New Criticism Explained

 New Criticism was a highly influential school of Formalist criticism that flourished from the 40s to late 60s.

New Criticism Occurred Partially in Response To:

  • Biographical Criticism that understood art primarily as a reflection of the author's life (sometimes to the point that the texts themselves weren't even read!). 
  • Competition for dollars and students from sciences in academia. 
  • New forms of mass literature and literacy, an increasingly consumerist society and the increasingly visible role of commerce, mass media, and advertising in people's lives.
   New Criticism Tends to Emphasize: 
  • The text as an autotelic artifact, something complete with in itself, written for its own sake, unified in its form and not dependent on its relation to the author's life or intent, history, or anything else. 
  • The formal and technical properties of work of art.
   New Critical Assumptions: 
  • The critic's job is to help us appreciate the technique and form of art and the mastery of the artist. 
  • That the "Western tradition" is an unbroken, internally consistent set of artistic conventions and traditions going back to ancient Greece and continuing up to this day, and that good art participates in and extends these traditions. Similarly, criticism's job is to uphold these traditions and protect them from encroachments from commercialism, political posturing, and vulgarity. 
  • That there are a finite number of good texts (a notion now often tied to "the canon" of texts traditionally taught). The closer that a text comes to achieving an ideal unity, where each element contributes to an overall effect, the more worthy it is of discussion. 
  • Studying literature is an intrinsically edifying process. It hones the sensibilities and discrimination of students and sets them apart from the unreflective masses. 
  • That "cream rises," and works of genius will eventually be "vindicated by posterity." 
  • That there is a firm and fast distinction between "high" art and popular art. 
  • That good art reflects unchanging, universal human issues, experiences, and values. 
  • Technical definitions and analyses are vital to understanding literature. The text's relationship to a world that extends beyond it is of little interest.
   Critics Associated With It

John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks. New Critics also frequently looked to the work and criticism of T.S. Eliot and the essays of Matthew Arnold for inspiration.

   Criticisms Sometimes Made of New Criticism:
  • That it's emphases on technique, unity of effect, and the autotelic status of art works best on the lyric poem, but has problems with larger, more historically recent forms like the novel. 
  • That it makes the Western tradition out to be more unified than it is by ignoring diversity and contradictory forces within it, and more monadic than it is by ignoring the exchange between non-western and western cultures (Aristotle, for instance, central to new critical concepts, was introduced to medieval Europe via the Islamic world). 
  • That artistic standards of value are variable and posterity is fickle. Particular pieces of art are viewed as important because they do important cultural work, represent values that segments of the culture (say editors and English professors) believe are of vital import, or help us understand our history. 
  • That the values New Critics celebrated were neither unchanging nor universal, but instead reflected their own, historically and experientially specific concerns, values and ambitions. 
  • That context is just as important as form to understanding a work of art.



Academic year 1998/1999
28 Mayo 1999
©a.r.e.a./Dr Vicente Forés López
©Inmaculada Pascual Osuna
Universitat de València Press