The professor stands before a bored classroom, eyeing her students row by row. Listless and barely awake. They know today is not a day for creation, but for theory. A necessary evil. The beast in the midst of bliss. She writes on the board, in softly-scratching chalk, a simple question:
WHICH CAME FIRST, THE ARTIST OR THE CRITIC?
“Well, would anyone care to answer?”
One of the few attentives, Marcus, the teacher’s pet perched in the first row, raises his hand, trying not to appear overeager.
“Well, it’s gotta be the artist right? I mean, what’s there to critique if they do not create it first?”
“Good point, and good question.” The professor smiles, and he swells briefly with pride, “But let me counter with another. Who determines what art is and what is merely… a drawing? Is there anything inherent in a poem by Eliot or Pound that separates it from a mere dirty limerick? Who makes that determination if not…”
She leaves the question hanging.
“A critic?” This voice, disinterested, echoes from the back.
“Yes, good! Eric, was it? Say more.”
Unsteady at first, the sudden theorist continues. “Uh… well, imagine a cave painter right? How did he or she know that what they did was anything more than scratches on a wall until someone else perceived it and like, valued it? I guess, it’s not really art until others appreciate it, right?”
“Yes, quite, many would agree. We wear both hats here, artists ourselves and critics of others. Constantly watching other’s creations for what speaks to us and why it speaks so and what value, if any, we can derive. It is, as are so many things, a cycle, self-perpetuating. Who can say if one can survive without the other?”
The students sit in silence, some slumbering, some pondering their teacher’s query. Until…
“I don’t know…” A young girl begins, a quiet soul. In nearly three months of class time this is the first time she’s spoken.
“What don’t you know…” To her shame the teacher realized she could not remember the silent one’s name.
“Clarissa. Like, the critic can’t exist without the artist. That much seems obvious. What’s less clear is ‘when does the artist become an artist’? Before or after a critic’s notice? Is it art before the critic bestows value upon the piece?” She pauses.
“And?” The teacher gently prods, “Is it?”
Dark features scrunched in thought, Clarissa considers the question.
“I guess… it depends on how you look at it. There are two types of value. Extrinsic and intrinsic. The former cannot be determined without the critic. There is not value without perception, without reception, without there being some attempt to derive meaning or purpose from the art. In that sense, yes, the critic is just as vital as the author, or painter or sculptor. But…”
This Clarissa puts not just to the teacher, but to the whole room of students, now jostled awake by their neighbors. “You’ve felt it right?”
“Felt what Clarissa?”
“All arts are a thousand things to a thousand people, depending on who they are and the circumstance in which they first encounter the art. But each is also one thing. Just because that may be wholly unknowable, doesn't mean it doesn’t exist. In the act of creation, the artist… we, perceive the ineffable, if only for a moment. Then the work is done, and she too becomes a critic. But for a brief second, you feel it. You feel the art’s essence. And it is transcendent. It has always existed. Independent of the critic… and maybe also of the artist herself.”
She’s standing now, and circles to see the class around her, a dervish in the throes of divine inspiration.
“I know you’ve felt it. I can sense the touch on each of you. That euphoric moment when you know, when you glimpse, ‘This is what I’ve made. This is what it is worth. And this… this is why it exists.’”
No one in the class responds, not even the teacher. No one is certain of what they experienced, though they know it was but a mere peek at what it truly meant. The performance was art like none other. Clarissa stands for a moment, satisfied in the hush. Then she packs her things, and leaves, leaves the others to debate their theory. She, the artist, will never return.