New Bearings in Esthetics and Art Criticism

A Study in Semantics and Evaluation

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(C) The Relevancy of Criteria
Up to a point, then, the expert critic should attempt to evaluate criteria. But he may do more than this. On the basis, once more, of empirical evidence, the relativist will maintain that some critical conceptions are more universally applicable than others, depending upon the kind of art being considered, and that while there is partial justice in many claims, each theory is too limited, each standard too restricted to serve as a tribunal before which all the varied forms of art should be judged. If this conception is relativistic because of its insistence upon the need for varied and flexible criteria, in another sense it clearly gives an important kind of objectivity to criticism: it means that the relevancy of standards is a worthy critical concept.
To illustrate this, consider the endless debates regarding the significance of subject matter in works of art. What is the importance of Christian themes, it is asked, for painting? Do such "ulterior ends" as religious, social, and political subjects add or detract, or are they irrelevant to the total artistic effect? I. A. Richards has an answer to these questions. Few critics realize, he says,
that poetry is of more than one kind, and that the different kinds are to be judged by different principles. There is a kind of poetry into the judgment of which ulterior ends directly and essentially enter; a kind part of whose value is directly derivable from the value of the ends with which it is associated. There are other kinds, into which ulterior ends do not enter in any degree, and there are yet other kinds whose value may be lowered by the intrusion of ends relatively trivial in value.95
In this passage Richards distinguishes three kinds of poetry which are best judged by three different principles.
Using painting rather than poetry for illustration, we may
95. Principles of Literary Criticism (New York, 1926), p. 77.