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.