From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search
Art critic John Ruskin said about this painting by James McNeill Whistler: "I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler subsequently sued Ruskin.
Art critic John Ruskin said about this painting by James McNeill Whistler: "I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler subsequently sued Ruskin.

Related e

Wiki Commons

Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Criticism is the practice of judging the merits and faults of something or someone in an intelligible (or articulate) way.

  • The judger is called "the critic".
  • To engage in criticism is "to criticize".
  • One specific item of criticism is called "a criticism" or a "critique".

This article provides only general information about criticism. For subject-specific information, see the Varieties of criticism page.

Criticism can be:

  • directed toward a person or an animal; at a group, authority or organization; at a specific behaviour; or at an object of some kind (an idea, a relationship, a condition, a process, or a thing).
  • personal (delivered directly from one person to another, in a personal capacity), or impersonal (expressing the view of an organization, and not aimed at anyone personally).
  • highly specific and detailed, or very abstract and general.
  • verbal (expressed in language) or non-verbal (expressed symbolically, or expressed through an action or a way of behaving).
  • explicit (the criticism is clearly stated) or implicit (a criticism is implied by what is being said, but it is not stated openly).
  • the result of critical thinking[1] or spontaneous impulse.

To criticize does not necessarily imply "to find fault", but the word is often taken to mean the simple expression of an objection against prejudice, or a disapproval. Often criticism involves active disagreement, but it may only mean "taking sides". It could just be an exploration of the different sides of an issue. Fighting is not necessarily involved.

Criticism is often presented as something unpleasant, but it need not be. It could be friendly criticism, amicably discussed, and some people find great pleasure in criticism ("keeping people sharp", "providing the critical edge"). The Pulitzer Prize for Criticism has been presented since 1970 to a newspaper writer who has demonstrated 'distinguished criticism'.

Another meaning of criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature, artwork, film, and social trends (see the article links below). The goal of this type of criticism is to understand the possible meanings of cultural phenomena, and the context in which they take shape. In so doing, the attempt is often made to evaluate how cultural productions relate to other cultural productions, and what their place is within a particular genre, or a particular cultural tradition.

Criticism as an evaluative or corrective exercise can occur in any area of human life. Criticism can therefore take many different forms. How exactly people go about criticizing, can vary a great deal. In specific areas of human endeavour, the form of criticism can be highly specialized and technical; it often requires professional knowledge to understand the criticism.



This section is about the origin and evolution of the meanings of the expression "criticism".

Early English meaning

  • The English word criticism is derived from the French critique, which dates back to at least the 14th century.
  • The words "critic" and "critical" existed in the English language from the mid-16th century, and the word "criticism" first made its appearance in English in the early 17th century.<ref>Raymond Williams, Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society. Fontana, 1976, p. 74-76.</ref>
  • In turn, the French expression critique has roots in Latin ("criticus" - a judger, decider, or critic), and, even earlier, classical Greek language ("kritos" means judge, and "kritikos" means able to make judgements, or the critic). Related Greek terms are krinein (separating out, deciding), krei- (to sieve, discriminate, or distinguish) and krisis (literally, the judgement, the result of a trial, or a selection resulting from a choice or decision). Crito is also the name of a pupil and friend of the Greek philosopher Socrates, as well as the name of an imaginary dialogue about justice written by the philosopher Plato in the context of the execution of Socrates.

The early English meaning of criticism was primarily literary criticism, that of judging and interpreting literature. Samuel Johnson is often held as the prime example of criticism in the English language, and his contemporary Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism is a significant landmark. In the course of the 17th century, it acquired the more general sense of censure, as well as the more specialized meaning of the "discernment of taste", i.e. the art of estimating the qualities and character of literary or artistic works, implicitly from the point of view of a consumer.

To be critical meant, positively, to have good, informed judgement about matters of culture (to be cultivated, to be a man or woman of distinction), but negatively it could also refer to the (unreasonable) rejection or (unfair) treatment of some outside group ("to be critical of them"). Derivatively, "a criticism" also referred to a nice point or a distinction, a tiny detail, a pedantic nicety, a subtlety, or a quibble (the sense of what today is called a "minor criticism"). Often criticism was governed by very strict cultural rules of politeness, propriety and decency, and there could be immediate penalties if the wrong words were said or written down (in 17th century England, more than half of men and about three-quarters of women could not read or write).

In the 19th century, criticism also gained the philosophical meaning of "a critical examination of the faculty of knowledge", particularly in the sense used by Immanuel Kant.<ref>Oxford English Dictionary.</ref> Such criticism was carried out mainly by academic authorities, businessmen and men of property with the leisure to devote themselves to the pursuit of knowledge.

20th century

In the 20th century, all these meanings continued, but criticism acquired the more general connotation of voicing an objection, or of appraising the pros and cons of something.

  • The shape and meanings of criticism were influenced very considerably by wars (including two world wars), which were occurring almost continuously somewhere in the world.
  • With the growth of specializations in the division of labour, and the growth of tertiary education, innumerable different branches of criticism emerged with their own rules and specialized technical meanings.
  • Philosophers such as Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos have popularized the idea, that criticism is a normal part of scientific activity. Relatedly, "scientific criticism" has become a standard expression, just as much as "literary criticism".
  • Gradually it was accepted more, that criticism is a normal process in a democratic society, rather than a sign of inadequacy, or something that should be strictly controlled or repressed.

From the 1970s onward, under the influence of neo-Marxism, critical theory and Michel Foucault, it became fashionable in the English-speaking academic social sciences and humanities to use the French word "critique", instead of the ordinary "criticism". The suggestion is, that there is a difference between the two terms, but what exactly it is, is often not altogether clear. Often the connotation is, that if a deliberation is a "critique" and not just a "criticism", then there is "a lot of extra thought and profound meaning" behind what is being said. A "critique" in the modern sense is normally understood as a systematic criticism, a critical essay, or the critical appraisal of a discourse (or parts of a discourse). Thus, many academic papers came to be titled or subtitled "a critique". From the 1970s, English-speaking academics and journalists also began to use the word "critique" not only as a noun, but as a verb (e.g. "I have critiqued the idea", instead of "I have criticized the idea"). What is often implied is, that "critiqueing" goes deeper into the issue, or is more complete, than "criticizing", possibly because the specialist criteria of a particular discipline are being applied.

21st century

  • From the 1990s, the popular meanings of the word criticism have started to evolve more strongly toward "having an objection", "expressing dissent", "stating a dislike", "wanting to dissociate from something", or "rejecting something" ("If you liked it, you would not be criticizing it"). In the contemporary sense, criticism is often more the expression of an attitude, where the object of criticism may only be vaguely defined. For example, somebody "unlikes" something on Facebook or "unfriends" somebody.
  • In general, there is less money in literary criticism, while it has become easier for anyone to publish anything at a very low cost on the Internet - without necessarily being vetted through critically by others.
  • Professionally, "what it means to criticize" has become a much more specialized and technical matter, where "inside knowledge" is required to understand the criticism truly; this development is linked to the circumstance, that the right to criticize, or the propriety (appropriate use) of criticism, is regarded nowadays much more as depending on one's position, or on the context of the situation ("I would like to say something, but I am not in a position to criticize").
  • As many more people are able to travel to, or have contact with worlds completely different to their own, new problems are created of how to relativize criticisms and their limitations, how to put everything into meaningful proportion. This affects what a criticism is understood to be, or to mean, and what its overall significance is thought to be.
  • Digital information technology and telecommunications have begun to change drastically the ways people have for getting attention, or for being taken seriously. In turn, this has begun to change the ways people have for going about criticizing, and what criticism means for people.
  • With more possibilities for sophisticated expression, criticism has tended to become more "layered". Beneath the observable surface presentation of criticism, which is freely advertised, there are often more additional layers of deeper criticism. These are not directly accessible, because they require additional information, or insight into additional meanings. To gain access to the "whole story" about a criticism, and not just "part of the story", may be conditional on fulfilling certain entry requirements ("if you don't have the ticket, you don't get the knowledge").
  • Together with the ability to make finer distinctions of meaning with the aid of digital equipment, the possibilities for ambiguity in criticism have increased: is a criticism being implied, or is it not, and if so, what exactly is the criticism? It can take more effort to unravel the full story.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Criticism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools