Criticism, as considered here, is the art of assessing the character and worth of a work or works of art, and communicating this assessment to the reader or hearer. The works of art may be literary, dramatic, musical or visual and tactile. In conducting the criticism, the critic may draw on particular knowledge, but if it is to be of any worth, he or she is expected draw on powers of analysis and revealing new viewpoints in order to illuminate the subject. Works of criticism are often considered to be works of literature in their own right.
An exception to this definition is textual criticism, considered below.
Criticism may itself be considered a form of literature, with many essays being on literary topics, (though some academic criticism is so poorly written that it cannot be fitted into most definitions of literature).
The most immediate form of criticism is the review, usually written at the first appearance of a work. One of its purposes is to enable the reader to decide whether to purchase something, or go to see or hear something. Depending on the character of the periodical in which it appears, it may also be important for the review to be entertaining. Reviewers may, however, use the occasion to show off their own knowledge, impress a particular point of view, or carry on a feud. Some reviewers have attained notoriety through the savagery of their articles (e g J G Lockhart's attacks on Keats).
Literary criticism is normally considered to extend beyond the instant review, to provide a considered judgment on individual works, or the whole work of an author, or a literary movement. The best criticism throws a new light on its subject, as Coleridge did with Shakespeare, or rescues an author from obscurity, as Swinburne did with Herrick.
Drama and music being performing arts, the criticism may be of the piece being performed, or of the execution, or of both combined.
Textual criticism was defined by A.E. Housman as "the science of discovering error in texts and the art of removing them". The textual critic may make use of the collation of different readings, palaeography, experience of other mistakes known to have been made by copyists, the rules of grammar and metre, and, ultimately, his or her own conjectures and judgment. At a very basic level, when someone reading Citizendium notices a typographical error or the obvious omission of a word, and corrects it, they are undertaking textual criticism.
- Housman, A E. The application of thought to textual criticism. Proceedings of the Classical Association XVII (1922) p 67.