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The Role of the Critic

By Nicholas Dromgoole
Oberon Books £9.99
160 pages

Dateline: 31st October, 2010

One has to congratulate this enterprising publisher on its new Oberon Masters series. Who would have thought that it was still possible to publish full length hardback books with the highest production values for less than a tenner?

The Role of the Critic is one of four books in this new series. In it, dance critic and academic Nicholas Dromgoole does not so much look at critics as the background against which they operate.

For the avoidance of doubt, his subject is art criticism in the very widest sense, not merely the work of critics who specialise in theatre and the performing arts.

One might easily suggest that the title is something of a misnomer, since it does not really consider a critic in the way that we currently understand the term. Indeed, from the field of theatre William Hazlitt, James Agate, Ken Tynan and Michael Billington do not rate a mention between them in this relatively brief volume that is stronger on the criticism of arts by all and sundry than by critics themselves.

What Dromgoole actually offers is more a selective social history with particular reference to the arts. In the early stages, the book can have a little bit of a 1066 and All That feel to it, as we move from the Greeks and, in particular, Aristotle through the Romans, the Middle Ages and Renaissance at breakneck speed.

Anyone who can remember more than some Aristotelian theorising adventurously attached to violent movies plus the writer's unbounded admiration for Longinus from this section of the book will be doing very well.

After that, amongst other categories, Dromgoole considers France's Golden Age, the impact of puritanism on theatre in England and, in succeeding sections, the influence of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud on artistic appreciation.

Even when he moves on to more recent times, what the former Dean of the Arts Faculty and Head of Media Studies at London Guildhall University presents is a series of short chapters or essays that will act as a great introduction or foundation for budding students of the arts.

Philip Fisher

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©Peter Lathan 2010