What do readers expect of cultural critics, and what do critics demand of themselves and the culture they write about? In “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1865), Matthew Arnold declared that criticism must be “a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas.” Arnold’s heroes included Homer, Chaucer, Milton, Samuel Johnson, Goethe. And in his signature work, Culture and Anarchy (1869), he called for a return to the belief “in right reason, in the duty and possibility of extricating and elevating our best self, in the progress of humanity towards perfection…”
The simple phrase oh, please would pretty well sum up the current attitude toward all that. Rather than the summons to some outmoded virtue, the modern audience wants freedom, energy, intoxication; and it wants critics who will agitate for them in juiced-up, racy American prose. Even now, 20 years after her death, the modern audience wants Pauline Kael.
About the Author
The most recent Commentary articles by Algis Valiunas, a frequent contributor, are “And the War Came” (July), “The Sanest Man Ever” (May), and “The Genius of the Place” (March).