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Johanna M. Smith
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What is Cultural Criticism?by Johanna M. Smith
What do you think of when you think of culture? The opera or ballet? A performance of a Mozart symphony at Lincoln Center, or a Rembrandt show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Does the phrase "cultural event" conjure up images of young people in jeans and T-Shirts or of people in their sixties dressed formally? Most people hear "culture" and think "High Culture." Consequently, most people, when they first hear of cultural criticism, assume it would be more formal than, well, say, formalism. They suspect it would be "highbrow," in both subject and style.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In one of the goals of cultural criticism is to oppose Culture with a capital C, in other words, that new of culture which always and only equates it with what we sometimes call "high culture." Cultural critics want to make the term culture refer to popular culture as well as to that culture we associate with the so-called classics. Cultural critics are as likely to write about "Star Trek" as they are to analyze James Joyce's Ulysses. They want to break down the boundary between high and low, and to dismantle the hierarchy that the distinction implies. They also want to discover the (often political) reasons why a certain kind of aesthetic product is more valued than others.
A cultural critic writing on a revered classic might concentrate on a movie or even comic strip version. Or she might see it in light of some more common form of reading material (a novel by Jane Austen might be viewed in light of Gothic romances or ladies' conduct manuals), as the reflection of some common cultural myths or concerns (Huckleberry Finn might be shown to reflect and shape American myths about race, concerns about juvenile delinquency), or as an example of how texts move back and forth across the alleged boundary between "low" and "high" culture. A history play by Shakespeare, as one group of cultural critics has pointed out, may have started off as a popular work enjoyed by working people, later become a "highbrow" play enjoyed only by the privileged and educated, and, still later, due to a film version produced during World War II, become popular again--this time because it has been produced and viewed as a patriotic statement about England's greatness during wartime (Humm 6-7). Even as this introduction was being written, cultural critics were analyzing the "cultural work" being done cooperatively by Mel Gibson and Shakespeare in Franco Zeffirelli's recent movie, Hamlet.
In combating old definitions of what constitutes culture, of course, cultural critics sometimes end up combating old definitions of what constitutes the literary canon, that is, the once-agreed-upon honor roll of Great Books. They tend to do so, however, neither by adding books (and movies and television sitcoms) to the old list of texts that every "culturally literate" person should supposedly know, nor by substituting for it some kind of Counterculture Canon. Rather, they tend to combat the canon by critiquing the very idea of canon. Cultural critics want to get us away from thinking about certain works as the "best" ones produced by a given culture (and therefore as the novels that best represent American culture). They seek to be more descriptive and less evaluative, more interested in relating than rating cultural products and events.-- http://www.usask.ca/english/frank/cultint.htm
- Frankenstein: Complete, Authoritative Text With Biographical, Historical, and Cultural Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Contemporary Critical perspective (Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism (Paper)) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Johanna M. Smith (Editor) [Amazon US]
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