Theatre in Wales

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Criticism: A Precondition For Creativity

On Criticism & Critics

More Criticism Needed , The Arts of Wales , October 10, 2019
On Criticism & Critics by More Criticism Needed John Carey ends his 2005 book “What Good Are the Arts?” with a championing of language over other forms of representation. He is correct on one count. Although eighty percent-plus of the upper cortex is devoted to visual processing the bulk of visual images lacks qualities that a well-wrought paragraph can achieve. Words contain overtone in context with each other. Music, which is the most direct and emotional of arts, cannot do irony or puns. Language can.

Writing on culture and other public policy contains overtone. “Partnership” is a regular, and it sounds nice. Empirically partnership in the domestic setting works; but in the office it is no guarantor of effectiveness. Institutions and organisations are more likely to be effective when a top team is driven and single-minded. It is tough for partnerships to be tough-minded. This is not opinion but statistically verifiable.

Conversely “critic” sounds nasty. When Vladimir and Estragon trade insults Beckett has “critic” attached to “cretin”, which is after all only a few letters away. There are jokes a-plenty at the expense of critics, even an entire play written about one. Alan Bennett talked of the eunuchs in the harem. They may only watch what they cannot do themselves. It is not entirely true. Nicholas de Jongh penned quite a decent play. Edmund Wilson's “Memoirs of Hecate County” written seventy years ago reads well today. Conversely the legacy of Updike includes two thousand pages of acute critical writing across literature and painting.

The Arts Council of Wales is ring-master in a culture where the market is insufficient. It has its counter-parts across all the small-population nations that form the European Union's periphery. As a statutory body it has a public sector culture. We expect solidity, regularity, good process. And it does not think critics are nasty.

In fact the polar opposite is true. Its quality document- to which its beneficiary organisations are beholden- is quite clear. “Strive to Excel” from 2015 states obligations on companies in the publicly funded sphere. On page 8 companies must “actively elicit feedback and critical review.”

The authors are cognisant of the second law of thermodynamics. The law has featured on this site, in the review of Mr and Mrs Clark's “Smash It Up”, 11th March 2016. All systems are subject to entropy, the diminishing loss of energy, and arts companies are systems no less than any other. Entropy, the measure of the amount of disorder in a system, is curtailed via negative feedback. Negative feedback, acting as a governor, is the process in which a change moderates its own cause. It returns a system to a stable state.

The ACW quality framework requires that its artists do this not with a weary heart but be actually “keen to receive different kinds of feedback.”

Be it a craft or a minor art criticism receives small airing in the intellectual life of Wales. Beti George chaired a panel at a conference of Cyfrwng in Swansea in July 2012. She launched the session with a quotation “Criticism in Wales is in a state of sickness.” Geraint Ellis, with a background in S4C, added “we're a small country, and it's not easy.” Ed Thomas picked up this echo with “A minority culture is defensive and it’s easy to be defensive from one perspective.”

Among the publications Wales Arts Review has been a lone voice in championing criticism and with much gusto. Dai Smith featured, 30th May 2013, to speak on what he called the “intellectual ecology of Wales.” His is a pungent piece that deserves to be read in full. This excerpt gives the tone.

“Public Intellectuals have, too often, been seen as Public Inconveniences in Wales. By which I mean that we are often frightened or cowed into silence by the cosy nonsense that promotes the Idea of Team Wales or attempts to issue Brand Identities centred on spurious notions of Celticism or hands out badges for linguistic Good Behaviour.

“Cultural criticism would be a threat, an exposure of the comfort Welsh blanket with which we are so ready to drape ourselves, all cwtched-up and myopic in the hold-tight, don’t-let-go arms of Mam. I think there are, indeed, cultural reasons for our relative impoverishment...a lack of such essential figures, as Cultural Critics or Public Intellectuals, to a country’s well-being as a functioning Democracy in a broader sense.”

Back to the Cyfrwng conference in Swansea in 2012. Dylan Moore provided a nice coda for his own writing- “an engaged conversation, a re-presentation of the work.” Geraint Ellis was adamant: “Every healthy culture needs a healthy criticism.”

Dai Smith, cited with thanks, may be read in full at:

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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