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On Criticism & Critics

A Critical Retrospective 2012- June 2019 , Years of Critical Commentary , November 30, 2023
On Criticism & Critics by A Critical Retrospective 2012- June 2019 A Guide, part 1, to the sequence “On Criticism & Critics” below:

14 March 2019 In Defence of Criticism

“The payroll for public relations is many times for 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.”

“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 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.”

* * * *

28 February 2019 Wales Arts Review 2nd Critics Round Table

...the culture of profusion or, more rightly, the illusion of profusion...A surface of profusion conceals a spectrum of narrowness.

Trollope on critics: “When making their assertions they have given their reasons, explained their causes, and have carried conviction,’ he writes. Their accomplishment, he goes on, is ‘not without infinite study and the labour of many years.’

But a critical response that circles around ‘fab’ and ‘brilliant’ is thin gruel. Again 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.’

* * * *

22 January 2019 At Wales Arts Review 2nd Critics Round Table

“Criticism matters. It matters for particular reasons, of which three come to the fore. Although they are distinct they share an element in common. They all tend to inattention, inattention to the work itself.”

“Crucial for us” says Michael McCarthy of Music Theatre Wales in a public forum at the Critics Round Table. Boswell caught Doctor Johnson on the topic when they journeyed together to the Hebrides in October 1773. “A man who tells me my play is very bad”, opines the Doctor, “is less my enemy than he who lets it die in silence.” When Anthony Trollope received his first review he reveals in his autobiography that he read it so many times he could quote the whole of it in its entirety.

* * * *

19 January 2019 John Caird on how directors should view critics

Cultures, like individuals, are revealed by their fissures.

Peter Brook: “A critic has a far more important role, an essential one, in fact, for an art without critics would be constantly menaced by far greater dangers...our relations with critics may be strained in a superficial sense: but in a deeper one the relationship is absolutely necessary...the critic is part of the whole.”

Steve Marmion: “Rightly or wrongly, reviews are the measure of how a show will be judged or remembered by those who were not there. And more often than not, reviewers are right.”

“By and large, they are an intelligent and professional tribe. They have their likes and dislikes just as you do, their prejudices, preferences and peccadilloes. But if you consider any of them as being beyond the pale, consider your own likes and dislikes…

* * * *

January 2019 Letter to an aspiring writer for theatre

“Be a person who is more than a writer. The best writers for theatre have been doctors, actors, architects, journalists, psychologists, tree surgeons, theatre producers. If you become an auditor, a games developer, an undertaker you will see in a matter of a few years enough of love, cruelty, greed, folly, ambition, moral compromise to sustain you for decades.

“Spend a winter on a sheep farm and you will learn more of death and loss, politics and money than any course will teach you. No writer has ever emerged from the life of a groupie around a theatre or an intern in a media company.

“Go to performances. But keep one eye on the audience. When theatre works it has an extraordinary curative effect on snuffles and coughs, wriggles and shuffling feet. See what works.

“Learn to love and respect actors. They are the vessel for your words. They may at times irk you. They may at times exasperate you. But more often than not they will astonish and astound you.

“Talk to a molecular biologist and look down an electron microscope. Interview your local minister or vicar. They will see the world in a way that is sharply different, in a way that is not yours.

* * * *

07 January 2019 Writing reviews for 140 months

“By contrast the Cardiff-Newport axis of the time bore small resemblance to now. There was no theatre to astound taking place in the gondola of the Transporter Bridge. The Sherman at its lowest ebb was pulling in 20 people on a Saturday night. The Millennium Centre was not the producer it has evolved into. There was no Other Room. Aberystwyth by contrast was an epicentre for performance, not just the Arts Centre itself but the still-doughty Arad Goch, Centre for Performance Research, Bold Theatre and all the fusions of professional-community productions. Taron Egerton was just one of the young talents to be seen.

“So too, to be have been there, a watcher of performance of Wales, is to have had the heart raised.

* * * *

24 December 2018 The Cambridge Guide to Performance Studies

“It cannot sit comfortably with the social sciences. They are, as the title says, sciences. Their method is based on rigour, experimental design and practice on a foundation of statistical discipline. These methods are not applicable to criticism because performance remains an aesthetic phenomenon.”

“Attendance at performance is a sensorial and not just an upper cortical activity. It really is the almond and the seahorse. An evaluative approach that avoids this is lacking in fullness.”

“Theatre, no longer needing to be a mirror to society and realistic, a job better done on a global scale by television, has now developed into an art form in which the theatre space becomes the exhibiting gallery, its audiences an informed few.”

Whether this is a widely held view among the scholars of theatre is known only to themselves.”

* * * *

19 December 2018 What directors expect from critics

Kate Wasserberg: "Whether they like my show or not, to feel a critic has truly “seen” my work is very valuable to me."

Rachel O'Riordan: "Critics are important. What we expect of them is to be able to judge each piece of work on merit, in context and without bias...The really important thing to remember is that critics are writing for audiences; so they are an interpreter of the work they see for them- not for you. As a director, it can be easy to forget that."

Erica Eirian: ““I expect critics to come to our work with open minds and a discerning eye and to respond to our work with constructive, insightful judgements rooted in knowledge and experience expressed with lucidity in reviews which give aesthetic pleasure to the reader.

“The critic’s responsibility is to the audience, not to the artist. As a director I expect more than a free marketing tool and more than just a personal opinion. I expect well written, informed, considered and honest reviews which place our work in a context and provoke thought and debate around our work. Only if we have a robust critical culture can we expect a robust theatre culture.”

* * * *

17 December 2018 A O Scott “Better Living Through Criticism”

“Criticism”, at least in the view of Scott, “far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood.” It is “not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name-the proper name- for the defence of art itself.”

We are a long way from the notion of a review. Scott sees a commonality in motive. Both art and criticism originate in “the urge to master and add something to reality”, their wellspring the “transformation of awe into understanding.”

* * * *

08 January 2018 London & Wales' critics diverge on “Tiger Bay”

We were not seeing the same theatre. I was reminded of a visit to Dublin's Abbey Theatre for an O'Casey. The play, like “Tiger Bay”, played out in the streets all around the theatre. It was obvious that my view could not be that of the Irish audience around me. Similarly, the London critic and I were seeing the same production at the Millennium Centre but not experiencing it in the same way.

The London critics have depth and writing skills beyond any in Wales. But they are visitors. When an event took place on the Watkin Path the review for Planet Magazine was written by a critic who was also a farmer. Her view ought to be the definitive one but probably is not.

Theatre that plays only to Welsh writers lacks rigour. Theatre that plays only to Fleet Street lacks roots.

* * * *

20 December 2016 Twenty-five years of Theatre-Wales

There are hardly any print journals standing. Those of Wales are dead men walking, too many of them, with circulations struggling to reach four figures.

Art of worth deserves attention and there is no medium more subtle, complex, emotional and expressive than language.

* * * *

03 August 2016 Sion Jobbins' sparkling essays

Jobbins is ever the punchy essayist. His trawl across the national differences embraces not just neeps and Irn-Bru but law and media. “They have proper grown-up media and press” is how he phrases it with provocation. .

He quotes from a study “Why Nations Fail.” Success is the result of good management of a state- “the policies they take, not geography, not topography, not climate, not culture.”

Jobbins comes up against a “particularly useless and lazy civil servant…backed up by a dire report from the Cardiff Business School.” The whole world admires Edinburgh- it looks the part of a capital. In Cardiff Bay Jobbins sees “a heartless Slough-by-Sea.” The city itself “looks like a second division English provincial city- Nottingham, Reading- and acts like one. It has less international traction than Reykjavik, which is a slightly bigger version of Carmarthen.”

* * * *

11 March 2016 Peter Lord Speaking on “the Tradition” at the National Museum

His hour long talk entails a criticism of criticism. Lord mixes cogency, structure, energy and enthusiasm. He is quite correct. The present dips in and out of history to meet its own concerns. The past is perpetually up for grabs.

Yet tradition, in Lord's telling, is a story that culture devises to relate to itself. Hence the paradox of a movable history that shifts as the zeitgeist amends it. The notion that Wales was unable to sustain an ecology of painters and patrons is “a historical nonsense.” A tradition becomes itself in the telling.

A philosopher, J R Jones, has aided his thinking, as has his experience of the politics of Wales. “Working within Wales in the aftermath of the debacle of the devolution referendum of 1979, it seemed to me that the absence of such institutional and intellectual validation of our own cultural product was among the root causes of our psychological dependency that the referendum result signified.”

His career took on a purpose that was avowedly political “I felt that I could contribute to encouraging the psychological shift necessary to secure political movement by working in the field of art history.” A Keeper of Art at the National Museum spies him and enquires what Lord might be up to. Well” he says on learning”there's no rubbish like your own rubbish, is there?”

* * * *

29 August 2013 Tributes on the retirement of Philip French

From cinema Martin Scorsese: He never just described what was on screen, but provided the whole background, reading into the director's intention and so forth…. Whenever I read Philip French's elegant and thoughtful criticism, I felt like I was in the company of someone who not only loved cinema but who felt a sense of responsibility toward it as an art's nice to be appreciated. But it's genuinely heartening, and rare, to be understood.”

* * * *

20 December 2013 Nine Things I Like as a Reader of Criticism

Praise that is informed and expands/ Elaboration not dismissal/ Concision & compression/ Wit & playfulness/ Insight & getting to the essential/ An eye and an ear for the telling detail/ Depth/ Distinctiveness & personality/ Skewering bias and falsity

* * * *

03 September 2013 The cull of professional arts writers continues

At their peak of employment two thousand cartoonists worked full-time in the American newspaper industry. The number now is forty. The wholesale dismissal of its entire arts staff by the Independent on Sunday prompted a Guardian article, not the first, on 22nd August “Are critics and bloggers on the same side?”

“Arts journalism is, when done well, an art in itself but an art with a very valuable purpose beyond the aesthetic for it allows those of us with experience and knowledge to scream to the high heavens about which shows and performers the public should be seeing (or avoiding) and - most importantly – why.”

* * * *

04 July 2013 Peter Lord “Relationship with Pictures”

Lord locates Wales too in the most Bloomsbury of utterances on art. Clive Bell may intone that ‘Only artists and educated people of extraordinary sensibility and some savages and children feel the significance of form so acutely that they know how things look.’ This particular critic had his extraordinary sensibility honed at Marlborough and Trinity, Cambridge. Bell’s access to these ruminative pastures has been helped, Lord notes, by the family’s extraordinary sensibility to acquire ownership of coal mines in Neath and Merthyr.

* * * *

20 November 2012 Critics Round Table

Rebecca West declared her simple reason for writing: “I write books to find out about things.” In his 1982 play “A Map of the World” David Hare gave his Naipaul-like character Victor Mehta a similar line: “I write in order to find out what I believe.”

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 then the only arbiters of value are the box office and the phone-in.”

Criticism is engagement, context, insight, description and concern.

If it is doing its job political art is about “exposing a deeper feeling about how power works. It opens up connections in the world in a way we had not seen before.”

BBC Wales operates in a wholly criticism-free zone.

* * * *

10 June 2012 Gary Raymond & Dylan Moore create “the Raconteur: America”

“The best of critical writing is a spur to action. “America” made me want to find out why Gore Vidal disliked Updike's “Rabbit” trilogy quite so much. It made me want to discover Allegra Goodman, to blow the dust off travel-worn copies of “Herzog” and “the Bonfire of the Vanities, to seek out Poe and “Moby Dick”. For a book to overflow with enthusiasm; that is no small thing.”

07 October 2011 Critical Gathering in Cardiff

“All praise then to National Theatre of Wales, management and Board alike, for generating their cluster of commentators...The writers from Wales see the work here through a different lens from the writers from London. The London critics possess their far greater awareness of theatre in England and elsewhere.

But they will not see theatre that inhabits a Pembrokeshire farm, a Valleys ‘Stute, or a Gwynedd coastal town with the same layer of experience and familiarity.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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