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Friday, February 03, 2012

The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition

The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition
by M.H. Abrams
p. 1953
Oxford University Press

  I'd wager that most of my artistic type friends would gladly cop to being called "Romantics."  After all, you kind of have to be Romantic to get involved seriously with Art.   But what does it mean to be a "Romantic?"  Romanticism, after all, is nothing if not slippery, conceptually speaking.  To understand the Romantic tradition you need to go back to the 18th century.

  The main players are the English poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.  They weren't just poets, they were critics, and it's fair to say that in terms of the conceptual development of Romanticism, understanding it requires firmly grasping three main points:

 1)  The state of pre-Romantic (i.e. 17th and 18th century) neo-Classic aesthetic theory.
 2)  Developments in German aesthetic theory in the mid 18th century.
 3)  The transmission of those developments into English critical theory, as adapted by Wordsworth and few other people who were writing in scholarly/popular journals in London in the mid 18th century.

  First off, it's easy to forget how important an art form poetry was back in the 18th century.  Before the novel, literature was either poetry or epic poetry, more or less.  Thus, when people wrote about literature before the mid 18th century "rise of the novel" they wrote about poetry and prose.

  The main metaphor that Abrams uses to describe the "neo-classical" orientation of criticism before the rise of Romanticism is "ART AS MIRROR."   In the neo-classic orientation, Art reflected reality, and therefore Art was "like a mirror" in that it reflected the real.  This metaphor was "neo-classic" in that it derived from Plato's theories about Art.  In the words of Abrams:

   The perspective afforded by more recent criticism enables us to discriminate certain tendencies common to many of those theorists between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries who looked upon art as imitation, and more or less like a mirror.  For better or worse, the analogy helped focus interest on the subject matter of a work and its models in reality, to the comparative neglect of the shaping influence of artistic conventions, the inherent requirements of the single work of art, and the individuality of the author.

   Romanticism evolved as a criticism of that metaphor, more or less.  Where the neo-classicists saw ART AS A MIRROR, the nascent Romantic movement of the 18th century saw ART AS A LAMP- as something that came from within and shed light on the world.   The essential shift that occurred was to re-focus critical attention on the Artist, and away from the Audience- as was the case in neo-classical aesthetic theory, where the question was always whether a specific work of Art had satisfied the "rules" that produced pleasure in  the audience.

    This shift towards the irrelevance of the audience and the central role of the Artist had the effect of creating different strands of Romantic theory that maintain adherents up until today.   Specifically though, it turned criticism towards a consideration of the relationship between the Artist and his work- with some writers finding explanation for the work in biographical detail, and others claiming that the work was the Artist.  The search created canons of artistic criticism that are still important, Romantic critics then began to judge not just the work but the Artist, and correspondingly disregarded the Artist.

  This critical orientation has so convincingly triumphed that the focus on the Artist to the exclusion of the Audience has no competition- all critics are Romantic critics.  Neo-classicism is a relic of the past, but my perspective is that this is a mistake, since neo-classic aesthetic theory is concerned with Artist/Audience relationships, what better way to consider the impact of the internet on Art and Artists.

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