Notes & Comments September 1996
Judgment is forced upon us by experience
On the fifteenth anniversary of The New Criterion
This month The New Criterion commences its fifteenth year of publication. This is in itself something of a feat for a monthly review of art and culture that is avowedly conservative in its political views and unabashedly modernist in its outlook on the arts. For ours has necessarily been a voice of embattled dissent in a period that has seen American cultural life held hostage to the imperatives of a Left-liberal ideology in politics and an ugly postmodernist assault on the arts. To dissent from the baleful influence of the cultural Left on the life of art and culture in our society has indeed been one of the primary purposes of The New Criterion from the outset, and it remains one of our primary functions today, when that influence continues to prosper in the academy, in the media, and in so many of the other institutions that shape our values and determine our standards.
It has not been our only function, however. Of even greater urgency, in our view, has been our effort to restore to American cultural life a standard of criticism and a respect for tradition that are essential to the arts if they are to survive as an intellectually autonomous enterprise and not be permanently condemned to ideological servitude. Important as it has been for us to resist the Lefts subversion of disinterested criticism and its demonization of tradition, we have taken it to be a fundamental purpose of our mission to advance the kind of criticism that upholds aesthetic standards and illuminates the crucial role which an enlightened understanding of tradition plays in the formulation of such standards.
Hence the priority that The New Criterion has given to what, for want of a better name, we are unembarrassed to call the traditional practice of criticismmeaning, among much else, criticism that is concerned to make distinctions of quality and is sufficiently informed to do so with authority; criticism that is as judicious in lavishing praise as it is rigorous in applying censure; criticism that is loyal, above all, to the experience of the art that is its principal object of interest and resistant to the temptation to sacrifice that experience in the pursuit of deconstructive scenarios and political partisanshipeven, it must be said, when we happen to be in sympathy with the politics in question.
In practice, moreover, we have always aspired to publish criticism that is a pleasure to read, criticism that is capable of engaging difficult and challenging ideas without resorting to academic jargon or hermetic theory, criticism that is itself a literary accomplishment of some distinction. We reject the notion, now so widely accepted in the academy, that criticism is most serious when it is most hermetic, most profound when it is least accessible, most deserving of our support when it is most esoteric and obscurantist. This prejudice in favor of obscurantism does not account for the greatest criticism of the past, and it doesnt account for what is valuable in criticism today. Indeed, the perverse celebration of obscurantism is itself a repudiation of our finest critical traditions, and adherence to it has done great damage to the enterprise of criticism.
Judgment is forced upon us by experience, as Samuel Johnson observed in his life of Pope. He that reads many books must compare one opinion or one style with another, and when he compares, must necessarily distinguish, reject, and prefer. In literary criticism, as in the criticism of the other artistic and humanistic disciplines, this remains the fundamental donnée of the critical vocation. To deny it is to deny the experience of art itself, and make of it a purely instrumentalwhich is to say, purely politicalenterprise. It was our conviction in launching The New Criterion that there was a compelling need for criticism of this traditional persuasion, and it has been our good fortune to have found so many devoted readersand so many gifted writers eager to support us in that belief. It is therefore to our readers and our writers that we dedicate this special issue as we commence our fifteenth year of publication.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 1, on page 1
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