Theatre in Wales

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The Hazards of PR

On Criticism & Critics

In Defence of Criticism , Wales Arts Review Critics Round Table , March 14, 2019
On Criticism & Critics by In Defence of Criticism There are a few principles that are inviolable. One is the Law of Unintended Consequences. Another is that institutions decline as a result of an excess of their own first principle. Virtue, the cornerstone for private relations, is compromised in public life. And necessarily so. To an observer a hundred miles distant the cultural policy that emanates from Cardiff mistakes virtue for vigour.

Over the course of eleven years I moved from the place where I was comfortable- within an auditorium- to a place of lesser comfort- a platform- on five occasions. The written word, which has a fullness over the spoken word, is also a place of comfort. In November 2018 I was approached to appear on Radio 4's “Front Row”. The reasons I gave to the producer in Salford for declining were threefold, for elaboration at another time. One was that explaining the aetiology of the subject would make for dreary listening for a broad audience.

The longest time I spent on a platform lasted twelve minutes. The keynote address at Wales Arts Review's 2nd Critics Round Table was made of three parts. The first, reported 22nd January, concerned the loss of criticism, the end of a living that might be made precariously as a general person of letters, and the value that artists themselves accord to critics.

The second part, 1st March, illustrated the invisibility of the art of Wales and moved to the verbal impoverishment in the cybersphere.

The third looked to where the money is. Its motives were pragmatic not puritanical as I like advertising. One reason is that some of my formative theatre experiences were in a city that had none. But those who live by public relations end up believing it. It is all there in Shakespeare, in the monarch who is told bracing truths by the fool. Critics play the fool, and often times are indeed foolish, but a culture with their absence is one that has but a part-knowledge of itself.

The last part ran:

“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. The allure of cut-and-paste is omnipresent. It is a fact of our age, and advertorial, where it is obvious, is unobjectionable. But it creeps invisibly.

“Feature articles on writers or actors have a tendency to shrink the size of the review. Higher education contains small isolated pockets of pseudo-scholarship where the distinction between writer and subject has blurred. The words may be long and the intention 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 along 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 part-embedded in the public sphere. Women and men of good sense and seriousness, whether on an Aberystwyth hilltop, in Bute Place or Mount Stuart Square, convene, assess and make decisions. Their allocations are assisted at least by comment from the public sphere that is engaged and, most crucially, disinterested. The alternative is the embarrassment of events like ‘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.’ And, he might have added, the social media thumbs-up.

“This is criticism’s justification for reasons that are practical and expedient. But there is a stronger reason and that is the artists themselves. The art deserves a response that reflects, albeit in small measure, the commitment and intensity that have gone into the making of the work itself. But the critic should not lose a sense of proportion. ‘I am just the messenger’ says that alarming polymath George Steiner. The opinion is the shadow cast by the work. The art is the thing.

“Dylan Moore, on a Cyfrwng conference panel in 2012, was pressed as to the reasons for which he wrote. His response was succinct: to continue the work, to illuminate the context, to see connections. Most of all it is to engage in that most human and civilising of activities; it is conversation.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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