My friend Jaosn and I used to argue all the time about who was more important, the artist or the critic. I always stubbornly held out for the supremacy of the artist–the painter, the sculptor, the poet. She did all the work, right? Who gives a crap about what some stuffy academic has to say about the work? What does he know? A critic has no idea regarding the intention behind the piece, the actual story. So, it was with a great deal of despair (and eating crow) that I finally had to come to the conclusion that Jaosn was, indeed, right. Though we thank god for the artist, once her vision is made manifest, no one really cares about what she has to say about it. The artist does not give art meaning. The critic does. Or rather, the observer.
As a poet (whatever that means) I initially could not allow myself to come to terms with this. My shallow poetry was mine and mine alone to interpret–the reader was simply meant to fall in love with the words. Then it dawned on me; what is the teacher but a kind of critic, a reader of student work and finally, the judge of that work? Every time I open a grade book am I not a critic? Don’t I decide the actual quality of a student piece?
Personally, it’s frightening to look at it all that way. Ultimately, the truth of it represents a weighty responsibility. My job is really about assessing student work and assigning that work some kind of worth, according to my own standards and against the quality of other students’ work. I think a lot about that when I consider my own tenderness as a creative writer. This is why I never put a letter grade on a “creative” piece of student writing. I can’t. I have never found the letter grade that reflects honesty of effort, which, for me, is all that can be assessed when a young person endeavors to write a short story, or a poem, or a personal essay. Some kids can make magic with words more easily than others–are their poems inherently worth more because of it? What if it’s easy for them and their lamest efforts are “better” than that of the hard-working “non-poet”?
An artistically great individual finds herself judged by greater critics in the end, and perhaps greatness is measured by just how many critics an artist has. As a teacher/critic, my goal is to never dissuade a student from making the attempt, the HONEST attempt, to craft something genuine from within. I have worked with exceptional student writers, and it’s been a privilege, but I am more satisfied when the “non-writer” kid looks inward and reveals something personal and moving, no matter how clunkily expressed.
So, yeah, the artist doesn’t matter, and Jaosn was right all along. Of course, without her, the critic and all of his bloated self-importance is rendered meaningless. Like a teacher without students…