How is good criticism formed? I wonder sometimes. Usually the expert decides he/she wants to set the rules of acceptable discourse, or the critic decides that he holds all the analysis required. Even then, the creator of the work looks a mere outlier in the grand scheme, as his work turns into an agenda for other people’s beliefs and ideas. So what of this Trinitarian relationship (sorry, theology degree just up and popped that one out)?
Does it require knowledge of the project itself? Or should it exist at a first emotional response/glance at the material? Should it require a large background of information from which to derive, or solely emerge from one’s own experience? Perhaps something better would come from a common understanding, rather than isolation. With that in mind, I propose a three-fold model seen below.
The Role of the Expert/Scholars
The expert is a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area. We defer to them on many issues because of their knowledge. They provide information and smaller details we would not otherwise notice. A film expert will see cinematographic technique, use of lightning, visual presentation of story that we otherwise could not know.
Furthermore, they enable us to understand (within reason) the context from which something emerged. A common example in Biblical historical criticism: allows us to absorb the surrounding context from which those works derived. By entrenching themselves into the vein of human civilization’s collected works, they end up with far more enjoyment and joy over the subject matter than the non-expert could possibly muster. We designate them as the keepers of the arcane, and we defer to them when talking about certain subject matters. What appears boring becomes rather wonderful if you put enough effort into it.
On the other hand, that does not mean the expert/scholar automatically wins every argument by default. That would mean people with superior knowledge about a certain specific subject win the day, and that’s simply not true. They do not obtain the wider, generalist perspective required to make a coherent picture of the world. They need an exterior resource to make it work.
The Roles of the Critic
A critic’s role isn’t to know everything. In fact, it’s often better that they don’t know everything about a work. Emotional attachment develops over time, and intimate familiarity does not help criticize a work effectively.
Rather, a critic needs to know what makes one work exemplary versus what makes another work a horrible mess. This is the difficult process of analytical thought rather than rout memorization. How do the pieces fit together? Do they fit well? Think of a giant puzzle with thousands of tiny pieces. A critic has the picture on the front of the box provided by the scholar; now he must fit these pieces into place. He must figure out how one part notches into the next, and not just provide a cursory list of what’s in it. Why does it work?
A critic compares and contrasts with similar works. An expert categorizes, while the critics can see the differences between them. He makes the evaluative judgment. I.e., which one is actually better? Logic and reason play into this, among other aspects. A good critic can sever his emotional ties from the work and view it objectively – that is, setting aside their emotional states to consider the response of others, and not just themselves (though that personal reaction certainly remains valid).
Of course, all this talk of generalism does not mean the critics isn’t also prone to error. Their depth of critical (har har) thinking does not mean an equal repository of specific knowledge necessary to make a final judgment on something. Can a person who doesn’t play sports tell you all about sports from a spectator’s perspective? Absolutely. But they cannot necessarily tell you how the best players become the best; they can only speculate from afar. Hence…
The Role of the Creator
“Creators”, as I call them, create the works by which the previous two categories function. They’ve obviously read the works of the prior two, or at least have seen them. Thus, they tend to fit into those categories from the outset. What makes something good? The critic knows it. Who came before me? The expert knows that! Both of them, hopefully, give creators context. Unfortunately that hasn’t been true recently, but that is the ideal situation.
But those two opinions can equally hinder the creator if taken too literally. If you let yourself into a box, then how can you create something good? It just will not happen. You will create a derivative work which will fit into existing social mores, but may not last beyond the span of time. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was critically panned in its time. Melville died both poor and destitute, yet we now consider Moby Dick “the great American novel”. Strange, no?
The reason why Moby Dick survives isn’t due to its adherence to predetermined categories, critical analysis, or historical circumstances. The narrative and the writing remain a triumph of the English language in their own strange, ineffable, inimitable way. No one will write like Melville again, and to copy him is sacrilege. To create something as great as him, a creator must strike out on his own path. That’s probably why Wittgenstein says he never read a single bit of Aristotle – too much consumption turns you into a consumer, not a creator.
Sometimes, that requires NOT fitting into a predetermined narrative. Not everyone will fit within a subgroup’s natural desire. To spread a message isn’t the primary reason for the existence of anything, and if it were that would certainly be disingenuous to most audiences.
The critic will have his own agenda; so, too, will the expert. Both of them will try to control the creator, and tell him his ideas will not work. If the work agrees with the predilections of those two, then it will fail to stand the test of time. If it does not, if it tries to push boundaries and go against common assumptions, then it will often succeed.
At the same time, NOT listening to them at all won’t help. Every person’s got advice to give, and years of study and analysis give both the expert and the critic plenty of helpful advice. We wouldn’t discuss certain things at all without them, correct? While they should not completely dictate the rules of creative expression, they can certainly become an asset when put in their proper place.
What would C.S Lewis be without G.K. Chesterton? Most people know the former without knowing the latter at all, yet the palpable influence (both Christian and otherwise) emerges almost immediately on comparing both authors An artist will use ideas, thoughts, and techniques they did not develop themselves. They rely on the thought of their own time, whether for or against it. We are always indebted to the past and to the people and ideas that surrounded it, and the creator is no different.
So the creator must hit the nail on the head, a balancing act between knowing and doing. The old is not always bad, nor is the new always great. The old may be quite new, and the new may be quite old; ideas are cyclical things continuing in the grand revolution of human thought. And, from a Christian perspective, all thought exists in the grand centrifuge around the One who created everything. Creators exist in that tradition first and foremost; they would do well to respect that creative faculty as a treasured gift from the One who created them.
13 For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.
14 I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;
16 Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.