Theatre in Wales

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What is a Critic?

On Criticism & Critics

Criticism Championed , The Culture of Wales , October 13, 2019
On Criticism & Critics by Criticism Championed The articles below, December 19th last year and January 19th this year, cite numerous directors on their expectations of critics.

When it comes to the topic of criticism the arts and letters of Wales have a tendency to lament rather than to advocate. Praise criticism, the puffery of friends, is a strand long deplored, long thought dead and unashamedly resurrected in 2019. The point about praise criticism is not that it occurs, since friendship is highly likely in a small community, but that it takes place without declaration or acknowledgement.

A high point in recent years must have been Planet which published four pages of a laudatory feature of an arts event. It was considered inessential to mention that the author, who found such merit in the company he was writing about, held a seat on its board. Trebles all round, as Private Eye likes to put it.

There have been events, below November 2012 and March 2019, that celebrated criticism. But scouring the output of the last years there is but one rip-roaring piece of writing that champions the critic. Its title is “A Letter Addressed to the Future: What is a Critic?” and it was published 29th May 2013. It is a hefty 2155 words in length with a span of reference to impress: Julian Barnes to Alban Berg by way of Berger, Beckett and a host of others. Its author is Gary Raymond. There is an ethics of authorship, so out of keeping with tradition, I should declare him some kind of friend, albeit we have hardly met more than a half-dozen times or so.

But the article is worth the repeating. Cut to the heart of the argument it includes:

“If art, if writing literature, is talking to yourself, then criticism is a conversation with whomever you like; your best friend, your greatest enemy, the girl you never got or the girl you’re grateful to have ended up with. I’ve never met a writer I’ve liked whose top-of-the-list conversation topic is their own work. We swirl around books, around plays and paintings, in them and out of them, as writers.

“Every writer fell in love with art before they wrote their first sentence, before they decided it was literature for them.

“The great critics of art and culture are almost always practitioners first and foremost, and all the best practitioners are consumers of the art of others before they are drawn to the blank page themselves. In short, we are all readers, be it of books or images or soundscapes, and it is never satisfying to keep these experiences to ourselves. If we read to know we are not alone, as CS Lewis famously said, then we write for similar reasons, and we write criticism because it is the next step on from discursiveness; it is the purest form of debate, crystallised passion.

“Critics are not outsiders, they are not those who cannot; they are the artists, the thinkers, who trawl through the embers while the firestarters are asleep. Criticism is a conversation, and the places where criticism is published are the dark oaky pubs, the bohemian coffee houses, the late night wine-singed debates around the dinner tables; they are the places that host the best conversations you have ever had, ever wanted to have, or one day hope to.

“Criticism’, that label we give the speech of the engaged artisan committed to paper, is simply an extension of the purest connection that we, as humans, have with our creative processes.

“Critics have had a hand in changing things just as the artists have. Susan Sontag is as important to photography for her 1977 book On Photography as any of the great photo journalists who preceded it. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing changed not only the way people look at paintings, but altered the way art is taught in universities.

“Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson, rival theatre critics at the Observer and Sunday Times respectively, found an unlikely union of outlook when they marked the profound genius of Waiting for Godot for a confused and disgruntled public when Beckett’s masterpiece came to London in 1955. The reviews changed theatre, they made the world realise that Beckett was a major figure, and Beckett, as we all know, changed everything.

[Tynan] “The true critic cares little for the here and now. The last thing he [sic] bothers about is the man [sic] who will read him first. His real rendezvous is with posterity. His review is a letter addressed to the future...Any art can only be truly valued if it is evaluated. I was asked on a radio show recently, ‘Isn’t everybody a critic?’ Well of course everybody’s a critic. But not everybody is a Critic.

“So what is a Critic? A Critic is insatiable. A Critic is the most generous of egoists. A Critic is elitist but welcoming with it. A Critic takes things seriously, sometimes too-seriously, but also has a broad sense of humour, always cocked. A Critic is just as ready to raise their arms as they are their nose. A Critic is often yearning for that moment of profundity. The Critic, after all, is doing this in the hope of enlightenment, in the hope of becoming a better person. The same reason why anybody else experiences art.

“A Critic can be ungrateful, abrasive, vindictive, snappy, cold, isolated, bloated, flag-waving, attention-seeking, cruel, perverse, rabble-rousing and many other ugly things; but to be unengaged is No Man’s Land. To be ill-informed, under-informed, lazy, is the wilderness with no end. To play at being a Critic does nobody any good, least of all the player. So well-crafted wrongness is worthy, whereas piffle is a waste of everybody’s time.”

“What cannot be part of the conversation is the trend for regurgitated press releases, fan bits, and (a new word for me) ‘advertorials’ – commercial promotions structured and coloured to masquerade as the words of a genuinely impressed journalist. We are, of course, in an era of squeezed middles and pushed down tops, but these are mere excuses when sterner stuff is needed. A Critic does not exist to help ticket sales.”

“Great criticism is as important as the art that inspires it and the Critic is the writer who cannot give up the conversation.

“We need to shed these puerile ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and announce to the world that Welsh art – its literature, its theatre, its painting and sculpting and circuses and music and cinema – it is a conversation you’ll want to join in with. Spinoza said that man’s duty, when surveying the world, ‘was neither to laugh nor to weep, but to understand.’ Now is the time to nail that above the doorway.

“A Critic is an investor into a culture. As artists we invest in the culture of Wales, not latch onto it; we are working to build it, to brighten it...The eternal conversation is the thing, and you are mistaken if you don’t think Wales deserves a part in it.”

Genet, Greenberg, Tolstoy and Tennessee Williams also feature in the full feature.

It should be read at:

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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