Is there a critic in the house?

What! No more Anderson Country? Rape on stage? How could they! As outra ge rules the airwaves, Malcolm Bradbury bemoans the emergence of the critic in the street and the streetwise critic By the Fifties, `critic' had become something you put proudly on your passport. By the Sixties it had transmuted into an agenda, a politics Today everyone is his or her own critic... The border between art's creation an d consumption shatters, the audience is always part of the show
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Once upon a time there was apparently no criticism in this philistine land of ours. At the start of the 20th century, Henry James decided to add to his ever more difficult novels a series of critical prefaces - the "New York" prefaces - giving us, by theway, some of the best instruction in creative writing and creative reading we have. He explained just why: "They are... a sort of plea for Criticism, for Discrimination, for Appreciation on other than infantile lines - as against the so almost univ ersal Anglo-Saxon absence of these things, which tends... to break the heart."

James wasn't alone in complaining about the philistine ignorance of the British public in the face of the difficult, daring adventure of the modern arts. "Nothing will persuade an Englishman to adopt a critical attitude," mourned Ford Madox Ford, while other modernist adventurers - Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, TS Eliot - demanded the birth of a "new criticism" to explore the great experiment that, based on a changed concept of modern experience and consciousness, was changing the face of 20th-century writing, painting, music, architecture and philosophy.

Well, what we ask for we often get. Criticism duly came. First it came in wonderful, invigorating books and essays by Pound, Eliot, Ford, Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, TE Hulme and many more - great writers who became great critics, laying down the climate of modernist aesthetics. It also moved into the lecture halls and seminar rooms of the growing universities, old and new. Criticism became a central educational subject, encouraged by Richards and Leavis and Empson. By the Fifties, "critic" h ad become adesirable profession, something to put proudly on your passport. By the late Sixties it had transmuted into a project, an agenda, a politics. As the shelves of any serious bookstore will show you, literary theory had ridden into town.

This was probably not exactly what Henry James and his fellow moderns had in mind when they demanded "the critical attitude". "Criticism should consume itself and disappear," added Pound. Criticism, usually written by practitioners, was there to teach ushow to read, above all to create aesthetic awareness and let the great artist prosper. The case for criticism was that it was an invigoration of cultural and intellectual debate, a general lifting of standards and judgement, a liberal opening out towardartistic and expressive freedom. Everyone his own critic, went one of the going slogans. But the great campaign for criticism was essentially an elite aspiration, a liberal hope for a creative high culture founded on the avant-garde ar ts.

Today everyone is his or her own critic - but hardly in the way that was meant. The multiplication of expression through the growth of communications and mass-media technologies, the vast stylistic consumption that is now a central feature of postmodern life, the coming of (seeming) cultural democracy has made art and culture into anything and everything. Every new magazine is packed with "cultural" reviews in wild variety: of plays and novels, music and television, food, drink, travel-packages and motorway loos.

Meantime, feedback radio and TV programmes constantly remind us that our gut reactions on any matter - what's happened to Radio 1, what to do about Anderson Country, whether or not we vote for violence on television, whether that cause or agenda is properly represented - are part of our input, our consumer rights. The airwaves fill with opinion and judgement. The border between art's creation and consumption shatters; the audience is always part of the show.

In the age when culture has shifted from a split between the high and popular arts to those of the consuming mass, the role of the critic is no longer what it was. In universities, the traditional liberal aims of raising standards and training taste havebeen largely replaced by analysis of culture as phenomena: art and literature are essentially whatever is. Here too the once separate realms of high and mass culture have come into equivalence: common texts, equal manifestations of the vast stylistic and expressive pluralism which is the postmodern spirit itself.

Meantime, in the other basic realm of criticism - general reviewing - the notion of the disinterested critic attempting to judge the quality of contemporary creative expression has largely gone too, replaced by the critic as style-setter, agenda-maker, or streetwise people's friend. The greater part of reviewing is addressed directly to targeted audiences, defined by circulation goals and advertising appeal. Bad books or bad films, which usually sell better than good ones, are touted on their own terms.

If the run of the culture is drifting progressively downmarket (as an inspection of TV schedules will make very plain), there are few critics' voices out there that are going to save the day.

In fact, these are bad times for the old-style liberal critic, the kind who believed both in the heroic rule of freedom of expression and in a serious judgement of the arts. The public row that has blown up over Sarah Kane's play Blasted, on offer at theRoyal Court, London, looks like a serious case in point. Respectable and responsible critics, like Michael Billington, have judged the play bad: gratuitous in its violence and cruelty, remorseless in its sensationalism, feeble in its writing. "Naive tosh," Billington calls it. In turn the critics have come under critical attack from those who defend the author's portrait. They point out that we have had a Theatre of Cruelty before - from Greek tragedy to Antonin Artaud. Violence and human abuse, they argue, are what the contemporary world is all about; the play truthfully reaches into "the dark unconscious" of an abusive society.

The argument is an old one, but the climate has altered. Today's critical issue isn't artistic freedom but conventionalised violence. It's not entirely surprising that critics who once gladly went to the barricades in defence of Lady Chatterley's Lover or Burroughs's The Naked Lunch, find themselves uneasy when confronted with the play's extremism. The drift of culture and the rise in social violence has changed and challenged many liberal pieties, the use of violence as manipulation and metaphor has be come an ambiguous commonplace of culture. Nowadays American movie-makers no longer feel the need to introduce aesthetic arguments to justify extreme violence in their films. Violence is in the air, in the streets, in the technology, in the culture. It's a popular cult in its own right, the pulp fiction of the day.

The real reason for taking criticism seriously is the desire to take art seriously, as an exploration, an investigation, a fundamental probe into our moral, our spiritual and our imaginative life. That depends on a desire for standards, for judgement, for the endless sifting of the better from the worse. But caught between high and mass culture by the ever-growing transactions of stories and images, myths and styles, fantasies and depravities that we consume as a matter of course, the task becomes ever more complex.

And it isn't helped by the realisation that the artistic freedoms the critic seeks to protect are often used to promote blatant manipulation or commodified cliches - or that the once commonplace notion that a vast mythography of violence in the media hasno influence over normal human behaviour has grown ever more dubious. Meantime, Henry James's appeal - for criticism, discrimination, appreciation on other than infantile lines - seems quite as heartbreaking as ever.