This post was inspired by the ‘Critical Theory’ module I’ve been taking for my English literature course at university.
An underlying similarity between the Humanities subjects is the notion that there are, more often than not, no right answers. Or to be yet more assuring, no wrong ones. This is the thought I equip myself with when I sit down to write any essay. It’s how I, as a student, conjure the sheer arrogance to do battle with reputable critics, theorists, historians – authorities with often decades of knowledge in their respective fields – on topics I was perhaps only introduced to last week, by way of a 90 minute lecture. It’s certainly a liberating concept. But it’s also an immensely frustrating one. To be intellectual (or try to be) is so often to resign oneself to the grey wish-washy area between A and B, for and against, yes and no. It’s a dissatisfying place, but our destination today.
In my previous experience of debate, however informally, whether in an academic environment or in an-early-in-the-morning-after-a-few-drinks setting, I’ve found myself being that awkward guy who undermines the conversation by objecting to the premise of the proposed question itself. The following question, taken directly from a university discussion, falls into this shot-down category.
Is creativity more important than criticism?
I should specify here that I’m primarily concerned with literary creativity and criticism. The question itself is phrased in a way that leans already to the former option, presumably in light of the fact that you can’t have criticism without a creative subject to analyse. The mouthpiece my university module chose to fight this corner was the 19th century critic, Matthew Arnold, who wrote clear as day, ‘The critical power is of lower rank than the creative’. (He also defined criticism as ‘a disinterested endeavour’ which super confused me – the image of an apathetic scholary-looking type, half-hearted churning out some bitter review, springing to mind – until I was informed ‘disinterestedness’ in this case meant objectivity… Why didn’t he just say that?).
The arguments raised in my seminar class in favour of creativity boil down to two points. First is the promotion of creativity as a personal exercise, detached from criticism. You don’t have to be a published author to get a deep sense of satisfaction out of the creative production of art or just words. Even if nobody ever read your piece to offer any form of criticism, its composition would be nonetheless worthwhile for the experience and pleasure of the creative process itself.
“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of man.” – John Steinbeck.
A second popular argument for creativity is a cultural one. Society has always held authors, playwrights and poets above their critics. This suggests that, at least socially, creativity is indeed more important than criticism. There has always existed a stigma of hypocrisy surrounding the critic, who’s job it is to criticise creative feats we assume they themselves are incapable of. It might seem immensely ignorant to dismiss Arnold’s criticism in the view that he himself could be considered only a second-rate poet. It would be. But undoubtedly you would have been more likely to have heard of him if he were a first-rate poet, and perhaps only a second-rate critic.
In my seminar discussion little defence was raised in the corner of criticism. Strange seeing as we were all there ultimately to be trained as literary critics… Allow me to play devil’s advocate.
While I completely agree with the first argument in its value of personal, private creativity, it completely fails to acknowledge the value of personal, private criticism. A critical discussion about a film upon leaving the cinema with a friend, or a review of a book that you write for your blog (I’ll shamelessly advertise one of mine here), can be just as rewarding as the published critiques of a scholar. Furthermore, a 1,000 word review can be just as rewarding to write as a 1,000 word short story. No concrete evidence suggests otherwise. In response to the cultural argument, I would contend that the term ‘critic’ broadly encompasses other titles such as the theorist and the philosopher. Individuals who likewise criticise ideas and judge phenomena. The names of whom – Freud, Nietzsche, Marx – stand up culturally alongside your Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen, to dispel the argument that society values criticism over creativity.
I have a final point to add in the defence of criticism. While it is evidently true that without creativity there would be no criticism (a statement even truer than it first appears, I will expand on this shortly), without criticism there would be no distinction of literature – that is, a literary canon. Without the recording and therefore development of literary criticism, it is highly unlikely, impossible, that the great writers would have acquired their status as such. Academic criticism is the flashing neon signs that draw our attention to particular texts in history’s ever expanding library. Without his legacy in criticism Shakespeare would not have reached our classrooms today.
Having reviewed both sides of the argument, I cannot withhold from entering the middle ground any longer. It is time I object to the question outright.
Creativity is no more important than criticism, and vice versa, because criticism is a mode of creativity, and while perhaps less obvious, creativity is a mode of criticism.
“The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.” – Oscar Wilde
A critic’s response to a text is unique therefore it is the critic who creates this meaning. My earlier attempt to open up the word critic, to encompass theorists and philosophers, was influenced by the notion that criticism, in its novelty, is a creative process. The critic is the author of a response to the text in the same way that a theorist is the author of an idea. This is easy to appreciate, but in what sense are authors critical? This sense: an author is the very first critic of his or her work. The interior editing and censorship that goes into its composition is undoubtedly the most important stage of all criticism. The academic critic values the final product of a piece of art; its creator during its creation values the piece as a work in progress.
“There is creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is another sense, a cultural one, in which an author might be considered a critic. The author is consciously or unconsciously a critic of the world he or she lives in, or at least the ideas and experiences he or she has been exposed to. The meanings behind a creative composition, whether intended or not, can be seen as a critical statement of an existence outside of the text. This is the fundamental flaw of New Criticism’s ahistorical nature. Context matters.
Is creativity more important than criticism? Yes or no? I object.
It’s a faux-dichotomy. Insert unsatisfactory answer: the question is a false one that assumes a division of the intrinsically linked.