On objectivity in art criticism

George Bernard Shaw is best known as a playwright but he was also, especially early in his career, a critic of plays and operas that he wrote for newspapers and periodicals. He tended to favor the avant garde. As a theater critic, he did not think much of Shakespeare and was an early advocate of the playwright Hendrik Ibsen, at a time when Ibsen’s work was not fully appreciated in the UK. As a music critic (where he wrote under the pseudonym Corno Di Bassetto), he was an early advocate of Wagner

His reviews were fun to read and as a boy in Sri Lanka I enjoyed reading them even though they had been written long before I was born and he was writing about plays and operas that I knew nothing about, had never seen, and likely would never see. They would often make me laugh out loud. That is a sign of a good writer.

As might be expected from his writing style, Shaw could be very acerbic and this did not sit well with some of the performers who were the targets of his sharp criticisms, who accused him of not being objective and letting his feelings take over. As might be expected, he had a rejoinder that was quoted in a biography Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality by Hesketh Pearson (1961, p. 126), where he said that the whole point of a critic was to take performances personally.

“People have pointed out evidence of personal feeling in my notices as if they were accusing me of a misdemeanour, not knowing that a criticism written without personal feeling is not worth reading. It is the capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic. The artist who accounts for my disparagement by alleging personal animosity on my part is quite right: when people do less than their best, and do that less at once badly and self-complacently, I hate them, loathe them, detest them, long to tear them limb from limb and strew them in gobbets about the stage or platform…. In the same way, really fine artists inspire me with the warmest personal regard, which I gratify in writing my notices without the smallest reference to such monstrous conceits as justice, impartiality, and the rest of the ideals. When my critical mood is at its height, personal feeling is not the word: it is passion: the passion for artistic perfection – for the noblest beauty of sound, sight and action – that rages in me. Let all young artists look to it, and pay no heed to the idiots who declare that criticism should be free from personal feeling. The true critic, I repeat, is the man who becomes your personal enemy on the sole provocation of a bad performance, and will only be appeased by good performances. Now this, though well for art and for the people, means that the critics are, from the social or clubbable point of view, veritable fiends. They can only fit themselves for other people’s clubs by allowing themselves to be corrupted by kindly feelings foreign to the purpose of art.”

He did not spare his friends. As an example of this attitude, take this review by him of a performance of Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a well-known actress whom he generally admired and with whom he had a long and close relationship that may have been more than Platonic. (The two had a lengthy correspondence that was turned into a play Dear Liar that I saw many years ago.) Of one of her performances, he wrote: “It is greatly to Mrs Patrick Campbell’s credit that, bad as the play was, her acting was worse. It was a masterpiece of failure.”

I do quite a lot of reviews of films and books on this blog and strive to be ‘fair’, by which I mean trying to be as dispassionate as possible. As Shaw says, that leads to my reviews being somewhat dull to read. But there is no sense in trying to emulate Shaw. He was a genius with words.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    My favorite Shawism:

    Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.

  2. Holms says

    An objective critique is simply a list of things that happened. The overture began, I was happy; then the duet, I was bored. Criticism of art requires digging into the question of why your feelings were those; in other words it requires perspective and hence subjectivity.

    Shaw’s take is better put.

    By the way Mano, I seem to remember you posting this exact quote several years ago… Aha!

  3. mnb0 says

    Still unfair and still great insults are great fun to read as well. When reviewing Tchaikovsky’s (my favourite classical composer) Violin Concerto he wrote:

    It gives us, for the first time, the hideous notion that there can be music which stinks to the ear.

    This also shows how irrelevant reviews can be -- this violin concerto has become an all time favourite.

  4. consciousness razor says

    mnb0, #4:
    That wasn’t George Bernard Shaw. It written by Eduard Hanslick in the Neue Freie Presse (Dec. 24, 1881).

    Not a big Wagnerian, that one. He’s supposed to be who Wagner was mocking with “Beckmesser” in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. (A target of his antisemitism too.)

    Anyway, to be fair, that concerto was revised a bit, because Tchaikovsky wasn’t entirely satisfied with it either. It also apparently soured his relationship with his (current or former?) lover who didn’t want to play it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *