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Matthew Arnold: Outstanding for the depth of his perceptions and his engagement with society

For Matthew Arnold it was “sweetness and light”; for T.S. Eliot it was “Derby Day, Henley Regatta . . . a cup final . . . the dart board, Wensleydale cheese . . . Gothic churches and the music of Elgar”; for George Steiner it had become a victim in Bluebeard’s Castle; for anthropologists it is the customs and habits of a people or community; for the Daily Mail it is what celebrities do; for the Guardian it is everything from modern dance to new books on internet dating, in the section called “Culture”. Never has the word meant so many various things; never has it combined so flexibly to form other derivatives and phrases — cultural stereotypes, culture shock, multi-cultural, counter-culture, cultural relativism, enculturation; never has it cropped up in so many surprising new contexts. Gary Neville on Match of the Day recently described a top footballer as “cultured”. I don’t think the multi-millionaire mentioned was found reading Chekhov in the changing room.

Whatever it is, it’s a messy, mixed-up affair, its many riches muddled up with all kinds of tawdriness in permanent disarray, fraught with insuperable problems to do with class, race, education, intelligence and taste, and saddening to almost every true lover of the arts. So too is the critical field around it. Unlike the production of great art, which simply cannot be, in the short term, willed into being, high-quality criticism and analysis should be well within our reach. But we bow to popular will, so that instead of encouraging genuinely interesting people to talk and write about important things, we have set up as celebrities the judges of occasionally amusing, and generally laughable, carnivals of dancers, pop singers and chefs. Hence this brief critique of critics; hence the urgent need for gifted and sensible writers uncramped by the ideologies which have seized the word and as many courses and students as they can for their drab and charmless discourses, punctuated continually by dreary academic references (Briezeblok and Buldozser, 1999).

Cultural criticism, we should remind ourselves, can be almost as important as the art itself, can indeed be part of the art. There have been great creative critics, from Alexander Pope (in The Dunciad, Epistle to Lord Burlington, etc) and Dr Johnson onwards, who combined the two arts with the skill of genius. Byron was another, in his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, Vision of Judgment, and parts of Don Juan. Can you name a great contemporary cultural critic? Someone who could, in writing about literature and other aspects of our culture, hold a candle to T. S. Eliot on poetry, or Herbert Read on modern art? I asked several highly knowledgeable people, who struggled to do so.

Matthew Arnold, a poet-essayist like Dr Johnson, was perhaps the first modern cultural critic in English. In Culture and Anarchy he defined the key word as “being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”; he felt the fragility of civilisation, and sweepingly labelled the British middle classes Philistines and the aristocrats Barbarians. In the corpus of Victorian poetry his  “Dover Beach” seems arrestingly modern. In fact the lines “And we are here as on a darkling plain . . . Where ignorant armies clash by night” could have been written yesterday. In this gloomy lyric, written about 60 years before the First World War, he was facing the religious, philosophical and cultural uncertainties of Europe.

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Richard Biron
April 17th, 2017
10:04 PM
One name rather too quickly dismissed in this interesting piece was Terry Eagleton, whose brilliant book ‘Culture’ (published last year) wasn’t mentioned (it isn’t nearly as leftist as some of his writings): and whether you agree with his politics or not, he is a scholarly and perceptive critic.

April 4th, 2017
5:04 PM
Both Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling deserve a mention in this article. A great read.

Jerry Kavanagh
April 2nd, 2017
10:04 PM
No critic today can match the erudition, the linguistic brilliance, and the experience of John Simon.

April 2nd, 2017
11:04 AM
Wonderful article. And special credit for mentioning James Woods. Woods was the last of the independents. Just read how he was treated by the n+1 crowd (all Yale graduates) and you will quickly see that independence has been replaced by company men doing company business. We're in a tough spot in the U.S. because most 'critics' are alumni of some elite academic institution and thus only praise works that come from same institutions. When was the last time you read a real critique of a Yale or Harvard author? They won't allow it. And now they are all stuck in the feedback loop of their own praise.

Louis Torres
April 1st, 2017
6:04 PM
"Great creative [cultural] critics"? You neglected to mention Jacques Barzun. Louis Torres,Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts and Editor, A Jacques Barzun Compendium -

March 31st, 2017
10:03 PM
Western society is now post-western, having abandoned inherited standards in aesthetics, in personal, social and business morality, in manners, in language use and public discourse, in a sense of the spiritual, in its concept of the human person, in the ethics of war. Ideologues on the left and power brokers on the conservative right have legislated against the instincts of commonsense. We walk in a wasteland.

March 30th, 2017
8:03 PM
This is a fascinating topic, and such people are surely missed. The current criticism most people rely on comes from websites such as IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes who just aggregate large numbers of opinions. There aren't enough figures who can stand out from the crowd and articulate a view.

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