View current page
...more recent posts
In The Function of Criticism, Terry Eagleton (1984) shows that contemporary literary criticism, though it is ensconced in academic domains, tends to be complicit with market forces and the ideologies that support them. He shows that contemporary literary theory, even while it is supposedly anti-authoritarian, is complicit with established structures of power by its epistemological nihilism, its social insulation, its intellectual abstraction from the affairs of everyday life, and its consequent impotence as an effectual form of social criticism. Eagleton's critique of literary theory is comparable to the Frankfurt School's critiques of scientism and positivism that charge that much of scientific inquiry is complicit with systems of domination. These critiques suggest that systems of ideas that attain prominence in intellectual or scientific worlds often tend not to unsettle, if they are not directly complicit with, established structures of power. The compliance of intellectuals with these structures is thus secured without direct coercion.
Formalist art criticism is also subject to this charge. By excluding considerations of idea content and social context, it obscured the substantive concerns that artists frequently sought to express in their works. Thus, while Piet Mondrian wrote extensively on art's role in a dialectical revelation of harmonized oppositions, for example, by reading Clement Greenberg on Mondrian we could learn no more about this than that the artist "has theories" (Greenberg, 1986: 64). Greenberg's disregard of the idea content of Mondrian's art was typical of his approach. Even in cases in which artworks, according to the extensive writings-of artists such as Mondrian (Holtzman and James, 1993) and Wassily Kandinsky (Lindsay and Vergo, 1982), were heavily invested with ideational or affective content, Greenberg evaluated such works only in terms of their formal properties. If he acknowledged the content at all, he gave it short shrift, dismissing it a priori as not pertinent to the value of art.