Making Enemies

The Gentle Art of Making Enemies

(original artwork by Dean Lewis)

‘We pass as a rule from a chaotic to a better organized state by ways which we know nothing about. Typically through the influence of other minds. Literature and the arts are the chief means by which these influences are diffused. It should be unnecessary to insist upon the degree to which high civilisation, in other words, free varied unwasteful life, depends on them in a numerous society.’ (I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism, 1924)

 

‘Nobody knows exactly why birds sing as much as they do. What is certain is that they don’t sing to deceive themselves or others. They sing to announce themselves as they are. Compared to the transparency of birdsong, our talk is opaque because we are obliged to search for the truth instead of being it.’ (John Berger, ‘A Load of Shit’, 1989)

 

For a land that can claim one of the fathers of cultural criticism, Raymond Williams, as one of its sons, Wales seems somewhat unprepared for the rigours of what that discipline could bring to the table in our own public discourse. For too long now the immaturity of a ‘team Wales’ ideology, and the insincerity of the isolated, testudo of the arts establishment, has held Wales back rather than propelled it forward. Wales deserves better.

For three years, Wales Arts Review has been a vibrant hub for arts criticism and debate, but in this new era we will be consciously moving to what we believe to be even more vital ground. Wales Arts Review will endeavour to make quite clear the indelible link between art, culture and society, as did Raymond Williams; we will be working hard to make better the way we understand and interpret the world in which we live.

And I thought the best place to begin is in a clear statement of definition. Not just what is a cultural critic, but what is a cultural critic in this modern age?

The new era for Wales Arts Review begins in a form that is as ancient as the hills, and yet in this internet age, a form that has found a new lease of life: the list.

What Is a Modern Cultural Critic?

  • A cultural critic must endeavour to always think with their heart.

  • A cultural critic must be brave, because being honest is leprosy.

  • A cultural critic must be honest.

  • A cultural critic is a sponge; someone who is always, forever, learning.

  • A cultural critic is not an academic. Lord knows academics are important, but confusing them for cultural critics is a major error. As John Ransom said, ‘it is easy for [an academic]… to spend a lifetime in compiling the data of literature and yet rarely ever commit himself to literary judgment.’ A true academic has a burrowing mentality, whereas a cultural critic is an addict of the fresh air of hilltops.

  • A cultural critic is a person of action and experience. When Orwell wrote on Stendhal he was a man who had retreated from Franco at Barcelona writing about a man who had retreated with Napoleon from Moscow.

  • A cultural critic must, above all else, engage with intellectual empathy.

  • A cultural critic has a dedication to style as well as substance.

  • A cultural critic is an optimist not, as is often the misconception, a cynic. They awake every morning hoping, expecting, to encounter beauty.

  • A cultural critic can be wrong, but never dishonest.

  • A cultural critic looks at art and sees society, sees people, sees humanity; and looks at humanity and sees the endless possibilities that art has to offer.

  • A cultural critic is quite distinct from what John Gross termed, ‘academic experts, mass media commentators, and cultural functionaries’ who he correctly viewed as coming to dominate the landscape back in 1969.

  • A cultural critic works, in one respect, to unpick the dominance in society of stock responses to art and culture.

  • A cultural critic is an iconoclast, but is also an instrument through which a more sophisticated and attuned understanding of the arts can be reached.

  • A cultural critic must surely agree with Susan Sontag that ‘Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art – and in criticism – today.’

  • A cultural critic is allowed to change his or her mind. Baudelaire famously petitioned that the prerogative of self-contradiction be included in the Rights of Man.

  • A cultural critic must believe in craft – in their own work as much as anyone else’s.

  • A cultural critic reads.

  • A cultural critic, especially in the modern age, must not be confused with ‘a reviewer’.

  • A cultural critic must have an essayist for an idol. You can only write great work if you know great work by heart.

  • A cultural critic must use Twitter, but should not confuse this for debate. Remember the last line of Darwin’s Descent of Man: ‘We must however acknowledge, it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.’

  • A cultural critic does not use Facebook, but should not confuse this for avoiding bores.

  • A cultural critic is a socialist, because you have to believe in society in order to understand the culture by which it expresses itself.

  •  A cultural critic must be an internationalist, a lover of all cultures, not just the culture of their own street.

  • A cultural critic is an expert in the kinetics of art and society, not just the scaffolding and statistics.

  • A cultural critic is driven by the ingredients of emotion.

  • A cultural critic must not be immune to hurt, but does need a thick skin.

  • A cultural critic is an expert in fiction; because lying is the most common contemporary currency.

  • A cultural critic is fully versed in all sides of the argument, but knows what is right.

  • A cultural critic believes in entertainment.

  • A cultural critic shares Nabakov’s priorities: ‘We should always remember that a work of art is invariably the creation of a new world. When this world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds.’

  • A cultural critic is a member of an elite, but is not elitist, is not cabalist, does not dwell in an ivory tower, is not interested in esotericism other than in its demolition.

  • A cultural critic must do everything possible to avoid getting wrapped up in a clique. This might be in the halls of an institution, a publication, or in the social circles of an artistic community.

  • A cultural critic must do everything they can not to roll their eyes when someone says to them, ‘But everyone’s a critic nowadays.’

  • A cultural critic must always deal with the matter at hand on its own terms, and so must be an expert in that field, whether that field is the equivalent of a square inch of lawn, or the plains of Africa.

  • A cultural critic must believe that art and society are indelibly linked, and that our greatest chance of creating a better society is by understanding society, and that through art we reach this understanding.

  • A cultural critic, in exceptional circumstances, can break any of these rules apart from the first three.