Arts The New Criticism
posted by September 28 at 12:53 PMon
The problem with criticism in all of its forms (art, film, literature) has been its susceptibility to the charge that, ultimately, it is nothing more than the product of someone’s opinion. Criticism is not truth; it is an opinion—or what the Greeks called doxa. We can all agree that opinions are no good.
Kant tried to solve this problem by universalizing subjectivity. He failed miserably. Marxist criticism tried solve this problem by politicizing the function art. The art object, according to this school of thought, was like any other consumer object and so could be analyzed as such. As Marx removed the fetish magic from consumer products in Das Capital, the Marxist critic attempted to remove the aura from the art object. Also, the Marxist critic tried to expose the art object’s idealogical function—to show that the art object was made to reinforce certain beliefs, ideas that supported the reproduction of a given society’s means of production.
But the problem with the Marxist approach is this: it cannot make sense of the fact that some art objects made in societies dominated by the capitalist mode of production are great (Blade Runner) and critical of the system from which they arise; and some art objects made in former socialist societies are very weak (Cement) and support the anti-capitalist system from which they arise.
Though the best of all modes of criticism, Marxism is still too loose, too vulnerable, too inconsistent. If art criticism is to become invulnerable it must be grounded not in economics but in the body, the head, the physical brain itself. The critic must argue that this or that thing is good because the biological processes that made it happen are good processes. But how does one do this? Neurology offers the critic a solution.
To become valid, art criticism must turn to the biological processes of memory retention and retrieval. What we know about this process is that not single or individual neurons react to single or individual complex images, faces, experiences, but instead a network of them. Memory is associational. Memory patterns are formed from short and long term storage potential. Those who suffer from Alzheimer’s are unable to make connections between these short and long term memory patterns. They suffer from weak or broken associational powers.
The French sociologist Gabriel Tarde had the right idea at the end of the 19th century when he called all things, all ideas, inventions, a matter of associations. Everything is a society. The brain is a society of cells. And the way the cells work, and the way memory works, and the way art works, is by associations. As there is bad food and good food, there are strong associations and weak ones. Here are some examples of weak associations.
The new criticism is not emotional or personal but associational. We can say that a bad work of art is much like Alzheimer’s: it is the artist’s failure or inability to make good or new associations. Here is our ground! A work of art is an association. An idea is an association. All is made from associations. We critics can judge every art object on this biological basis and no longer be vulnerable to our enemy’s sole weapon: “this is just an opinion.” From now until the end of all time, this is bad and that is that.