What are the origins of literary/artistic criticism?

Writing has been around for a millenia or two now. When did the practice start of commenting on other’s writings, plays etc. as being accurate or artistically merit worthy begin? Did it start a soon as more than one person knew how to write?

How was criticism approached in the olden days? Was it all private via letters between learned people? In the 1500s and 1600s how would an artist or author get a reputation as being good, bad or indifferent? Was it all strictly word of mouth or were public critiques of plays published? Did public written criticism only start with newspapers. Did colonial broadsheets review plays as being bad or good?

Literary criticism is at least as old as Aristotle’s Poetics.

Famous works of literary criticism from the 1500s and 1600s include Defense of Poesie and Ben Jonson’s Timber (scroll down to line 532 for Jonson’s take on Shakespeare), but there’s plenty more where that came from; attacks on and defenses of the theater were always a popular subject. Some of this material was published in pamphlet form, or as preferatory material before a longer literary work (like Jonson’s other take on Shakespeare). Other works weren’t “public” in our sense of the word – they tended to circulate among the author’s friends and acquaintances in manuscript form – but they also weren’t “private” in the sense that a private letter is today, since people were always exchanging and copying manuscripts. And as you note, there was probably also plenty of word-of-mouth commentary that is lost to us now, especially where plays were concerned.

No clue about when the first newspaper-style reviews were published, sorry.

It goes back a little further to Plato (e.g. form, content, morality). Have a boo at his Republic.

Literary criticism is pretty much philosophical stuff which today is used to help crack texts. The study of the history of literary criticism is fascinating, for it is deeply entwined with the history of western throught.

(I hit the jackpot at university when it came to literary criticism. I was luck enough to study under both McLuhan and Frye!)

Those who can, do.

Those who can’t, teach.

Those too stupid to teach, but don’t know this, become critics.

Well, so much for stupid old Plato, Aristotle, Horace, Longinus, Boethius, Plontinus, Sidney, Corneille, Dryden, Locke, Pope, Addison, Johnson, Young, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Sainte-Beuve, Arnold, Pater, Taine, Eliot, Richards, Frye, McLuhan, Ransom, Blackmur, Wimsatt, Beadsley, Brooks, de Saussure, Jakobson, Barthes, Foucault, Marx, Benjamin, Bakhtin, Lukacs, Adorno, Williams, Achebe, Fish, Lacan, Wollstonecraft, de Beavoir, Showalter, Gilbert, Gunbar, Nietzsche, Derrida, de Man, Said, and a whole passel of others. :slight_smile:

It’s true that the study of literature and art goes back at least to Plato. And people have doubtless been recommending books to each other since writing began, and before then recommending storytellers and cave painters and other craftsmen. Literary criticism is also connected to biblical exegesis, the interpretation of the religious texts which occupied most of the West’s intellectuals in the medieval period.

However, much of modern academic criticism is based on techniques developed in 20th century, by people from Leavis and Eliot to Derrida and Barthes. The literary and artistic criticism of the 19th century tended to focus less on close readings and more on subjective or impressionistic reactions to a work or on vague philosophical speculation: something like Walter Pater on the Renaissance or Nietzsche’s writings on tragedy are a million miles from modern academic practices, which focus on close study of the text, on applying theories of art and interpretation rigorously and on a wide range of historical knowledge.

Serious film criticism is even more recent, probably dating only as far back as Cahiers du cinema in the late 1950s, although certain people like Graham Greene wrote intelligent film reviews in the 1930s.

You can see some literary criticism in action in Aristophanes’ The Frogs. It contains a contest of Euripides and Aeschylus.