Theatre in Wales

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Truth-telling Polemic with a Sizzle

Summing It Up

The Fragility of Criticism , the Culture of Wales , March 8, 2020
Summing It Up by The Fragility of Criticism This site has recorded on and off over the years comments on the condition of critical life. Hazel Walford Davies on public platforms described it as being in a state of sickness. Jon Gower spoke of theatre criticism at the level of “thank you so much for putting this production on for us.” The state-supported journals nudge in and out of arts criticism; more often than not the writing is solipsism or stodge, sometimes both.

I do not do polemic. I do observation, or at least flatter myself that I do. But I enjoy polemic. But it is goes beyond that. Polemic enlivens us. Robert Hughes' legacy in art writing is worth more than a gross of Casaubons. The culture of Wales in Wales is bereft of satire. Paradoxically it occurs but we have to go to the Waterloo Vaults or Edinburgh to see it.

Audiences and critics alike adored “How to Win Against History.” The Nexus in Cardiff has most likely never seen it. If anyone had, most likely they would have hated it; it offends the spirit of good cheer and puritanism. The years of devolution have seen one spat between an artist and authority. The weight of the Party-Government-Council descended at speed and stamped it out.

Gary Raymond contributed an article on 20th January 2017. “Culture without Debate: A Welsh Malaise?” It is 2070 words in length with the link below. Its essence is:

“The truth is, there is a need for strongly refined responses to the arts and society, and these can be attuned by the critic, the expert. Remember that the role of the critic is not to tell you what to think, but is to challenge your ideas – give you the opportunity to reassess, to change your mind, to strengthen your position.”

On Wales old and new he has a word to say about government:

“The country I live in – plain old Wales – has, since devolution in 1999, lost its identity rather than modernised the one it already had. It spends millions of pounds on Dylan Thomas or Roald Dahl bypassing investment into artists that are alive and, by that very fact, more relevant. Ken Skates’ portfolio covers (among a litany of other things) arts and tourism, and the dominating culture of ideas seems to seek only how art can serve the tourism. What place has mature debate in a branding mission? The Dylan Thomas case is imperative, because the celebrations all across the land in 2015 were predominantly about a brand not a poet, and New Wales is a brand.”

“A nation must be interesting to thrive. That much is obvious. A country that condemns its creative figures never lasts much longer than the despot at its head. So a nation must be interesting, and if it is to be noticed, it must also be honest. And here begins the thing. Wales has never – never – enjoyed the artistic excellence currently ongoing across all the art forms. It has the potential to be the beginnings of a golden age. How do I know Wales has never seen an age of creative excellence like this before? Well, because there is no evidence of it.”

And as for the ecology of comment:

“Art, culture, cannot survive inside a vacuum. If Wales has had periods of vibrant cultural critical debate, Wales Arts Review was founded with an ambition to address a contemporary wasteland. We live in a country with a single national newspaper that has no serious interest in arts and culture, a few literary journals read by numbers dwindling from numbers that were never impressive to begin with, national television and radio services that too often get celebrity confused with excellence, and an online community of bloggers, “critics” and “reviewers” who had, admirably, taken it upon themselves to write about the arts but with no real guidance and no way of building an audience.

“There were and are many examples specked across the landscape of people with talent, insight, professionals with genuine passion and expertise. But they have been spread thinly and very poorly served.”

Raymond turns to Professor Malcolm Ballin’s history of Welsh cultural magazines, “Welsh Periodicals in English 1882-2012”, University of Wales Press, 2012.

“The first is that in the last forty years Wales has produced magazines that have been, on the whole, culturally conservative. There have been exceptions, but these have been either very rare, or peripheral. The landscape of arts and cultural criticism in Wales has been almost entirely acclamatory, or to use Ballin’s own words:

“The magazines have sometimes seemed to avoid controversy and reviewing has often appeared bland.” It is worth noting that when controversy has come about it has mostly been tribal, Nationalists versus internationalists, North versus South etc. All of which is of little relevance to a wider audience.”

“The second impression from Professor Ballin’s book can be summed up in the quote from an editorial from the Spring 1971 edition of long-defunct North Walian magazine Mabon: “…in Wales it would be difficult to make up a Literature Committee if all those writers who had received subsidies in one way or another were to be excluded.”

“One result of this has been that “the funding bodies have generated and maintained a narrow definition of what is cultural, artistic or creative,” Ballin writes. The insinuation here, of course, is that public subsidy must compromise healthy critical debate. Ballin cannot help but keep coming back to the fact the Welsh literary establishment is a small one, and so this toothless tradition of conservative “praise criticism” has been somewhat inevitable. The tone of the book in this respect is rather defeatist.

Friendship is beyond value but corrosive to culture:

“I asked Professor Ballin about this (quite some time ago). “There is a tendency for the… reviews to be maybe over-generous,” he said. “There are very few negative pieces. It is a small country and there are intimate connections between those with a literary bent”.

“What critical landscape there has been in Wales, it seems, has been cloistered, inextricably and fatally linked to academic institutions, with significant members of the arts community forming a tortoise shell around the art, the intellectual property, and inevitably the public purse.”

“So Ballin’s book, the only formidable text on the subject, written with an admirably detached voice, suggests one over-arching truth: the medium by which other nations have developed their critical thinkers – the review journal – since their birth in the late 1700s, has been, overall, kept in the tight embrace of the few and, most significantly, for the few.

“I asked Professor Ballin what the implication of this closed community was for Welsh literature? “I do think you are right,” he said, “that the absence of a more bracing atmosphere hinders the pursuit of excellence, let alone ‘greatness’.”

https://www.walesartsreview.org/comment-the-state-of-welsh-critical-culture/

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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