Culture without Debate: A Welsh Malaise?

Culture without Debate: A Welsh Malaise?

Leading on from the first part of this series on Welsh critical culture, Gary Raymond writes that in order to achieve greatness Wales must look forward and outwards, not backwards and inwards, must reinvigorate its poor critical attitude to culture (and with it society and politics), and must discard the establishment’s continual mawkish attempts to define it.

If it’s a strong, vibrant, healthy democracy you’re after, it surely follows that the participants must be strong, vibrant and healthy in order to fully take part. In matters of the mind education, experience, empathy, are the bedrocks of such a place. As I laid out in part one, Wales has a strain of history like few other places where the empowerment of the working classes focused exactly on these matters. But with libraries going, and a government that follows conservative ideas rather than lives up to this tradition, Wales is no longer that place.

So what place is it? It is still fiercely pride-full. But so much of this pride seems to be from looking at our past. I would argue we take pride in our past rather than our present (or even our promise) because, as a people, we lack to the correct tools (and platforms) that allow us to effectively engage with what is going on around us.

Is it unfounded to suggest that there is an attempt to brainwash people whilst also making them believe they are empowered? This is the essence of consumerism, isn’t it? Well, as if the word “elite” wasn’t dirty enough, then let us look at this idea of “stock responses”. The truth is, there is a need for strongly refined responses to the arts and society, and these can be attuned by the critic, the expert. Remember that the role of the critic is not to tell you what to think, but is to challenge your ideas – give you the opportunity to reassess, to change your mind, to strengthen your position.

“At any time certain incomplete adjustments, certain immature and inapplicable attitudes, can be fixed into formulas and widely suggested and diffused,” writes Raymond Williams. He goes on to quote literary critic and scholar (and Dan Richards‘ great uncle) I.A. Richards at length:

The losses incurred by these artificial fixations of attitudes are evident. Through them the average adult is worse, not better adjusted to the possibilities of his existence than the child. He is even in the most important things functionally unable to face facts; do what he will he is only able to face fictions, fictions projected by his own stock responses. Against these stock responses the artist’s internal and external conflicts are fought, and with them popular writer’s triumphs are made.

If half the members of an audience cry whilst watching a play about cancer, or, say, the Great War, this does not necessarily mean that play is any good, but it can mean that cancer and the Great War are inherently emotive subjects and those members of the audience may have known this, but never been in such fixed proximity to it before. The performing arts, to keep with this example, is riddled with the pressures to manipulate the emotions of an audience. Television has seeped into theatre, and the use of music to guide an audience to a tear is a prime example of this. Whilst the audience wipes away their tears it is down to the critic to shout out that theatre should make us grow, not have us Pavlov’s salivating dog applauding the ringing bell.

Would it be fair to raise the debate that perhaps – just perhaps – consumers of the “cultural products” in Wales are not as sophisticated as they could be? I am not saying this is the case, but I am asking if we wanted to debate this, where would we do it?

Let me see if we can approach this another way…

The Model Country

Put the case that we know of a country, a country impoverished, let down, neglected, a country dragging itself to its feet and trying to find its place in the world. If you were to walk from coast to coast in this country you could involve yourself in any number of conversations with a native people who delight in discussing ideas of identity. Everyone seems to have an idea of why the country matters. For the sake of ease, we’ll call this country New Wales. Now take some words; words such as “decline”, “investment”, “regeneration”, “industry”, “pride”, “rugby”, “struggle”, “Shirley Bassey”, “Tom Jones”, “Nye Bevan”, “Dragons”, “Thatcher”, “Daffodils”, “Sheep”. These words will form the cultural language of New Wales; the crayons with which New Wales’ national spokespeople will colour the daily bread.

Try not to confuse this with Old Wales, because this is New Wales, a very different place.

New Wales has a national media, it has a national newspaper, has its own government, universities, businesses, movie stars. But New Wales has no direction, its leaders talk in soundbites, in doublespeak. New Wales has yet to come to terms with a real identity.

But now imagine this. What if inside this country, puffed up as it is by windbaggery, there is rattling about in it a community of thinkers, creative minds, pro-active people with passionate social consciences, people who strive to explore the notions put before them, who are interested in finding out what it means to be a human (not just Welsh, but human). These people put themselves on the line. They write books, they make theatre, they paint and sculpt and sing and write symphonies and they each take a square inch of the land and scatter their ideas, ideas from which every single person has the potential to grow in some way. Just imagine what could be achieved with these people.

And then ignore them.

New Wales, of course, is a mantra, and not a country at all. The country I live in – plain old Wales – has, since devolution in 1999, lost its identity rather than modernised the one it already had. It spends millions of pounds on Dylan Thomas or Roald Dahl bypassing investment into artists that are alive and, by that very fact, more relevant. Ken Skates’ portfolio covers (among a litany of other things) arts and tourism, and the dominating culture of ideas seems to seek only how art can serve the tourism. What place has mature debate in a branding mission? The Dylan Thomas case is imperative, because the celebrations all across the land in 2015 were predominantly about a brand not a poet, and New Wales is a brand. The mantra is that flimsy.

A nation must be interesting to thrive. That much is obvious. A country that condemns its creative figures never lasts much longer than the despot at its head. So a nation must be interesting, and if it is to be noticed, it must also be honest. And here begins the thing. Wales has never – never – enjoyed the artistic excellence currently ongoing across all the art forms. It has the potential to be the beginnings of a golden age. How do I know Wales has never seen an age of creative excellence like this before? Well, because there is no evidence of it.

Art, culture, cannot survive inside a vacuum. If Wales has had periods of vibrant cultural critical debate, Wales Arts Review was founded with an ambition to address a contemporary wasteland. We live in a country with a single national newspaper that has no serious interest in arts and culture, a few literary journals read by numbers dwindling from numbers that were never impressive to begin with, national television and radio services that too often get celebrity confused with excellence, and an online community of bloggers, “critics” and “reviewers” who had, admirably, taken it upon themselves to write about the arts but with no real guidance and no way of building an audience. There were and are many examples specked across the landscape of people with talent, insight, professionals with genuine passion and expertise. But they have been spread thinly and very poorly served.

The Last Forty Years

There are two lasting impressions that must stick with any attentive reader of Professor Malcolm Ballin’s exhaustive exploration into the history of the Welsh cultural magazine, Welsh Periodicals in English 1882-2012 (University of Wales Press, 2012). The first is that in the last forty years Wales has produced magazines that have been, on the whole, culturally conservative. There have been exceptions, but these have been either very rare, or peripheral. The landscape of arts and cultural criticism in Wales has been almost entirely acclamatory, or to use Ballin’s own words: “The magazines have sometimes seemed to avoid controversy and reviewing has often appeared bland.” It is worth noting that when controversy has come about it has mostly been tribal, Nationalists versus internationalists, North versus South etc. All of which is of little relevance to a wider audience.

The second impression from Professor Ballin’s book can be summed up in the quote from an editorial from the Spring 1971 edition of long-defunct North Walian magazine Mabon: “…in Wales it would be difficult to make up a Literature Committee if all those writers who had received subsidies in one way or another were to be excluded.” One result of this has been that “the funding bodies have generated and maintained a narrow definition of what is cultural, artistic or creative,” Ballin writes. The insinuation here, of course, is that public subsidy must compromise healthy critical debate. Ballin cannot help but keep coming back to the fact the Welsh literary establishment is a small one, and so this toothless tradition of conservative “praise criticism” has been somewhat inevitable. The tone of the book in this respect is rather defeatist.

I asked Professor Ballin about this (quite some time ago). “There is a tendency for the… reviews to be maybe over-generous,” he said. “There are very few negative pieces. It is a small country and there are intimate connections between those with a literary bent”.

There have been striking moments that have kicked against this pattern. Most notably Peter Finch’s Second Aeon which, in the 1970s was fiercely anti-establishment, right up until the establishment offered Finch a job and the magazine was closed down. The second was Robert Minhinnick’s editorship of Poetry Wales in the ‘90s. Minhinnick, in Ballin’s book at least, comes across as perhaps one of the few truly visionary intellects to ever edit one of the three mainstream subsidised magazines of the last forty years. His emphasis on experimentalism and non-parochial attitudes means that Poetry Wales remains to this day the only Welsh cultural magazine with a truly international reputation.

For everyone else, however, when it comes to the cultural criticism of the Welsh journal, it is very much a story of close nit communities of writers, the “same old faces” writing about parochial subjects often with no reach beyond the halls of academia that house them. For the wider public, these are for the main anonymous journals, at best viewed as industry magazines, written by writers about writers for writers. Belinda Humfrey’s call to arms in her first editorial for New Welsh Review in 1988, to break free from the “inbreeding”, has gone largely ignored. What critical landscape there has been in Wales, it seems, has been cloistered, inextricably and fatally linked to academic institutions, with significant members of the arts community forming a tortoise shell around the art, the intellectual property, and inevitably the public purse.

But of course nobody is pretending that a more open and honest culture in the editorial offices of literary journals would change the fortunes of any nation’s crises of either confidence or identity. The BBC and ITV Wales are both letting the side down, too, and to much greater effect – although I know many people in these organisations with burning passion for the arts. It seems cultural criticism, outside of the obligations set out by the Royal Charter, do not spike the saliva glands of most commissioning officers. Feed the stock responses is the mantra there.

So Ballin’s book, the only formidable text on the subject, written with an admirably detached voice, suggests one over-arching truth: the medium by which other nations have developed their critical thinkers – the review journal – since their birth in the late 1700s, has been, overall, kept in the tight embrace of the few and, most significantly, for the few.

I asked Professor Ballin what the implication of this closed community was for Welsh literature? “I do think you are right,” he said, “that the absence of a more bracing atmosphere hinders the pursuit of excellence, let alone ‘greatness’.”

Now that is damning.