Features Book Reviews Published 30 August 2011

The Role of the Critic

Exploring the role of this often controversial creature through a changing cultural landscape.

Diana Damian Martin

Nicholas Dromgoole, academic and dance critic at the Sunday Telegraph, embarks on an ambitious project in his book The Role of the Critic, charting the development of art criticism from Aristotle to the present day in the context of changing mentalities and reflections on the fabric and function of art. If this short overview fails to build a potent argument, it is because of its incessant and romantic attempt to simplify historical narrative, imposing instead of analyzing the symptoms of the contemporary debate on the role of the critic.

Dromgoole carefully considers the term critic as a shifting mentality shared by cultural operators. Opening his book with a quote from Shelley’s Adonais, the author brings forward the power that critical discourse has to shape our understanding of art:

“The vultures, to the conqueror’s banner true,

Who feed where Desolation first has fed,

And whose wings rain contagion.”

Dromgoole carves a travelogue through a changing landscape of models of thought. He pauses with Late Greek critics to bring forward the forgotten Longinus who disfavoured the social value of art in favour of a form that brings pleasure, delight and a developing morality. He then carves out a focus on the religious morality that shaped medieval criticism. Focusing on Lollard, he underlines that for a critic who was “depressingly unaware of where his own arguments lead”, he introduced the position of the audience in dramatic discourse, condemning its pleasure as sinful.

This leads him to discuss the rise of the humanist critic born out of the Renaissance who later came under attack, and underlines the cultural symptoms that gave rise to the harsh literary critics of the French Golden Age. Fast-pacing through Romanticism and into modernism, where he pauses on Ruskin and the resulting loss of critical confidence, Dromgoole brings into focus two key players who shaped modern thought: Freud and Marx, gliding elegantly into postmodernism and invites current critics to remember it’s the audience that dictates taste first and foremost, declaring that critics ought to be a humble breed of cultural operators.

Dromgoole is gently cutting into the fabric of this much disputed role by bringing forward what have always been the variable frameworks of artistic discourse: aesthetic experience, moral grounding, social and political impact. Although he doesn’t capitalise on these, he tries to map the context for these debates and their long-lasting impact.

When pondering about Aristotle’s theory of catharsis, he pauses on the extent to which this has been used to justify the presence of violence in film and television. The flaw in Dromgoole’s approach is revealed here. He states that:

“The creators of film and television know that if they depict violence and horror, they can plug into this basic fear and probably hold our attention very easily.”

This is not only a short-sighted argument that has no place in the narrative, but also one long dismissed by both academic and popular discourse as overly simplistic and assuming. In a similar manner, Dromgoole later states that academics were attracted to structuralism due to its varied academic jargon that ‘helps to bolster the self confidence’. For a book that attempts to journey into the highly complex and tightly-woven historical narrative of critical practice, these sweeping statements come in the way of a rigid argument.

This is unfortunately symptomatic of the overall approach that Dromgoole takes in his short overview. The book is peppered with so many generalisations and assumptions about models of thought and artistic phenomena that it removes its own legitimacy. The Role of the Critic has an underlining agenda that makes its argument closed. Instead of opening up this history of shifting critical discourses, Dromgoole imposes a single view of the critic as barometer of value in an attempt to connect all the major historical periods with their influential thinkers in fewer than 100 pages. He is imposing a meta-narrative that simply doesn’t ring true; if there’s anything that postmodernism has taught us, it’s that this is a highly problematic approach to history and, inherently, critical discourse.

The Role of the Critic is a narrative that fails in its attempt to smoothen the inconsistencies and contradictions present throughout the history of critical thinking. Dromgoole marries the personal with what he considers to be established understandings of modes of thought, but this makes for a superficial overview rather than a precise and tightly-knit argument. Certainly, criticism has always been reactive to its socio-cultural context, but is has done so with an inconsistent negotiation of its variables and an imbalanced morality; this is what makes its position so highly debated in cultural discourse, and it is the very debate that Dromgoole seems to have completely dismissed in his overview.

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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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