When History Judges the Critics Wrong

Welcome to Part II of the Criticism Special. Last time, I shared my ideas about some qualities that make a good critic. But, as explained in that post, no critic is perfect. Today, we will face that issue head on: what if the critics’ opinion are proven to be wrong?


We’ve heard this story before. Writer or artist gets flak and the work in question does not flourish. Then, decades later, that work becomes hailed as a masterpiece and its creator considered a genius.

Scott Fitzgerald enjoyed success for This Side of Paradise but The Great Gatsby, now considered his magnum opus, flopped. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was met with harsh criticism and so was William Wordsworth’s poetry. Vincent Van Gogh managed to sell only one painting during his lifetime while Bizet’s Carmen was called dull by a critic.

The list of ‘misjudgments’ in the history of criticism is certainly long that sometimes one couldn’t blame readers and artists who are skeptical of critics. But should we disregard reviews because of these errors of judgment? When history itself judges the critics’ opinion wrong, is there still any value to their criticism?

There is no denying that wrong judgments have been made and, perhaps as I write, continue being made. These unmerited reviews, especially when negative, may hurt the artist’s development, feelings, and even finances as bad reviews often affect the artwork’s market performance. It may sound too emotional but an artist or two could have died in a better situation had their works been rightfully noticed and welcomed by the market.

These ‘misjudgments’ are not supposed to be the ideal. But they can’t be avoided either. Even the most well-intentioned, experienced or intelligent of critics can make some mistakes. Why? This article in The Chronicle of Higher Education provides a good explanation. It draws attention to the role of the values of a period in influencing a critic’s judgment.

I like the example given in the article: Voltaire’s ‘misjudgment’ of Shakespeare. While enjoying the plays and poems of Shakespeare is a matter of taste, the value of the Bard’s works is already established by now. We’ve gotten past debating whether or not Shakespeare’s writings are of value. Clearly, Voltaire did miss something in Shakespeare, but it was not because he was a bad critic. Voltaire was just a product of the values of his time. As the article explains, Voltaire was influenced by the neoclassical emphasis on Aristotelian unities – things that were not quite evident in the plays of Shakespeare.

Voltaire’s criticism may no longer be a good reference to understand the literary value of Shakespeare. However, Voltaire’s writing will still be invaluable for it explains the values of his time in contrast with other literary periods.

The same is true for other well-written, well-explained pieces whose opinion seem to miss the value of the subject. When viewed as a product of history, even these so-called ‘misjudgments’ can derive their value in how well they expose the values of their period and the ideologies which made the critic decide on that opinion. In other words, they still help identify trends and changing values in history.

These reviews may no longer be significant for readers who want to evaluate the success and merits of a work, but they remain important for people who want to understand not just the performance of the work in question but also the developments in the art world.


Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for Part III of the Criticism Special to be posted in August.




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