In the final episode of Julian Barnes’ 1989 book, The History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, titled ‘The Dream’, the protagonist finds himself in a Heaven, his every desire catered for by a dedicated celestial personal assistant. Perhaps predictably, the protagonist spends some time working his way through the fantasies his time on earth would not or could not accommodate. He sleeps with women, those whom he had known and those further beyond his reach. He takes the opportunity to meet his heroes, and then to encounter history’s giants. After what must be aeons in this timeless domain, he turns to his assistant and declares that he is bored; he has done everything he could ever have wanted to do, and much more besides. He has climbed every mountain and sailed every sea. What’s next? His assistant takes him to a heavenly cleric to answer this question. His options are two: he can either cease to exist (he isn’t so sure of this pathway) or he can read every book ever written. The people who read books, he is told, are the ones who tend to last the longest in Heaven. The protagonist asks what happens after that? Well, says the cleric, once you have spent the ages reading every book ever written, then you get to spend even longer discussing those books with the others who have lasted that long. You can take forever arguing about books, he is told.
It is perhaps worth thinking of this parable whenever the question that sits atop this essay makes it into a conversation. The consumers of literature inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, or at least inhabit its pubs and coffee dens.
If art, if writing literature, is talking to yourself, then criticism is a conversation with whomever you like; your best friend, your greatest enemy, the girl you never got or the girl you’re grateful to have ended up with. I’ve never met a writer I’ve liked whose top-of-the-list conversation topic is their own work. We swirl around books, around plays and paintings, in them and out of them, as writers. And we never write anything that impresses us more than something somebody else has written. We always want to write the story that another person has nabbed and nailed. Every writer fell in love with art before they wrote their first sentence, before they decided it was literature for them.
The great critics of art and culture are almost always practitioners first and foremost, and all the best practitioners are consumers of the art of others before they are drawn to the blank page themselves. In short, we are all readers, be it of books or images or soundscapes, and it is never satisfying to keep these experiences to ourselves. If we read to know we are not alone, as CS Lewis famously said, then we write for similar reasons, and we write criticism because it is the next step on from discursiveness; it is the purest form of debate, crystallised passion.
Critics are not journalists, (although they are often mistaken for journalists by artists, the public, and, often, by actual journalists). Critics are not outsiders, they are not those who cannot; they are the artists, the thinkers, who trawl through the embers while the firestarters are asleep. Criticism is a conversation, and the places where criticism is published are the dark oaky pubs, the bohemian coffee houses, the late night wine-singed debates around the dinner tables; they are the places that host the best conversations you have ever had, ever wanted to have, or one day hope to.
‘Criticism’, that label we give the speech of the engaged artisan committed to paper, is simply an extension of the purest connection that we, as humans, have with our creative processes. When Jean Genet was locked in his French prison he began to collect small pieces of brown scrap paper, on which he wrote, in pencil, the whole of Our Lady of the Flowers, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. He did so because of the need to do so, the need to be part of the eternal conversation. When a prison guard found the writings he burned them. Genet started again, and recreated the novel, knowing it would never be read, never be published, and would no doubt be burned again. (It was published in 1951 and duly banned). What is the need to have this conversation with the page? Is it obsessional? Is it insanity? Or is it the thing that keeps us sane? The eternal conversation, whatever, is the thing.
Critics have had a hand in changing things just as the artists have. Susan Sontag is as important to photography for her 1977 book On Photography as any of the great photo journalists who preceded it. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing changed not only the way people look at paintings, but altered the way art is taught in universities. Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson, rival theatre critics at the Observer and Sunday Times respectively, found an unlikely union of outlook when they marked the profound genius of Waiting for Godot for a confused and disgruntled public when Beckett’s masterpiece came to London in 1955. The reviews changed theatre, they made the world realise that Beckett was a major figure, and Beckett, as we all know, changed everything.
Tynan, who rarely wrote about his craft as a critic, did once write a response to the publication of a collection of essays by American critic Theodore L Shaw (author of such companionable titles as War on Critics and The Hypocrisy of Criticism). Tynan, arguably the finest theatre critic of the twentieth century, wrote,
What counts is not their [critics’] opinion, but the art with which it is expressed. They differ from the novelist only in that they take as their subject-matter life rehearsed, instead of life unrehearsed. The subtlest and best-informed of men will still be a bad critic if his style is bad. It is irrelevant whether his opinion is ‘right or ‘wrong’: I learn more from George Bernard Shaw when he is wrong than I do from Clement Strong when he is right.
And here is the weight behind the blade:-
The true critic cares little for the here and now. The last thing he bothers about is the man who will read him first. His real rendezvous is with posterity. His review is a letter addressed to the future.
In Iron in the Soul, a novel in which the main character is an artist and critic, Sartre wrote that the business of a critic is ‘to know what other men have thought.’ This may seem obvious, but it is true on many levels. ‘An art critic,’ he writes, ‘is not paid to spend his time worrying about the imperfect colour-sense of wild grass.’ I suppose there are many other imperfections to consider. Any art can only be truly valued if it is evaluated. I was asked on a radio show recently, ‘Isn’t everybody a critic?’ Well of course everybody’s a critic. But not everybody is a Critic.
So what is a Critic? A Critic is insatiable. A Critic is the most generous of egoists. A Critic is elitist but welcoming with it. A Critic takes things seriously, sometimes too-seriously, but also has a broad sense of humour, always cocked. A Critic is just as ready to raise their arms as they are their nose. A Critic is often yearning for that moment of profundity. The Critic, after all, is doing this in the hope of enlightenment, in the hope of becoming a better person. The same reason why anybody else experiences art. When New York art critic Clement Greenberg said, ‘Art criticism is about the most ungrateful form of elevated writing I know of,’ he was not being self-effacing, but was displaying all of the above traits. A Critic can be ungrateful, abrasive, vindictive, snappy, cold, isolated, bloated, flag-waving, attention-seeking, cruel, perverse, rabble-rousing and many other ugly things; but to be unengaged is No Man’s Land. To be ill-informed, under-informed, lazy, is the wilderness with no end. To play at being a Critic does nobody any good, least of all the player. So well-crafted wrongness is worthy, whereas piffle is a waste of everybody’s time.
In Wales at the moment, we are at the verge of something. The arts are awakening. And history shows us that these things do not happen without a vibrant critical culture being a part of it. What cannot be part of the conversation is the trend for regurgitated press releases, fan bits, and (a new word for me) ‘advertorials’ – commercial promotions structured and coloured to masquerade as the words of a genuinely impressed journalist. We are, of course, in an era of squeezed middles and pushed down tops, but these are mere excuses when sterner stuff is needed. A Critic does not exist to help ticket sales.
Does Wales have a strong history of cultural criticism? I don’t know; I’m not a historian of such things. But I do know its current health. It is refilling its veins with some potent stuff. There is a rumble, the type most commonly associated with the coming of a storm; the filing cabinet rattling moments before the earthquake. The arts in Wales are about to enter an unprecedented era of creative excellence, a seismic movement that will provide a significant platform that is visible way beyond the borders Wales has held on to so dearly for so long. It cannot happen without criticism and criticism of the highest calibre. It cannot happen without passion, intellectualism, elitism. It will not happen with star ratings (a fishing line designed specifically to catch the smallest fish), advertorials or soft porn in the margins. Great criticism is as important as the art that inspires it and the Critic is the writer who cannot give up the conversation.
Wales is a country filled with talent; with serious-minded practitioners of the arts. And the country is too small for us all to crawl over one another doffing our caps as we pass on Escher’s stairwell. May we have permission from whoever is in charge to respectfully move on from Dylan Thomas? May we take the opportunity to perhaps introduce this great country to the outside world as a place not filled with sombre preachers and drunken cherubs? We have the talent. But it can only be achieved with that critical culture as a part of it. We need to fire the canons, we need to shed these puerile ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and announce to the world that Welsh art – its literature, its theatre, its painting and sculpting and circuses and music and cinema – it is a conversation you’ll want to join in with. Spinoza said that man’s duty, when surveying the world, ‘was neither to laugh nor to weep, but to understand.’ Now is the time to nail that above the doorway.
A Critic is an investor into a culture. As artists we invest in the culture of Wales, not latch onto it; we are working to build it, to brighten it, and to make other nations envious of us. We are part of the global community now. Wales may have had a difficult time in recognising this, having spent so long splitting its energies between introspection and hating the English. If I may use a personal example to make a point: I have never felt particularly Welsh. It is my blood, part of my ancestry, but culturally it has never been under my skin. Blame it a little on being born and brought up in Newport, the town treated as the child neither parent wanted in the divorce. Blame it on whatever you like. But in the last two years I have not only begun to feel Welsh, but it is the first time I have ever recognised myself as having any identity outside of my personality. The emblematic reason for this is my editorship of Wales Arts Review. It is culture that makes a country and Wales Arts Review has introduced me to mine. It has helped me realise that Welsh art is art just like anywhere else: human, stained with the colours of the culture it sprouts out from. I now realise that Wales is a part of the world I travelled when young and continue to explore now less young. Wales is not sombre preachers and drunken cherubs, and Tolstoy and Tennessee Williams and Beckett and Alban Berg are as much ours as they are anyone else’s. Wales is a remarkable country; embattled always, but beautiful always too. At its heart are music and poetry and socialism – the most important things the human creature has ever mined from the cosmos. The eternal conversation is the thing, and you are mistaken if you don’t think Wales deserves a part in it.
On November 1st, at Wales Arts Review’s biennial Critics’ Roundtable, Gary Raymond will sit on a panel chaired by editor of CCQ Magazine Emma Geliot, titled ‘What is the Future of Arts Criticism in Wales?’ Also appearing on the panel will be Jasper Rees (Editor, The Arts Desk), Simon Harris (playwright, director and producer), and Nia Davies (Editor, Poetry Wales).
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis