I am posting this journal in a very provocative manner in order to elicit responses. I do want to hear about what you good people think about the issue.
My feeling about Carroll is his book simply does not describe my hands-on experience as a grad student studying literature and trained to write criticism. First of all I am at odds with Carroll’s overarching argument that criticism is essentially about evaluation. For me, this statement not only confronts with my vocation of why I should be studying literature, nor does it speak to my practical experience.
Ideologically, I find Carroll’s reasoning about why criticism should be about evaluation very condescending. To quote exactly his words, “the common reader expects guidance from the critic concerning what is worthy in an artwork.” Do common reader really expects it? Can’t anyone have a first reaction about if she likes an artwork? Can’t an artwork speak to a reader in a more direct and intuitive way? Should the appreciation of the artwork be mediated by criticism? Especially in terms of an artwork of design, everyday users should be a better authority to evaluate the work than critics do. Certainly, there are some branch of artwork that can be inaccessible or repulsive to our sense sand this should involve the critics making arguments to claim this is nevertheless a good artwork. And I will respond to this question in my concluding paragraph.
Practically speaking, evaluation is simply not a main job in the critic’s hand. Carroll is aware of the fact and he uses this fact to ground his argument as something innovative. But I doubt if his argument is valuable if he does not speak to critic’s professional training. As far as my neophyte experience is concerned, the only evaluative forum of criticism is book and film review, and very often a publication of book review takes much less energy than writing a interpretative journal, so writing review in general gains less credit than other forms of criticism. Often, moreover, the reviews can be very misleading. It is simply hard to review a book or a film well, because a book that is not useful to a critic may be invaluable to another one because they have different disciplinary preconceptions. Reviews often diverge, discrediting each other’s credence.
Practically speaking (again), A literature grad’s main aim of criticism comprises of more often what we call “interpretation”, rather than evaluation. Carroll defines interpretation as a kind of analysis, because some of the artwork is purely decorative, and is not meaningful, thus cannot be interpreted. For me who study literature, naturally almost every verbal discourse carries meaning, so I will use the term “interpretation” instead, which is more often used in my discipline and more precise to me. Artworks can be generally put under two categories: canonical art and popular culture. A canonical artwork is historically and institutionally decided that the work is great. But even if the evaluation has long be done, we critics still proliferate criticism on it, mainly by excavating—to some extent inventing—the new meaning about the artwork. This exploration/invention of meaning of the artwork is what we call interpretation. It involves the creative force of the critic herself, her commend of rhetoric and philosophical reasoning, her knowledge to put the artwork in the proper context in order to discuss the meaning—the dialogue between the artwork and its social context. (I should write more on this in later articles). It involves description, classification, contextualization, and elucidation that Carroll discusses. The other category is art of popular culture, which I sometimes work on. This category can be used as a forceful antithesis to Carroll’s argument of criticism-as-evaluation. This category comprises of works that critics can denounce as bad artwork in evaluative terms, often because it is not sophisticated or self-conscious enough. But people nevertheless like it. I as a critic sometimes work on it, not to denounce it, but to argue interpretatively and favorably why the popular art is still meaningful—often because it informs us our living condition, our capitalist and individualist ideology (sometimes it is the ideology rather than the artwork that should be denounced). A criticism on a popular work is necessarily interpretative. If I want to evaluate it I would 1) argue that it is bad in a condescending manner, against people’s easy taste 2) argue how good it is and it should be listed as a canonical work. But it would be redundant because people already like it. And it would be useless because my own voice would of little force.
To come back to my pervious question unanswered, can a critic find out an artwork that is worthy of appreciation, even if it is inaccessible or repulsive to lay readers? Certainly, but the critic does not do it through evaluation, since the artwork already does not speak to our senses or aesthetic intuition. The critic needs to argue the value of the artwork intellectually rather than aesthetically; that is, she needs to explain why the artwork is worthy of appreciation—because it is meaningful!! This is essentially a work of interpretation rather than evaluation!