Criticism and Method

The British Journal of Aesthetics 8 (1973): 232-42

Denis Dutton


The charge that a particular critical remark is “irrelevant” to its object is one of the most frequently heard in discussion and debate among critics. Frequently heard because frequently true: there has never been a shortage of criticism which aimlessly relates the work to the artist’s biography, or invokes inappropriate artistic standards, or employs pointless historical speculation, or describes the critic’s own foggy reveries to misdirect our attention and obscure the essential significance of the object before us. But even if we grant that there is no limit on ways to go wrong in criticism, the question remains whether it might be possible at least to isolate areas of traditional critical discourse or general kinds of critical remark which could be ruled out as ever having a proper place in the effort to enhance our understanding of works of art. This is part of the concern to find a correct method for doing criticism, a concern which, as the central issue in talk about talk about art, has generated more controversy than any single commentator might hope to gloss. Nevertheless there is a certain seldom noticed characteristic inherent in the very concept of a method which is necessarily shared by all attempts to formulate methods of criticism. Its recognition will enable us to discern important features intrinsic to both objects of art and critical discourse which serve to distinguish these from ordinary objects and other types of discourse.

Where we speak of a method we usually have in mind some sort of orderly or systematic procedure or technique for going about a task. There are methods for replacing the piston rings in an engine, for obtaining a municipal permit to burn leaves, for solving a problem of long division, for climbing the south-west face of Everest, for analysing the unknown contents of a test-tube. In such cases the notion of a method implies a set of specified steps to be followed in a certain order in which specified tools of whichever description are employed to achieve a desired end. But there is something more involved where we talk of methods, something which is often overlooked. Implicit in any method are always rules for what is to count as relevant to the achievement of the end in question. For instance, there are certain explicit steps to be followed which together constitute the algebraic method for solving a quadratic equation. But there are implicit in this method also certain seldom, or perhaps never, articulated rules for what is to be viewed as relevant to the procedure. The hardness of the pencil or colour of the paper used in performing the calculation would be examples, or the occult symbolism associated with the numbers involved: these are strictly irrelevant to any algebraic method, just as questions about the meaning of an equal sign or an exponential function would be fundamental to it. This is not to say that a statement of the method for solving a quadratic equation would necessarily touch on every issue one might be able to imagine as being relevant to a particular exercise of the procedure. In a given case it is conceivable that such matters as the legibility of the mathematician’s hand or his sobriety during the calculation might be brought into question, even though algebra texts do not discuss such matters. It is only the making of mistakes, and their avoidance, which is tacitly relevant to the procedures of algebra, and just how an individual comes on a specific occasion to make an error is in general irrelevant to algebraic method.

Thus it is in any instance where we speak of method: the very idea always carries with it limitations on what is to count as relevant in its use. Even in those areas where questions of what constitutes a method are controversial, as in natural science, broad agreement can often be reached on standards of relevance. Natural science is an especially illuminating case because the extent to which its techniques and procedures can be called “methodical” is precisely the extent to which they incorporate tacit or explicit limitations on what is to be considered relevant in their exercise. It has been frequently pointed out that the discoveries which bring about the greatest advances of science involve what are often dazzling leaps of imagination. But imagination is not the end on it, as Carl Hempel notes:1

In his endeavor to find a solution to his problem, the scientist may give free rein to his imagination, and the course of his creative thinking may be influenced even by scientifically questionable notions. Kepler’s study of planetary motion, for example, was inspired by his interest in a mystical doctrine about numbers and a passion to demonstrate the music of the spheres. Yet, scientific objectivity is safeguarded by the principle that while hypotheses and theories may be freely invented and proposed is science, they can be accepted into the body of scientific knowledge only if they pass critical scrutiny, which includes in particular the checking of suitable test implications by careful observation or experiment.

If I am a chemist wishing to explain a problematic body of data, I might have a dream in which the key explanatory hypothesis presents itself to me or in desperation I may open the Bible at random, placing my finger on a passage which triggers the crucial insight. But from that moment my dreams or intuitions drop out of the inquiry as irrelevant to it. The essential scientific question now becomes whether or not the controlled, methodical techniques of chemistry can be utilized to confirm the hypothesis in question. It is useless to invoke my dream or my readings of Deuteronomy to explain the goings-on in a test-tube (which is not to deny that dreams or passages from the Bible may contain scientific truths: the point is that being a dream or being said in the Bible does not establish them as such. Scientific explanation must in principle be available to objective testing procedures capable of being duplicated by any investigator with the proper materials or equipment and which will yield results that can be accepted by the general community of scientists. There is, on the other hand, no uniform method for the invention of hypotheses because virtually anything may be relevant in the search of the individual mind for the true scientific explanation of a phenomenon. But, again, how the lone investigator comes to construct his hypothesis in the end becomes of interest only to the historian or psychologist of science; such considerations do not form part of the body of scientific knowledge itself.

If a method is a procedure including limitations on what will count as relevant to the attainment of a desired end, and if the desired end of criticism is deepened and enriched understanding of art, then a proposed method of criticism will necessarily involve limiting what is to count as relevant to the attainment of that end. And indeed the history of modern critical theory abounds with attempts to limit the critically relevant, though not every one of these represents a full-scaled effort towards the establishment of a rigorous critical method. As illustrative of this sort of move in critical theory I mention three instances of attempts to limit the kinds of factors relevant to the work of criticism. I have found these examples convenient to refer to because the writers in question have all chosen to use the term “irrelevant” in expressing their ideas. None of these three makes his claim as part of a proposed general method of criticism but, as we shall see, the failures of these claims and others like them have important consequences in connexion with the possibility of ever formulating a critical method.

First: Clive Bell stated that nothing more than a sense of form, colour, and three-dimensionality is required to appreciate painting, and that the subject matter depicted in a painting is aesthetically “irrelevant” to it.2 Though to my mind this thesis has been overly abused by philosophers in seareh of something to refute (and who completely ignore its historical importance, coming as it did in times when there were critics who still believed that the essential purpose of painting was to depict), there is no question that Bell is wrong here. It makes no sense whatsoever to suppose that the aesthetic impact of Goya’s Disasters of War or Picasso’s Guernica depends solely on an appreciation of formal values. Actually, we might even expect a thoroughgoing formalist to find fault with such works precisely on account of their “distracting” subject matter; but such criticism would miss the point since a full understanding of them as aesthetic objects necessarily involves recognizing what they depict.

Second: Arguing that “the greatness of the Odyssey would not be affected one way or another if the character of Odysseus should turn out to be historical, John Hospers” has claimed that “whether or not there is a subject matter outside the work is . . . artistically irrelevant”.3 But it is one thing to say that a given factor will leave the greatness of a work unaltered and quite another to contend that it is in general aesthetically irrelevant. Schliemann’s excavation of Troy did not make the Iliad any more or less great a work, but that does not entail that it left the world’s aesthetic perception of the poem unchanged. And if tomorrow arehaeologists discover in some cave on the coast of Sicily the skeletal remains of an enormous creature resembling a man except that it exhibits a single eye socket in front of the skull, are we justified in assuming that this will be completely irrelevant to a critical understanding of the Odyssey? I think not. Or consider the question of local colour in a novel, painting or film: If a writer presents us with a tale set against the background of New York City in which Columbia University is mistakenly situated on Washington Square, the error is liable to make the whole story look ridiculous in the eyes of many readers. Conversely, when an artist paints a canvas depicting the Royal Albert Hall as standing in the middle of the Mojave Desert he presumably wishes to produce an effect which depends on the fact that the Albert Hall is not, never was and (if the American land developers can be persuaded to forbear) never will be placed in such a predicament. The aesthetic properties of works of art often involve the ways in which actual states of affairs are falsified, truly rendered or distorted in the work. Understanding such properties means recognizing the relations between the work and the world, between a representation and an existent or non-existent subject. In many cases it is of little or no critical interest to ask whether or not a represented subject matter actually exists, but there can be no general rule that the question is “artistically irrelevant.”4

Third: One of the most conspicuous controversies in critical theory in recent years has centred around intentionalistic criticism. A participant in the debate was C.S. Lewis, who stated emphatically that concerns about the poet’s frame of mind when he wrote are “irrelevant to criticism,” that “the value of a poem consisting in what it does to the readers, all questions about the poet’s own attitude to his utterance are irrelevant”, and that talk of the poet’s sincerity “should be for ever banished from criticism.”5 Once again, while there is no denying that some of the poorest critical writing suffers from senseless invocations of the artist’s alleged “sincerity” or “authenticity,” this unhappy fact gives us no licence to call these concepts irrelevant to criticism. Where, for example, Hazlitt claims that King Lear is the best of its author’s plays because “it is the one in which he was most in earnest,” Alfred Harbage responds: “A non sequitur may lurk in this assertion, but we cannot deny its relevance. Our inescapable impression of the play is of its overwhelming sincerity.”6 The telling point is that Harbage does indeed go on to make his case for the relevance of the concept and so belie the general claim that appeals to the artist’s sincerity or lack of it ought to be inadmissible in criticism. Sincerity might not be the final criterion for judging the worth of an aesthetic object, but neither is it something which cannot be plausibly discussed in intelligent criticism.

Bearing these and other examples in mind, one begun to discern a certain pattern followed in disputes over what is relevant to critical practice. During a given era talk about particular features of works of art or people’s reactions to them gains widespread prominence. One generation may find it impossible to discuss poetry without reference to the intentions of the poet. Another might lean heavily towards judging painting in terms of the treatment of the represented subject, all but ignoring purely formal values. Or it may become the fashion for another to appraise artistic merit according to prevailing political or social ideas. Eventually a reaction sets in: tired of the stultifying effects of such appeals or annoyed by their misapplication to a new school of. art, someone will boldly announce that talk of the poet’s intentions, or the subject matter of a painting, or the political implications of a work of art are irrelevant to the critical enterprise. Such audacity might be just what is wanted at the time to jar criticism from complacent pedantry. Inevitably, however, there is a counter-reaction: instances of art works are brought forward where it becomes clearly impossible to call the rejected factor wholly irrelevant to appreciation. Faced with these difficult counter-examples, the iconoclasts soften their position. The artist’s intentions, the subject depicted on the canvas, the political connotations of the novel, or whatever, are now said to have been previously stressed far too much. In the end what had begun as an argument about what is relevant to criticism and our understanding of works of art has become a dispute over what should or should not be treated as central, as most significant, in critical discourse. The argument about the very admissibility of a kind of factor in criticism, or of a kind of critical explanation, has turned into one over the weight that ought to be given such factors or explanations. Questions about the possibility of a kind of criticism have been transformed into ones dealing with the merits of a critical “approach” or “attitude.”

In fact if the history of aesthetic criticism teaches us anything at all, it should teach us that there is no generalizing ever about what may be relevant to the understanding of a work of art. To start with, whatever elements the artist chooses to incorporate into his creation might become relevant to critical discourse, and there is no way to proscribe what kinds of thing the artist may use or do or mean. There is no telling what human act or activity, what artifact, what scrap of historical or scientific knowledge, could conceivably find a significant place in a painting, poem or novel. But critical scrutiny is not exclusively directed to features internal to the work; there is occasion where heed can properly and profitably be paid to external evidence. Our understanding is frequently increased by information about the historical circumstances surrounding the creation of the art object, including matters of current style, the artist’s biography, or his intentions. But to these two widely acknowledged centres of critical attention must be added something else of the profoundest importance. I refer to those possibilities implicit in the aesthetic object and those functions of critical discourse which may be designated as comparative.

A study of a great work of art, for instance, The Brothers Karamazov, will begin by paying the closest attention to the internal features of the work. The critic will focus on problems to do with the coherence of the line of narrative, relationships between episodes, the characteristics of the author’s prose, and so forth. Regard will have to be given to everything alluded or referred to in the novel because an understanding of it will presuppose a grasp of each of its allusions and references. Thus since Dostoyevsky has his characters mention A Hero of Our Time and Dead Souls in the expectation that his readers are acquainted with these books, such acquaintance will be a necessary condition for critical understanding. Beyond specific matters, a general familiarity with nineteenth-century Russian history is presupposed by the author of his readers and the meaning of some incidents in the story will escape the critic deficient in such knowledge. Questions of intention are important too: for instance, we will better comprehend how the events in the last chapters of the book are to be construed once we have learned that Dostoyevsky intended to write a sequel but died before the project could be carried out.

But going further still, we will surely wish to compare both events in The Brothers Karamazov and the novel as a whole with events in other of Dostoyevsky’s writings and with other whole works. And it is here that we move into an altogether different and even more important sense in which any sort of thing may turn out to be worth bringing into the critical discussion. Because if our understanding of The Brothers Karamazov can be enhanced by reference to The Idiot, then why not by comparing it as well with the writings of Tolstoy? And if Tolstoy, why not other, non-Russian writers too? But there is no justification for drawing the line at literature, since works of other kinds of art — painting, music, whatever — may be found to exhibit significant affinities or contrasts with the novel. And not only other works of art: other instances of human action, human attainment and failure might be germane. This includes, of course, our own personal acts, attainments, and failures; indeed, part of what constitutes an understanding of so great a work as The Brothers Karamazov is precisely that each reader sees relations between the events it presents and his own personal experience. The man who allows that it is an “interesting story” but who insists that it is irrelevant to his own experience of life is either missing important aspects of the book or ought to re-read it after having lived a while longer.

In just this respect great aesthetic masterpieces are often described as “rich.” Richness is not attributable solely to an artist’s having used complex or diverse materials in the object he creates. We call the Oresteia or the Goldberg Variations “rich” not on account of the size of the former’s vocabulary or the number of notes the latter employs, for if that were so art would be indistinguishable from complicated motley or mere phantasmagoria. It is rather that they are eternally open to new possibilities for interpretation in the light of new comparison; they provide an inexhaustible wealth of significant meaning which not only draws from but reflects on human life and experience. The greater one’s familiarity with such works the more that is bound to be seen in them, but familiarity — knowing all the lines or all the notes — is only the beginning of understanding. The longer one lives and accumulates experience in life the more one will find in the finest aesthetic creations. This applies not only to literary works, but equally to the abstract experience of painting and music, which presents forms of conflict, contrast and achievement which resonate with the discords, harmonies and resolutions of life itself. While I think it a mistake to go so far as to claim that the ultimate purpose of art is thus symbolic, there can be no doubting that a single relation, process or moment in an aesthetic object may have the power to capture the character of human events quite beyond art. The scene in which Gretchen refuses to flee the prison with Faust or the shattering passage marked beklemmt in the Cavatina of Beethoven’s late B flat Quartet express in intensified form possibilities of emotion and quality of human action and encounter which the perceptive observer will discover in (or remember from) the ordinary world of man. Moreover, the relation is mutual: just as the experience of human events may shape or enrich our vision of the aesthetic object, so the experience of art can influence our understanding of the world; and as life and art are on-going affairs, there will be no end to this process and hence no attainment of a final or exhaustive interpretation of a work of art. Over-familiarity may temporarily dull our reaction to some aesthetic object, but if it is a truly great work we have only to ignore it and live a while: the experience of art possesses an infinite capacity for self-renewal in the light of new experience of life.

The richness of aesthetic masterpieces, their limitless possibility for comparative interpretation with respect to the meanings they embody or symbolically express, is perhaps the highest promise of art and the most serious threat to criticism. Because of this quality not only can there be no proscribing what the critic may usefully speak of in his work, but there will be no formula which may be mechanically invoked to decide whether a particular piece of criticism is relevant to its object. Yet, it may be asked, even granting that the critic may usefully talk about anything in connexion with art objects, are we required to accept irrelevance as a perennial occupational hazard of criticism? Would it not at least be possible to devise methods which would, as a minimum, insure criticism’s relevance to its object? To this the answer is clearly “No” once we have made plain what the aim of criticism is. The persistent impulse to raise such questions and try to answer them is well exemplified in the case of music theory and criticism of the contemporary period. In the nineteenth century it became the fashion for a critic to study a piece of music and either to supply an imagined programme for it or simply to report his own day-dreams on hearing the piece. Take, for example, Jan Kleczynski’s typical “explanation” of a Chopin nocturne: it is “a description of a calm night at Venice, where, after a scene of murder, the sea closes over a corpse and continues to serve as a mirror to the moonlight.”7 Many writers of that era seemed more interested in music as a means to evoking visions of babbling brooks, dewy dawns, or anguished cries of the soul for some lost beloved than they were in furthering our understanding of musical experience as it presents itself to us. And realizing that most of such impressionistic criticism is irrelevant to the music it purports to elucidate, modern theoreticians have tried to insure relevance by banning imaginative fantasies and insisting that the critic talk of nothing but the music itself. The idea is that the critic attend strictly to the score at hand and engage in rigorous technical analysis, eschewing all else except perhaps historical considerations or comparison with other musical works.

But it is an illusion to suppose that adherence to such a method guarantees critical relevance. The mistake stems from two sources: first, a failure to bear in mind what the real purpose of criticism is; and second, a confusion brought about by not distinguishing what is critically relevant to an aesthetic object from what may be relevant to it in non-critical senses. An impressionistic critic such as Kleczynski offers us melodramatic stories which we find irrelevant to the music which incites them. In contrast, the contemporary critic concentrates closely on the Urtext itself, indicating, for example, how the piece modulates at a certain point or how an inverted fragment of the second theme is employed in the coda. Now plainly the modern critic’s work is relevant to the music in the sense that he is talking about the notes themselves and not about corpses disappearing into black water. But what we must not lose sight of is this: criticism does not aim simply to talk about art. Criticism is talk about art which purports to deepen and enrich our understanding of art. In the ordinary non-critical sense of the word, then, a music critic can always guarantee the “relevance” of his work to its object by choosing to discuss only the score. But this in turn does not, and absolutely cannot, guarantee that his writings will be relevant to the work in the sense wanted in criticism. That is, just because a discussion focuses exclusively on the score itself we have no assurance that the discussion will be relevant to improving our understanding of the work. In point of fact it may turn out that the melodramatic story of the impressionistic critic, which is obviously irrelevant to music in the ordinary non-critical sense, does more to help us understand the work and, perhaps ironically, is therefore relevant in the sense desired by criticism.

Indeed just as much of the second-rate music criticism of the last century is irrelevant in that it gives us romantic allegories and allusions which do little to increase our understanding of music, so academic critics of the present often produce work which is relevant to its music only in the ordinary non-critical sense, while remaining irrelevant to the enhancement of understanding. Look, on the other hand, at a truly great modern critic: Donald Francis Tovey. In Tovey’s case it is not simply that he employs better methods than Kleczynski that makes him able so wonderfully to enrich and deepen our musical experience. It is rather that he possesses a superb musical sensibility and an extraordinary capacity to articulate what he discerns in music. Conversely, looking back to the nineteenth century we can discover criticism of considerable value in spite of the fact that it is written in an idiom no longer fashionable. The often impressionistic criticism of Robert Schumann is worth far more than most of the exercises in technical analysis produced today because Schumann’s impressions are rooted in a profound musical sense, and the record of his feelings about music can inform in interesting ways our perception of it.8 Wherever fine criticism is encountered we can be certain that its quality is attributable to the insight of an individual rather than the application of a method. Methods do not enforce critical relevance. Critics achieve it.

The argument may then be summarized as follows: the idea of a method always involves rules, tacit or explicit, for what is to count as relevant to carrying out a procedure for the attainment of an end. Hence, any method of aesthetic criticism will have to provide limitations on what is to count as relevant to the attainment of the desired end of criticism, i.e., the increased understanding and appreciation of art. Here, however, is where any attempt to formulate a final critical method fails: we never know what may be relevant to our understanding of art objects, not only because works of art incorporate or utilize any aspect of human experience, but because any aspect of experience may provide material for establishing revealing comparisons with features of the work. None of this means, of course, that criticism should do away with methods. Given differences in temperament and perception, critics ought to dwell on those aspects of art which they can most intelligently and sensitively discuss. Let one critic attend to the formal elements of a painting, let another emphasize its iconology, another its relation to an historical context, another the technical competence of the artist, still another the chemistry of the pigments if he thinks it worth talking about. Let another critic even recount for us whatever private musings enter his imagination on encountering the work; so long as those imaginative fancies take us back to the work with an enhanced understanding of it, so long as they have the power to renew or vivify our experience of it, they are worth recounting. But let no one claim that his method is the only true way to an appreciation while others merely belabour irrelevancies. Critics will always belabour irrelevancies, but that is not to be avoided by formulating general rules about what can be considered relevant. No kind of criticism is bad — except bad criticism.


1. Carl Hempel, Philosophy of Natural Science (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1966). p. 16.

2. Clive Bell, Art (London, 1947), (First published 1914), p. 27.

3. John Hospers, Meaning and Truth in the Arts (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1946), p. 21.

4. Alexander Sesonske, “Truth in Art,” Journal of Philosophy 53 (1956): 345. I am indebted to Professor Sesonske for many hours of stimulating conversation on topics herein discussed.

5. E. M.W. Tillyard and C.S. Lewis, The Personal Heresy (London, 1965) (first published 1939). p. 120.

6. Alfred Harbage, “Introduction,” Penguin edition of King Lear (Baltimore, 1958), p. 19.

7. Quoted in James Gibbon Huneker, Chopin: The Man and His Music (New York, 1966) (first published 1900), p. 145.

8. Robert Schumann, On Music and Musicians, translated by Paul Rosenfeld (New York, 1946).