Criticism...again ~ theatre notes

Saturday, April 26, 2008


In today's Australian, art critic Sebastian Smee ponders whether criticism is at all defensible. And confesses that critics "are hobbled by jealousy". (I'm not, believe me - I suspect I enjoy looking at other people's work principally because I want to get away from mine, in the spirit of TS Eliot's observation that "only those with personality know what it means to want to get away from it").

Smee cavils at the thought of criticism playing any kind of educative role, or that it plays any important part in stimulating a culture. Here I'd take issue: without pumping criticism up as more important than it is, it's all too easy to trace the direct effects of a dull, ill-informed critical culture. Or to see what happens when critical responses are more than exercises in establishing some kind of snarky superiority over the reader or the artists. And Smee goes on to remark something I think is crucial, if often more observed in the breach: that criticism ought to be pleasurable to read. And his conclusion is on the money:

Good criticism (and I mean this as an expression of an ideal) should be risky, challenging, candid and vulnerable. It should be urbane one moment, gauchely heartfelt the next. It should kick against cant wherever it sees it, and cherish and applaud not only art but the impulse to make art, for that impulse, which comes out of life as it is lived, is the real mystery, and the source of everything that makes it wonderful.

PS: It seems to be a week for navel-gazing. Andrew Haydon ponders the dwindling British blogosphere and his own changing critical practice - in particular, he pokes the dilemma of "what one does with reviewing the work of people who, by no fault of one's own, one turns out to know to some extent". (I say, simple: be as honest as you can, and use your privileged insight to become a better critic: but then, I would say that...) And across the Atlantic, George Hunka questions utilitarian attitudes towards art, suggesting that "an art of theatre disclaims any responsibility for culture or politics even as it examines most intently cultural and political concerns – its interests are elsewhere." And is steadily posting those meditations he calls Organum, which this week includes the superb art of Paul Cava.


Anonymous said...

I had no idea Smee was leaving The Australian. I wonder where he is going...

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Matt - No idea where Smee is going. But it's a shame: I liked reading his pieces.

Lynden Barber said...

He's going to be an art critic in Boston - not sure of the publication