Gary Raymond argues that as a civilisation our future salvation lies in a focus on the lessons art can reveal, and how the role of the cultural critic in hosting and facilitating debate will be vital to that salvation, particularly in the impoverished nation of Wales.
In 1975, Gore Vidal opened his annual Esquire essay, “The State of the Union”, with a bemoaning of the criticism he comes in for from certain members of the public whenever he offers his opinion on television. The criticism in this case focuses on the fact he was commentator on the United States whilst residing in Italy, but at the base of these ad hominem is a familiar trope – who are you to tell us our business? If Vidal were a thirty-something writer alive now he may or may not have been active on social media, but his obvious tiresome reaction to intellectually unworthy adversaries would have surely meant he wouldn’t have stuck around on there long had he given Twitter a go. There seems little point in going over the fact that we live in a world now where facts and truth have little currency – (I should say “Western World”, lest we forget how privileged we have been in global terms to have taken “public truth” for granted for so long). Part of the problem of the modern world is the intensity of the din. As humanness undergoes its greatest and perhaps swiftest physical and psychological evolution in its history, we must come to terms with the fact it is cultural thinkers, and not economic commentators, that are going to save us come the apocalypse. It is time to admit that we must as individuals take the responsibility to understand our environment, society and civilisation at a deeper level than we currently do, because in every direction, systems are not only failing us, but they are abandoning us. We must fundamentally comprehend the foundation on which these increasingly facile systems – politics, media, law – were built. We must understand who we are.
So, if I am right about this – and I am certain that I am – why are you wasting your time reading an arts journal when you could be building a bunker and teaching your children to use a crossbow?
The best weapon, I would suggest, is equipping people with the tools to understand their own environment. And not within the parameters of a nationalist argument either. Culture has never been so borderless – evidenced in the red-faced anger of the attempts to re-establish the comforting barbs of cultural borders. By doing this, the United Kingdom would not have voted in favour of Brexit, as the phantom of immigration would have been relegated to the position it deserves. Trump would not be president of the United States, as it is very unlikely that with a fuller understanding of their own country and its problems, the Electoral College would not be in sway to voters with similar fears and hatreds.
And who must a nation look to, then, to provide these tools? Unfortunately, in the UK, the erstwhile most dependent media outlet, the BBC, treats Nigel Farage as a national guru rather than a man who has failed to win election to parliament seven times. In the United States, American media gave Donald Trump two billion dollars of free advertising during his primary election campaign. The tools now – and in fact always have done – lie in the arts. It is the arts that teach us who we are, where we are, and can inform us of the best place to go next. Allow the news media and the politicians to continue their merry dance (which I am sure ends up in nightly orgies). Even since before Aristotle said it, the arts has been where our salvation lies.
And that’s all very well, but what is the arts when pushed and pressed into a vacuum? Well, that is what the cultural critic is for. (You see where I’m going with this now, don’t you?)
Some readers may immediately have questioned the term “cultural critic” in place of “art critic”. Well, this is because the term “art critic” will no longer do. “No longer” in the sense that we must return to an understanding of why art is so important to civic health, and the vital role the cultural critic plays in maintaining this health. A people must know itself, and art is the conversation. “Art critic” secludes the “art”. The 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.
Let’s talk about Wales, that “small and impoverished” nation where Wales Arts Review resides (but is not restricted to). It is, after all, a strong case study when looking how this vital element of civic society can be allowed to slip away. Wales is a place where the slipping has been most profound, because there are few places on earth where historically the idea of the non-academic, non-privileged intellectual has been most exercised. But the monuments to the working class intellectuals crumble all around us. The community libraries that “gave us power” are legendary in more way than one. We will talk about how here the ‘arts critic’ has come to be seen – when seen at all – as little more than the erstwhile pre-Jamie Oliver-revolution school dinner lady, sloshing up the slops, a figure held with no respect as, frankly, they are not to be trusted with your sustenance.
“But everyone’s a critic nowadays,” you hear.
To be a critic, expertise is needed, style, drive, optimism and, of course, critical faculties. Perhaps people are less and less interested in the well-crafted arguments of the “man of letters”, the breed that Thomas Carlyle labelled “our most important modern person”. But as John Gross pointed out convincingly in his 1969 book on this subject, “instead of men of letters, there are academic experts, mass media commentators, and cultural functionaries.” The cultural commentary we see, where it does exist, is part of the circus, never a genuine attempt to debate, or to offer anything more than swift superficial insight for a quick pay check.
Where would we be, for instance, without the responsible critic to tell us that Downton Abbey is propagandist hogwash, and that it is low-grade televisual manipulation of the senses, rather than art? We would be participants in a mass Ludovico experiment, that’s where, and Downton Abbey would be winning awards and acclaim and being sold around the world as a vision of excellence.
Oh dear. Let’s move on.
Let us now recognise one of the founding fathers of cultural criticism, a figure still revered across the world: Raymond Williams. Of course it is ironic that he hails from a nation that no longer seems to pay much heed to its significance. But it seems right we look to him for the most incisive and enlightening of definitions.
To Williams, art, in essence, is not only a response to the world from the artists, but it is an interpretation of the world, even if only in symbolic or elusory terms.
As Williams wrote in 1958,
With the increase in population the problem presented by the gulf between what is preferred by the majority and what is accepted as excellent by the most qualified opinion has become infinitely more serious and appears likely to become threatening in the near future. For many reasons standards are much more in need of defence than they used to be.
The trend that Williams identifies here has become more pronounced, particularly in the last forty years, with the globalised corporatisation of creative endeavour of all kinds. Art solely for the purposes of entertainment, and entertainment solely for the purposes of capital gain is the only language the mainstream media now understands.
To take BBC Wales for instance: rare is the arts and culture story that has not been slipped under the producer’s nose disguised as an economics story.
Around a hundred years before Williams wrote the above quote, the “Greatest Victorian” Thomas Carlyle talked about the need for an elite, a band of writers and thinkers who were ultimately invested in the business of cultural criticism and would defend standards of cultural excellence. Carlyle understood the connection between the strength of a nation and its ability for its people to engage in critical debate. This critical debate needs to be broad and deep and introduced to everyone. Without the elite that Carlyle envisaged, the very fabric of society is in trouble. Raymond Williams agreed with this.
And it is capitalism that is largely to blame for this neglect of excellence. The slathering push for profit inevitably drives down standards, because “profit” is El Dorado, and lives – nay, entire civilisations – can be sacrificed in its pursuit. Capitalism trades solely in the need for despondent dissatisfaction with not only the individual’s circumstances, but also through the misrepresentation of the world as a place that can be improved with accumulation of physical items. Art, frequently – constantly – explores the realm away from this base response provided by Capitalist propaganda. When Capitalism subsumes art, it degrades it. By protecting the standards, by involving people in these standards, a country is ready to thrive, not have its population walk solemnly into the sausage-maker.
Williams goes on to suggest that culture is an alternative to anarchy, but here I disagree; I think that culture and the protection of it is an alternative to servitude.