Losing perspective

Confident protocols of cultural judgement have gone. Today, amid the competing voices of 'relativism', 'essentialism' and the hectic production of culture and opinion, 'our own response' to the arts is no simple matter, writes John Corner

January 6, 2011

T.S. Eliot thought that literary criticism should be "the common pursuit of true judgement", a phrase that provided the critic F.R. Leavis with both inspiration and a book title. Always provocative, the quiet confidence of the formulation now seems rather astonishing. "Common pursuit" is not the first notion that springs to mind to describe the competitive and vigorously individualistic spirit within which a lot of current arts scholarship gets done, even if the ideal of collaborative endeavour still survives. And as for "true judgement", you don't have to be a postmodernist to see big question marks hanging over this idea.

Nevertheless, the sheer boldness of the assertion brings up some broader issues, not only for cultural scholarship, but also for that wider sphere of engagement with the arts in which we all participate to varying degrees. These include questions about the goal of cultural evaluations and how far cultural judgement is as much about the varying dispositions of people as the diverse properties of works.

There has been a steadily increasing volume and intensity of review opinion about the arts in public circulation over the past few decades, a lot of it emphatic in its judgements about what is "good" and "bad" - and a fair bit promotionally motivated. The internet has allowed a new range of "amateur" commentary to be expressed, some of it frank and perceptive and some of it madly enthusiastic or denunciatory. Within this context, deciding what you "really think" about a book, play, film, television series or CD can be quite a challenge.

It has always been interesting to see how professional (including academic) critical opinion varies in its approach between the "relativist" and "essentialist" positions. In the former, judgement is explicitly made in respect of the personal taste and predilections of the critic ("In my view...", "I found...", "For me..."). In the latter, the inherent qualities or deficits of the work or the artist are the exclusive focus (for example, "poor tonal contrasts", "bold and perceptive storytelling", "the very worst kind of sentimentality").

Relativist approaches make visible the play-off between the work and the individual's perception of it, if only fleetingly and sometimes perhaps out of a strategic rather than a sincere sense of modesty. Thus they promote a socially smoother move towards a dialogue of agreement and disagreement.

Essentialist verdicts, by contrast, abruptly raise the issue of "rightness" or "wrongness" and then, in relation to differences, the potentially fraught matter of who is "mistaken" and why. Rather than an exploration of perspective, they quickly become a search for error.

Complicating these differing approaches is another distinction - that between what is liked and what is good. This distinction has become strongly visible in writing about popular culture, where an entertainment criterion of pleasure often takes precedence over an art criterion of quality and is sometimes put into playful contrast with it ("the whole series is trashy beyond belief and I can't wait for the next episode").

Another form of the contrast ("I don't like it but I wouldn't dispute its status") is often applied to accredited works of culture by those wanting to be honest about their own distance from what is being offered.

Statements about what is liked culturally clearly operate within a much looser evaluative framework than even the most cautious statements about what is "good", and often reveal at least as much about the writer or speaker as judgements about the work. In this respect they are wonderfully open to the practice of deception (an extreme example would be a politician's choices on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs). They cannot directly be disagreed with: they can only be compared and contrasted.

What is going on when we decide to revise our views of, say, a film, novel or television series, having come across a strongly negative appraisal in the media? We have had a positive cultural experience but we are now renouncing it as, in some way, a false or limited one in light of the new verdict. This can be seen as a process of enhanced response, but it can also veer close to a practice of self-deception, even pretension, unless we are sure about why our earlier response is cancelled out. This shift could also mean that an experience perhaps defined by boredom or incomprehension while we were having it has become, retrospectively, rewarding.

We may want to be seen (in part, by ourselves) as the kind of person who thinks X is brilliant and Y is rubbish, when in fact our direct experience as readers, watchers and listeners produces a more complicated, if not contradictory, result that cannot easily be erased - even if it can be denied. And this is quite apart from the way in which the reading of critical accounts in advance predisposes us to certain views, views that can get into quite a tussle with what subsequently comes through in our own encounters.

Of course, our responses to cultural works are more open to revision than our assessments in many other areas because the criteria are less obvious (even to us) and less stable. Since our own perspectives and biographies are a necessary part of our relations with the arts, it is not surprising that as we change, our judgements change, too. Nor is it surprising that judgements about recent work are more volatile than those about established ones, since the range of possible responses is wider and often includes more extreme positions.

Certainly, many of us are now caught up in a hectic flow, not only of cultural products, but also of messages about culture that challenge any simple idea of "our own response", just as the far bolder idea of "true judgement" has been challenged.

To see problems in the way that opinions about the arts are now formed is not to fall into the trap of thinking that judgements of cultural value should be sharply individualised and fixed. Their formation is often, of course, attractively social in character. The swapping of responses, involving the pleasure of exploring differences, is a rewarding part of engaging with cultural expression of all kinds and at the same time finding out more about ourselves and other people.

What is significant is that the terms of this sociability and the routes and resources (including the language) for participation are at risk of being transformed by the bombardment of mediated claims-making, a lot of it preferring the categorical over the cautious and inclining towards the imposition of views rather than dialogue between them. If quietly "finding ourselves" is one of the satisfactions of attending to the arts, the possibility of losing ourselves must also be reckoned with.

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