Why Can’t You?

I had a fun conversation with a student this week who had a number of challenging questions about issues to pose to me. The question I’m still knocking around: if academic cultural critics understand expressive culture so expertly, why can’t they create it? Wouldn’t it be better to always have experience in creating the cultural forms that you study?

I noted that this is an old and familiar (if legitimate) challenge. It popped up recently in Ratatouille, for example, but this is an old battle littered with bon mots and bitter denunciations. Thinking about it during the conversation, I tried to map out the range of existing answers that scholars and critics have offered at various times. Here’s what I came up with off the cuff as variant kinds of responses to this issue, quickly sketched.

1) Yes, it is better to have creative experience if you aim to critique or teach about expressive culture. So there are some who would say that a cultural critic should have at least tried to create the form that they’re primarily interested in. There are some branches of academic criticism where there is a greater number of people with that kind of experience in the form.

2) Scholarly criticism is just a refinement or deepening of the critical response of audiences in general. Since audiences form stable, long-running views and understandings of expressive culture (which most creators acknowledge are important, since they depend on audiences or actively want to affect or please them), scholarly criticism derives legitimacy from the distinction between audience and creator, representing the response of the audience.

3) Consumption of culture and creation of culture are interdependent activities but they are also strongly distinctive from one another in both their form and their function. Criticism has its own norms, integrity, theory, character and aesthetics. I’d say this is the most common, orthodox opinion among scholarly literary critics over the long haul.

4) Cultural creators do not have a transparent or expert knowledge of even their own creations, let alone the creative or expressive work of others, experience does not create communicable knowledge that can be shared with others. That takes scholarly study, which can create knowledge which the producer of expressive culture may not have, even about their own work. Variant form: just because you’re experienced at making something, you may not be capable of teaching others how to do it or explaining what other creators are doing. Taken to its extreme, this view suggests that criticism is the higher-order activity, more intellectually demanding. The “intentional fallacy” and “the death of the author” live somewhere within this precinct as well.

5) Academic or expert critics study less of the content or form of expressive criticism and more of the sociology, economics of publication or performance, history and psychology of expressive culture. E.g., this proposes a straightforward division of labor (the creator knows about the work itself; the critic knows about all the external conditions which govern the work).

6) Creating culture is an independent activity of high worth; criticism a dependent one of less worth. Criticism is separable from creation, but it’s lesser and ought to be humble about its dependency on the first-order activity of creators. Possibly this line of argument also includes a charge to critics that they be respectful about the difficulties of creating culture. Unsurprisingly popular with some authors and cultural producers…

7) It’s important to have cultural criticism, and a critic should know something about doing work in a given medium, but some media do not allow for individual acts of creation due to technological or financial barriers.


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17 Responses to Why Can’t You?

  1. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    Zowie! Thats a tough question. Let me answer with an anecdote:

    Have you ever talked to an artist about his or her work? A lot of them, even really articulate ones, have a hard time explaining their painting or sculpture, (or building or film, etc). Many refuse to do so. Some artists believe that the work speaks for itself.

    Some of them, especially movie directors and movie actors, are complete idiots when talking about the significance and meaning of their work. (Think George Lucas and the Star Wars franchise). In these situations a cultural critic can help translate between the artist and the audience.

    A great critic is an intellectual entrepreneur who provides value added services to the original product. We are all better off having T.J. Clarke around to tell us about impressionist painting. You don’t need Clarke to enjoy Manet, but after reading him, the paintings have another layer of meaning and context.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, you absolutely do not have to subscribe to a full-throated critical-theory hostility to the author as the agent of culture to note that a great many artists have a hard time explaining how they do what they do–not merely because of a difficulty communicating, it’s literally a mystery to them too. Plenty of memoirs by artists testify to this effect.

  3. Gil says:

    Two quick additions:

    (1) Invert the basic premise for a moment — i.e., only those people who DO this stuff (whatever “this stuff” might be) know enough to critique it — and you get a sort of elitist roadblock to any sort of outsider commentary. E.g., “Sorry, you’re just a journalist, so you can’t possibly have a worthy opinion on foreign policy.”

    None of which denies the basic idea that insider knowledge can (and should) lend one an important element of expertise when it comes to criticism. But it’s not the only route in.

    (2) Insider knowledge about how to create something doesn’t necessarily always apply to the ways that the created object actually gets used in the world. The sound engineer who knows how to mix a professional quality CD isn’t necessarily going to be an expert of which music is going to be the most suitable for a dance club on a Saturday evening.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Right. At a meta-level, this is a common rhetorical battle between experts and non-experts across a vast domain of activities. Generally when I see someone saying “If you haven’t done [X], you have no right to say anything”, that seems to me to be an even bigger sign of argumentative collapse than a flurry of ad hominem claims. Put it more modestly and of course there’s something to it: experience creates a kind of knowledge that can’t be acquired in any other way.

  5. I think 4 could be summarized (and perhaps enhanced) by saying that the critic serves as a translator between artistic creations and non-artistic audiences, which requires a kind of bilingualism (trilingualism, if you actually try talking to the artists).

    There’s a variation on 5 — or perhaps its a whole other category — which is closer to what historians (and historicists) do: put a work into a context not only backward and sideways (past and present) but forwards (future impact), which is something that contemporary critics really can’t do except speculatively.

  6. Raveline says:

    (Sorry for any english mistake, I’m not yet perfectly fluent).

    There might be an argument you didn’t present in your post. Perhaps a living artist can explain his work ; but what of artists from the past ? Critics deal with the difficult notion of “classics”. They try to explain and assure the transmission of a “canon” that they are – or should be – rebuilding day after day. Some, more daring, wish to define the classics of our time, or try to explore the very notion of classics. But, even if the critic travel in the creation of his own time, he tends to see things in a temporal perspective.

    By definition, the idea of “classic” comme after the work is done. So, it has nothing to do with creation. One is a priori, the other a posteriori. Pushing this argument too much would mean that good critics make bad artists (sometimes true, sometimes incredibly wrong, take T.S. Eliot).

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s a good point in one sense, that the job of the critic is to engage work from the past, but that job wouldn’t necessarily absolve the critic of the charge that to produce criticism they should also make culture themselves, unless we agreed that past expressive culture is so unlike contemporary culture that knowing the past and creating in the present are fundamentally alien to one another. Which in fact we might agree upon! It reminds me a bit of some problems in the history of technology: the more contemporaneous the technology one is studying, the easier it may be to understand most aspects of its creation, manufacture and usage and arguably have hands-on experience with that technology, but very old technologies can be remarkably difficult to know about and even more difficult to actually create in a hands-on fashion.

  8. benjamin says:

    loving the way you broke this down! a clear and distinct, yet related array of possible answers. extremely helpful to me. thanks again!

  9. Carl says:

    Great coverage of the ground here, so I just have a little note about the emotional disconnect between critical distance and the cathexis a work of culture is supposed to inspire. A piece of high art or a tale of personal plight may even be invested with a kind of charismatic holiness, moving it outside the realm of any kind of rationalized critique. In this case the work of the critic is not just formally clueless but impertinent, irreverent or even blasphemous.

  10. Carl says:

    Then again there’s Kliban’s tasteless take.

  11. Bill McNeill says:

    The inability to explain what one is doing is probably a prerequisite for a lot of creative work, an inoculation against overthinking. If you could wrap everything up in a pithy summary, why bother creating the work of art in the first place?

  12. Doug says:

    Can quarterbacks block? Can linemen throw a pass? Can pitchers cover the outfield? Can outfielders pitch?

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Bill’s point is also a good one. I think it’s one reason I don’t like strongly polemical fiction even when I agree with its polemic: I always wonder, “Why write it as fiction, then?” Perhaps because fiction works differently on its audiences than polemic, and some authors imagine that they can find a road into consciousness better that way. But mostly it seems to me that creative work has an element of necessary mystery especially for people who produce it.

  14. Bill McNeill says:

    Polemical fiction is a good example. The one I had in mind is a certain genre of art…I don’t know what you call it: art-world art, art-that-gets-shown-in-art-galleries art, art-that-gets-taught-in-graduate-arts-programs art. Anyway, there’s a certain genre of art in which the actual piece only exists to elucidate some particular idea from critical theory, and works from this genre always make me wonder, “Why bother assembling the video screen triptych with the chicken wire and the surgical gloves and the naked guy smearing himself with butter when you could just send me a postcard?”

  15. Bill McNeill says:

    In fairness I have friends who create the kind of art I describe, and a lot of time I get a kick out of the actual artifact and just ignore the critical talk that goes along with it. Death of the author and all that I suppose.

  16. I think a lot of critical analysis as expressed via art or creative media can be quite powerful and effective, and I’d like to see more critics experiment with non-written forms of communication. Arguably, that’s what the French New Wave was all about…

    I’d also add that the negative side of #1 is that a “failed artist” can make a poor critic, especially if they try to rationalize their own failure through their critique. So #1 can work, minus bitterness.

    Now how would you apply this to the argument from a number of prominent game scholars that anyone studying digital gaming should know how to code? Is that different than saying a musicologist should be able to play music, or an art historian should know how to paint?

  17. Timothy Burke says:

    Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose always struck me as a beautiful example of criticism and fiction fused together. There are a lot of works that demonstrate that it can be done.

    There are certainly game scholars who demonstrate the value of being able to code and make games (Eric Zimmerman, Nick Monfort). At the least, I’d agree that game scholars need to understand the technological affordances and constraints involved in producing games; some of the people who have come over from lit-crit occasionally pass that particular Go and fail to collect $200.00.

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