Pragmatic Literary Criticism

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Pragmatic Literary Criticism

Pragmatic criticism is concerned, first and foremost, with the ethical impact any literary text has upon an audience. Regardless of art's other merits or failings, the primary responsibility or function of art is social in nature. Assessing, fulfilling, and shaping the needs, wants, and desires of an audience should be the first task of an artist. Art does not exist in isolation; it is a potent tool for individual as well as communal change. Though pragmatic critics believe that art houses the potential for massive societal transformation, art is conspicuously ambivalent in its ability to promote good or evil. The critical project of pragmatic criticism is to establish a moral standard of quality for art. By establishing artistic boundaries based upon moral/ethical guidelines, art which enriches and entertains, inspires and instructs a reader with knowledge of truth and goodness will be preserved and celebrated, and art which does not will be judged inferior, cautioned against, and (if necessary) destroyed. Moral outrage as well as logical argument have been the motivating forces behind pragmatic criticism throughout history. The tension created between this emotional and intellectual reaction to literature has created a wealth of criticism with varying degrees of success. Ironically, much like art's capacity to inspire diligence or decadence in a reader, pragmatic criticism encompasses both redemptive and destructive qualities.

Plato provides a foundational and absolute argument for pragmatic criticism. Excluding poetry from his ideal Republic, Plato attempts to completely undermine the power and authority of art. He justifies his position by claiming that "the power which poetry has of harming even the good (and there are very few who are not harmed) is surely an awful thing" (28). Because artists claim their imitations can speak to the true nature of things, circumventing the need for serious,...
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