on by both parties, each might have recourse to it, either to prove his own advantages, or to discover the failings of his adversary." 73
The writings of Tolstoy and of Berenson may be cited as typical yet diverse instances of the correct method of approach. In What Is Art? Tolstoy makes many judgments with which most of us will wholeheartedly disagree; nevertheless they are neither incomprehensible nor harmful, since they are based upon a specific theory about art and life which, even if we deem it misguided, is intelligible. "All that I have written," he says, "I have written with the sole purpose of finding a clear and reasonable criterion by which to judge
73. "An Essay of Dramatic Poesy," English Critical Essays (The World's Classics), p. 129.