Cultural Criticism

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The roots of cultural criticism

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It is possible to trace the roots of cultural criticism to the works of such Enlightenment figures as German philosophers Friedrich Schiller and Johann Gottfried von Herder, as well as such English Romantics as William Hazlitt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These writers sought to define “culture” and to explain how it operated as a kind of elevating force for poetry. Built on the works of these thinkers, the practice of modern cultural criticism rose to prominence during the Victorian era. The three writers most often cited as cultural criticism’s first theorists among English-speaking writers are Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Matthew Arnold. Carlyle, however, tended to focus on historical, political, and moral issues and had little to say directly about literature. Ruskin initially concentrated on art and architecture before expanding his studies to include critiques of social practices. By contrast, Arnold’s writings on culture almost always center on the importance of literature as a means by which culture is observed, valued, and transmitted. As a consequence, his work is frequently cited as the starting point for examining the intersection of literary criticism and cultural criticism.

Concerned by what he perceives as the increasing vulgarization of society, Arnold seeks to promote a program of self-improvement and social reform that would save civilization from the dehumanizing forces of industrialization. The key to avoiding a downward social and moral spiral, Arnold suggests in his Culture and Anarchy (1869), lies in the acquisition and preservation of culture, which he defines as the “love” and “study” of perfection. For Arnold, to study culture means “getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Hence, the effort to achieve and preserve culture is at once an aesthetic and a moral activity. Arnold argues that poems worthy of attention and study are those that contribute to promoting the ends of culture as he defines it.

As a literary critic, Arnold is concerned with establishing standards by which poems may be judged as contributing to the perpetuation of culture—that is, as containing ennobling or insightful ideas expressed in memorable language. He places great value on poetry that displays qualities of what he calls “high seriousness.” The best poetry is characterized by emotional restraint and deals with subjects of notable import. Arnold’s ideal poets are Homer, Dante, and William Shakespeare. Although he was personally attracted to William Wordsworth’s poetry, he is critical of the emotional excesses displayed by the Romantics, which included Wordsworth, and even repudiated some of his own early poetry as being too self-indulgent. The rigorous criteria he sets forth in his essays on poetry and criticism offer guidance for identifying from the multitude of imaginative works published throughout history a small number that should be considered of enduring value. The work of Arnold and his successors in the humanist tradition of cultural criticism eventually produced the notion of a “canon” of literary works that have influenced the development of culture (specifically Western culture). Arnold and his disciples argued that these works should be widely read by those wishing to improve themselves morally and aesthetically.

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