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Literary Criticism of Sir Joshua Reynolds

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92) was an eighteenth-century painter. His Discourses on Art, published in 1797, though they focus on painting, present ideas about representation which were central to the discussions of literary aesthetics and criticism going on during this period. Reynolds follows Plato in arguing that the highest and soundest kind of art, and of criticism, refers to an eternal immutable nature of things, a kind of universal ideal common to all times and all forms of art. The purpose of criticism, then, is to discover the beauties or faults in particular works of art (and artists), with reference to this universal ideal. But, Reynolds laments, critics are mortal, and thus their assessments of art are subjective, not immutable or eternal. The solution to this problem, Reynolds concluded, is to try to discover the principles of human nature on which all forms of imaginative art (including painting and poetry) are founded, and then to shape a criticism, an aesthetic standard, based on those principles.

All arts, Reynolds proposes, have in common that they address the sensibility or imagination, as opposed to the rational faculty of the human mind; in art, unlike in mathematics, ‘the imagination is here the residence of truth.’ A trained sensibility can intuit the truth in a process in which the steps or evidence on which a conclusion is based cannot be retraced; sensibility is based on one’s collected, and collective, life experiences, rather than on the development of the skill of logical argument. Unlike reason, according to Reynolds, intuition happens with no conscious mental effort; one can’t be trained to feel. However, he adds, it is part of a well-trained rational faculty to be able to judge when reason should give way to feeling, and the assessment of art requires the subordination of reason to sensibility.

Like Burke, Reynolds argues that painting and literature are not strictly mimetic or imitative, and that aesthetic evaluations cannot be based upon the accuracy of a representation. Indeed, direct imitations constitute the lowest style or level of art, for Reynolds, suitable only for uncultivated minds; the more accurate a representation is, the more obvious it is. Refined taste or sensibility is the product of education and practice and exposure to higher forms of art than just accurate imitations. Painting and poetry both try to gratify the natural human propensity to take pleasure in mimesis by means other than those supplied by nature; art adds something to nature that makes it do more than merely represent the natural world. Poetry, for example, uses an artificial language (such as hexameter or pentameter) to improve on the language of common people. The artificiality of art is part of its pleasure, according to Reynolds. The pleasure of poetry or painting comes from its appeal to sensibility and to the love of the kinds of order, congruence, coherence, and consistency that are evident in a created work and not evident in the natural world.

The ‘great end’ of all art, for Reynolds, is to make an impression on the human faculties of imagination and sensibility, not on the faculty of reason. ‘The true test of all the arts,’ and thus the basis for a universal standard of criticism, ‘is not solely whether the production is a true copy of nature, but whether it answers the end of art, which is to produce a pleasing effect upon the mind.’

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Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Poetry

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