According to Ellis Sharp:
. . .[Bob Dylan's "Hurricane" is] a campaigning song, set in the real world. If you say that it doesn’t matter what the song is about, or whether it’s true or not, and that it’s just great music, then I think you’ve missed a lot of the point of the song. You aestheticise it. You turn it into an artefact detached from real life. That impulse reminds me very much of the American ‘New Criticism’ of the 1950s. The New Critics wanted to remove literature from life and history and regard writing as exclusively a formal structure – a well-wrought urn, an organic artefact, where all you discussed was language. The New Critics rubbished biography. The writer’s life, the writer’s intentions, were an irrelevance. Out with society and history, just stick to the words! But theory is never innocent, and the New Criticism slotted in nicely with the quietism of the age. If you don’t want to talk about history or society, you threaten nothing.
Heaven forbid that we "aestheticize" an ostensible work of art! Sharp's admonitions here are like saying that the stories in today's newspaper are too much like journalism or that the trouble with physics is that it contains too many darn equations. Reattach them to life! But just as physics no longer exists without the equations, art must be "aesthetic" in order to be itself in the first place. It's the attempt to politicize works of art, to make them illuminate history or act as the servants of biography, that distorts them, not regarding them as artifact--which of course they are, first and foremost. If we don't "aestheticize" art--that is, apprehend it on its own terms as art--we've failed to recognize it at all.
What in the world could it mean to say that in calling a song "great music" you’ve "missed a lot of the point of the song"? That music is something other than musical? That it's more than music? The impulse behind such a claim is understandable--it's a way of saying that something profoundly important has occured in one's experience of "great" art of any kind--but to suggest that the "point" of a song or a poem or a novel lies elsewhere than in its embodiment as a song or poem or novel is to implicitly denigrate the form a particular work has taken: Don't tell me this song is musically satisfying--it's trying to change the world! That novel is pleasant, but it's "merely literary." Implicitly, such assertions tell us that musicians and novelists could be finding better uses for their time than just composing music or writing novels. They could be "campaigning."
Sharp's account of New Criticism is a fairly typical sort of misrepresentation among those who are apparently more interested in "society and history" than in literature. This kind of reductive description has especially been used for quite some time now by academics eager to rid the study of literature of all vestiges of formalism in favor of "cultural critique." But the New Critics never wanted "to remove literature from life and history." It's very hard to see how this could be done in the first place--if it were to be removed from life, where would it go?--but at any rate the New Critics wanted precisely to locate literature in history--its history as literature--and provide it with "life" by identifying those characteristics particular to it, or at least particular to the experience of reading it. It's not as if the "formal structures" with which New Criticism was concerned were already well-known, waiting to be pinned to works of literature in some act of literary preservation. For the New Critics, reading was a dynamic process, a dramatic process, during which judgment needed to be suspended. Formal structures remind us that a poem or story is not like "talk." They have been shaped in such a way that a work's "content" is not that easy to determine. Thus the New Critics' use of such terms as "ambiguity" and "paradox."
Sharp then reprimands Vladimir Nabokov for observing that a particular passage from Dickens's Bleak House is "a lesson in style, not in participative emotion." Sharp continues:
Bleak House is not simply a literary artefact. It powerfully expresses Dickens’s own seething rage and contempt for a supposedly Christian society where children died openly in the London streets. Bleak House projects Dickens’s vision of England as a rotten and corrupt society.
In my view, that Bleak House might express Dickens's "rage and contempt" is not necessarily one of its admirable qualities. Fortunately, what Dickens really did in this novel--perhaps more effectively than any of his other books--was to transcend his rage and contempt and to translate them (if indeed they were feelings he held) into literary art, into a novel that is indeed fully shaped and ingeniously structured. And so what if the novel "projects Dickens’s vision of England as a rotten and corrupt society"? Such visions are a dime a dozen. The only thing that distinguishes Dickens's "vision" is that it served as the impetus for a series of great fictions. Nabokov was right: What makes Dickens still a writer well worth reading are his specifically literary gifts, his ability to create singularly memorable characters, his prodigious prose style.
Returning to his discussion of Dylan, Sharp concludes: "Pop music self-evidently has dimensions that poetry lacks (the human voice, the backing music, the individuality of every performance, its immediate visceral impact) but I don’t see why that should prevent us discussing that aspect which they both share: words." I'll avoid debating the merits of analyzing pop songs as if they were poems (one could view song lyrics as poems of a sort, although comparing them to actual poems is, in my view, unfair to both, since they weren't written to be poems), but suffice it to say that Sharp eliminates almost everything that defines song as a form of music ("the human voice," "the backing music"), further reducing both songwriting and poetry to "[w]hat the two art forms have in common[, which] is a desire to communicate something, usually an experience, through words." Never mind that in Dylan's most creative period in the mid-1960s he focused more on "communicating" an experience through expanded musical means, the lyrics often acting as a kind of hypnotic accompaniment to the music rather than the opposite. In confining the artist's ambitions to "a desire to communicate something," Sharp strips art of its very identity, equating it with any other act of communication and limiting it to what it "is about." Discouraging such an approach to art and literature was what New Criticism, in all of its quietism, was itself finally all about.