Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Critical Life in 2024: the Shrinkage Accelerates

On Criticism & Critics

Changes & Enlivening Commentary , Arts and Literature of Wales , July 11, 2024
On Criticism & Critics by Changes & Enlivening Commentary The sequence “On Criticism & Critics” is made up up of public events, books, tributes and commentary across twelve years. Guides to the articles can be read in the first two links below.

Four themes occur and re-occur.

“Culture is a place where societies speak to themselves.” (4th December 2020).

Critical writing is not a response to culture. It is part of culture, it is innate to its ecology. Feedback is engagement is participation. A O Scott is cited 17 December 2018:

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

Art and criticism share a common wellspring: “the urge to master and add something to reality...the transformation of awe into understanding.”

* * * *

Criticism is shrinking. At one level the language of commentary is under assault. “Why should people be interested in something that’s dressed up in a language they don’t find easy to understand?” The digital world is one of profusion and fragmentation. Local journalism has gone and is irrecoverable.

Criticism is context. “Hindsight is connected to insight. No art- like no human being- is born bereft of context. “Always connect” indeed, and connection is crucial to criticism.” (17 December 2019.)

"Critics move across four levels. They home in on the detail. They know their aesthetics intimately, confident in their judgements on form, content, meaning, expression. They have facts at their finger-tips: the life, love, money, or the lack of both, the context of history, the critical climate. And they yoke the first three to personal response. Jejune critical writing, that is swamped with the words “I” and “me”, makes a categorical error. The subjective does not take first place." (1 June 2019).

* * * *

“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.” Dylan Moore: “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.”

“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.’

“Crucial for us” says Michael McCarthy of Music Theatre Wales in a public forum at the Critics Round Table.” Peter Brook: “an art without critics would be constantly menaced by far greater dangers...the relationship is absolutely necessary...the critic is part of the whole.”

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.”

“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.

* * * *

Doctor Johnson wrote: “A man who tells me my play is very bad is less my enemy than he who lets it die in silence.”

In 2024 the zones of silence grew.

A gathering of farewell took place at the Coopers Arms in Aberystwyth on 29th June. Writers, board members and editors were there to mark the ending of Planet Magazine. Planet Magazine was editorially stretched. Its politics were sedate. Its coverage of the visual arts had once been broad. Its coverage of the performing was limited but it sustained a broad coverage of the literary scene.

The magazine Planet has closed before, from 1979-1985. The parent company, Berw Ltd, is dormant but has not been wound up. It is without debt and retains its full intellectual property rights.

With the last issue of Planet done the writers of Wales will experience a greater likelihood of receiving no reviews at all.

Former editor, and guiding presence in the writing of Wales, John Barnie signed off:

“funding bodies...act as social engineers, shaping culture themselves through the disbursement of grants to “approved”, which is, to say, fashionable causes.” That is a calm observation of truth.

* * * *

So too Wales Arts Review ended after twelve years. The Review delivered its view on the Books Council of Wales.

“We will not be seeking a renewal of the core funding from the Books Council of Wales, the funding that keeps us afloat.

“...The English language magazine sector in Wales is dying. (The Welsh language sector… not so much). The Books Council of Wales, for whatever reason, and however you perceive its motivations, is facilitating that death.

“It does this while standing behind the façade that the English language magazine funding review, which takes place over the next few months, is in place to support English language magazines. But its funding model for the sector is out-of-date and inadequate, lacking in vision, creativity, and the energy required to navigate a throttled sector through suffocating times.

“The model has needed radical overhaul and rethinking, when in reality not so much as a comma has moved in five years turbulent years. It is a woefully neglected area of publishing in Wales, which in itself is a field that is sadly underserved by the body that should be fighting for it.

“The status quo, as offered to English language magazines this year, will kill us has become increasingly clear that I cannot allow Wales Arts Review to wither and die in the cradle of the Books Council’s apathy.

“...Through its inaction and inertia, BCW is creating a graveyard and calling it a symposium; and in the embracing of this graveyard the organisation that should be looking after the English language magazine sector in Wales has dammed it to a zombified existence.”

As elsewhere in the culture of Wales the Books Council of Wales holds charitable status. As elsewhere in the culture of Wales the trustees are not in conformance with their organisation's governing document.

The full article may be read at:

* * * *

“The Review Show is a new monthly discussion about the arts in Wales, using the tried and tested roundtable format of shows like The Saturday Review on Radio 4.”

Thus Gary Raymond and John Lavin in the Lonely Crowd.

“...I think it also stands as a marker for a change in attitude from BBC Wales to the way arts is covered here. I was given a very clear brief, and it was to deliver a serious, thoughtful, engaged, but accessible show about the arts... Serious and accessible. Discussion that is worth listening to for it’s own sake, whether you have any interest in the subject or not.”

It was not to last. The overlords at BBC Cymru Wales used their authority to tilt it towards television. The reviewers were not funded to travel. Thus the absurdity of reviews of artwork with the critics prohibited from seeing physical colour or brushwork. Nonetheless, while it lasted, it brightened greatly the critical landscape.

It has been binned now. In place of theatre criticism the audience gets interviews from participants. There is the consumer interest and the producer interest. The broadcaster in Cardiff diverges from its counterpart in Scotland. The organisational culture, long reported on from experts like Laura McAllister and others, is as it is.


* * * *

The one critical upturn has been the migration of Gary Raymond to his substack platform. The language is sparky. It may not have the grace of the rolling hexameter to it but it has some life.

“In CEO Jane Richardson, Museum Wales has a very sharp operator. She is media-savvy, and even more importantly, evidence now suggests she understands social media and she understands the Welsh in a way that matters.”

“The penny has dropped that Welsh culture is being squeezed to extinction by a government that has never really shown it much respect in the first place. The publishing industry has been kicked in the guts, the performing arts landscape has been flame-throwered, the Arts Council is a ghost ship, National Theatre Wales is a dead company walking, and this has largely been ignored by the wider Welsherati.”,

“Newly crowned First Minister Vaughan Gething showed his sensitive side when he said in his first presser since being handed the sceptre and orb that the National Museum would not only have to fight its own way out of this particular paper bag, but that he defended the cuts.”

“...the brilliant Sonya Douglas when she was disgracefully cancelled from the Arts Council-funded Critically Speaking podcast for refusing to giver her pronouns at the head of the interview. In the last six or seven years, freedom of speech has become a contentious issue...”

“As for my critical integrity; I don’t get paid enough for my integrity ever to be threatened. And as for values? I think “values” are currently things that are talked about far more than they are displayed. I think (I hope) the values of Wales Arts Review have been apparent the whole time. And perhaps if anyone cares to look, mine are too.”

* * * *

This season has seen the Minister unveil a strategy for culture, a draft for which she invites response. It is testament to the unique quality of governance in the Bay.

Sterility, banality and a lack of responsibility course equally through it.

It yearns for a reply that a critical culture would give. A critical culture cares. The deadly document is evidence of an ethos that does not.

All quotations from:

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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