Theatre in Wales

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The Vulnerability of Criticism

On Criticism & Critics

Keynote Opening , Wales Arts Review Critics Round Table , January 23, 2019
On Criticism & Critics by Keynote Opening The brief for this keynote address was to assess the current condition of criticism. The place was the Wales Millennium Centre, the event Wales Arts Review's 2nd Critics Round Table, held 14th November 2014.

The opening was recorded above 22nd January. It continued and concluded as follows:

“MOMA in Machynlleth this season has a room of James Dickson Innes, a selection from the fuller exhibition that was seen at the National Museum. In the room below twenty modern artists have been invited to make their own interpretations of Arenig.

“It is a scintillating combination and when the exhibition comes to a close it is likely that it will have left behind no critical trace of any kind. There is indisputably a flurry of critical activity in Welsh writing. But it thins on the journey north just as the density of population thins. There is still work in Wales that is deserving of celebration and is allowed to die in silence. Look to Bangor’s exhibiting Mildred Eldridge this year and it is to look in vain.

“Trollope’s “An Autobiography” is a dry book, not easily recommendable, but he writes of writing from the inside. He is right on the reviewers who have emerged in his later years but he looks to critics whom he esteems. “When making their assertions they have given their reasons, explained their causes, and have carried conviction” he writes. Their accomplishment, he writes, is “not without infinite study and the labour of many years.”

“The many years may not be strictly necessary but to generate even four or five paragraphs that hang together takes a little time helped along, like all exertion, by practice and regularity. This is not to disparage the digital world, not least within a journal that reaches a readership in a hundred countries. But a critical response that circles round “fab” and “brilliant” is thin gruel. Talk to the artists themselves. They want praise; of course, they do because they are human. But the invariable next comment is “at least this person has thought about what I was doing.”

“Third: the blunt fact of one aspect of our twenty-first century economy. The payroll for public relations is six times that of journalists. The brute constriction on time and budgets forces speed, and cut-and-paste is easy. It is a fact of our age and overt advertorial, where it is obvious, is unobjectionable. But it also creeps around invisibly.

“Features with writers or actors have a tendency to shrink the size of the review. Higher education has small isolated pockets of pseudo-scholarship where the distinction between writer and subject has blurred. The words are long, the intention is sincere but it is promotion.

“The Guardian of 1st November carries a “review” of an interesting-looking new book on a journey up the Danube. Comprising a single paragraph the prose is bland, reads like a publisher’s hand-out, and is placed next to the book jacket with an invitation to click and buy. On the old adage, if it looks like an advertisement and smells like an advertisement then it probably is an advertisement.

“Does this matter? It matters for at least two reasons. Once it was a Pope or a Medici who gave a thumbs-up or down to a Torrigiano or Ghirlandaio. Today the arts are perforce part-embedded in the public sphere. Women and men of good sense and seriousness, on the hill in Aberystwyth, in Bute Place and Mount Stuart Square, have to make decisions. The process of selection and allocation is helped by comment that is engaged but, most crucially, disinterested.

"The alternative is embarrassments like the invention of “the People’s Prize”. A culture that is bereft of an enlivened self-critique is one that is in hock to public relations. “If there is no intellectual, aesthetic, political, spiritual passionate argument about what gets made”, writes Adrian Gill, “then the only arbiters of value are the box office and the phone-in.”

“That is criticism’s justification for a practical and expedient reason. But there is a greater reason, the artists themselves. The work is deserving of an attention that reflects in small measure the industry, engagement and intensity that has gone into the making of the art. The opinion is the shadow of the work itself. Dylan Moore on a conference panel in 2012 expressed succinctly the reasons for which he wrote. He writes to continue the work, to illuminate context, to see connections. But most of all it is that most human of activities, it is conversation.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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