‘The Critic in New Zealand’ by Rosabel Tan
“The only way to save a rhinoceros is to save the environment in which it lives, because there’s a mutual dependency between it and millions of other species of both animals and plants.”
— David Attenborough, BBC Interview
Early in his career, Wystan Curnow was invited to give a lecture on what it meant to be a critic. “But that presented certain difficulties,” he later wrote in the Bulletin of New Zealand Art History. “For instance, I was not sure I was one.”
It was 1974 and Curnow was working at the University of Auckland’s English department. He was, by definition of his employment, regularly engaged in the business of literary criticism, but he had avoided being a critic of books by New Zealand writers. As for his other interests, he conceded he might be considered an art critic. “At least,” he wrote, “if a dozen or so notes and brief essays published over a period of fifteen years in magazines all but one of which are now defunct makes one an art critic in New Zealand.” Ruefully, he concluded, it seemed it did.
Like many others before and after him, Curnow’s hesitation stemmed from the occupational versatility our country demands from its creative practitioners. Because of how small our population is, the market for any art form is prematurely capped and its growth is precariously stunted, economically and artistically. Industries have to be propped up by public funding and philanthropy, and being able to specialise as a writer or an artist or a musician becomes either a unique luxury or a financially risky lifestyle choice.
Because of this risk, artists often end up expanding their talents horizontally, whether they want to or not. It’s remarkably and sometimes advantageously easy to do in a country with so many shoes to fill. We see musicians who are also teachers who are also music writers who are also promoters. We see actors who are also publicists who are also producers who are also casting agents. We see the rise of the cultural ambassador: people who – rather than honing a specific craft – hone the skills of an entire industry. Like plants, we grow in the direction of the sun, but here the sun shines with a hazy, erratic glow.
To be a critic in New Zealand is to be a kind of weed. It’s easy to be one, but the space you occupy is contentious and you probably wouldn’t be missed. To many, you are – by definition – simply “hindering the growth of superior vegetation… unprofitable, troublesome… noxious”.
The sentiment is hardly new. The work of a critic has never been stable and the value of that work will always be contested. For readers, this is because everybody has a basic competence: anybody can read, or sit in a theatre, or look at a painting. Anybody can respond to an experience. This is, by definition, precisely what it means to be a reader, a listener, a member of the audience.
But not everybody is a critic. Which is to say: not everybody is always ready to be the ideal reader, and not everybody will respond thoughtfully, empathetically, and with a broader consideration of the socio-political and cultural landscape within which a work may sit. And even then: not everybody who does this is worth reading.
There’s also a perplexing idea that critics need to prove their authority through practice. Geoff Dyer highlights the paradox in an essay on Susan Sontag’s novels. “She couldn’t meet [novelists] on equal terms simply as a critic,” he writes. Instead she had to write fiction and, despite being a lousy storyteller, claimed to value her fiction more than her criticism because the former legitimised the latter. The novels allowed her to say “that the magisterial pronouncement about literature was a side-effect of having produced it.”
We don’t expect this from any other kind of writer. We don’t expect political commentators to have practised politics, or sports writers to have played the game at any meaningful level. It’s this problematic standard of legitimacy that’s contributed to the recent, postmodernist surge in personal essays and singular responses to art. There’s no grand truth and, besides, it’s easier to present your own than claiming any other kind.
Through the course of reading, I wanted to revisit the nagging question of what the purpose of public criticism was and whether that purpose was still being served, or whether it was being better served elsewhere.
It’s worth making some distinctions at this point. There are public critics, who write for the general population, and academics, who write for each other. There are reviews, which are written for an audience who haven’t yet seen the play, read the book, or listened to the album, and there is criticism, which is for audiences who have. This latter distinction is carefully made in virtually every book on criticism, but in New Zealand it hardly matters because often they’re one and the same.
Three years ago, some friends and I started work on an arts and culture website that we inadvisably named The Pantograph Punch. I’d just returned to Auckland from Wellington, where I’d been working on a short story collection, and was spending my weekdays in a sterile, windowless office on the third floor of a medical research centre. I told people I felt more productive in a city that made me unhappy, but what I didn’t say was that I’d freaked. Having clambered down from the seven-year safety net of academia (in which I had bounced hungrily from English to clinical psychology to marketing to creative writing) I’d experienced the crippling anxiety of being a twenty-something with no clear direction and had run straight back to school under the guise of a salary. But I wanted to keep writing, and one of the forms of writing that felt the most important to me at the time – particularly in a city that made you work so hard to love being there – was criticism.
Without ever realising, I’ve spent my whole life trying to convince others of the value of art. As a twelve-year-old, it was my parents, who wouldn’t let me go to auditions because it interfered with school. As a psychology student, it was my supervisor, who’d been initially reluctant to let me do my Master’s thesis on the psychological benefits of fiction because it was uncharted territory and so a risky gambit. Now, as a researcher for arts organisations, my entire job revolves around helping galleries, museums, theatre companies and orchestras to convince the wider public of their worth.
Criticism serves this missionary role, and I think it’s true that many critics are guided by something more abstract than the creative impulse. They’re driven by an agenda that’s rooted in the conviction in the power of art and the belief that we can be better – as artists, as humans, as a society. Lionel Trilling – one of the great New York Intellectuals – saw it as a force for social change. “In interpreting the work,” James Ley writes in The Critic in the Modern World, “Trilling seeks to make use of it, inviting the consideration of broad contextualising questions on the assumption that literature cannot help but be concerned with something more than itself.”
Above anything else, the critic understands that while art can disturb or shock, the conversation that surrounds it should always support – not the artist, nor their work, but art’s own beating heart.
In the case of reviews, it’s not the only thing they do. They’re also an archival document, a consumer guide, but the most important thing is still the way it encourages and elevates our experience. Take Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s Perfumes, a book that did far more than change the way I thought about scent – since, in truth, I had hardly thought about it at all. Perfumes were revealed to be complicated, flat, cheerful and pale. They were physical (“boiled kale”), aural (“hissy sage”) and unsettlingly atmospheric (“the haunting, outdoors witchiness of tall pines leaning into the night”). Some were fully-formed personalities, like Oud 27’s raunchy “wet-hair note” that “behaves as if it’s been interrupted in midaction, hastily buttons up, and acts natural thereafter, nonchalantly pretending to be a woody fragrance.” But Turin’s best work is when he abandons metaphor and unpicks the actual mechanisms of perfume:
Many, indeed most, fragrances create in one’s mind an impression of a solid surface, or a succession thereof, fading into each other as the fragrance dries, as in a slide show. [Secret de Rochas Oud Mystère], right from the start, gives a beguiling impression of a space in which one enters wondering what is behind the next corner.
This task – of explicating, encouraging, elevating, supporting – is getting harder. It’s not just because it’s difficult to make a living as a critic, though this is a hard truth (there’s little financial incentive to do it, and in many cases there’s none at all). It’s not just because your repertoire of work inevitably expands far beyond this role, leaving you with less time and opportunity to develop. It’s because we’ve stopped expecting it. Worse, we’re suffocating it.
There are certain ways we’re doing this that are global in nature. The first is the issue of space. One of the best theatre critics in this country is only allowed 300 words per review. It’s a neat challenge and a (dishearteningly) normal restriction for a mainstream print publication, but it’s barely enough to include a description of the show, let alone to support a deeper conversation.
Second is the matter of urgency. Cultural doomsayers say the internet is damaging criticism – they say unpaid work undermines the value of that work and the ease at which anybody can contribute an opinion is degrading the quality of the conversation – but both of these problems, though they have their short-term complications, will hopefully have a positive effect. More voices mean more conversations, and over time, greater nuances.
What won’t have this effect – and it’s a problem being perpetuated by traditional and emerging establishments alike – is the emerging culture of immediacy. Kermode observes in Hatchet Job how the shift online saw the systematic destabilising of traditional media outlets, resulting in a broader crisis of journalism. But the difficulty with online media was never simply that it exists; it’s that its rapid evolution was accompanied by a panicked financial imperative that upset the balance of power, especially in countries like New Zealand where the size of the market made organisations susceptible to small changes in readership and revenue.
Some publications chose not to go online – this came with its own pitfalls – while the ones that did were confronted with the idea that their continued existence depended on having to balance traditional values (like telling the news) with the pursuit of maximum clicks. This meant providing news as it happened and it meant doing it in ways that would interest or entertain the masses. It’s understandable to some extent, but for some perverse reason the mentality of breaking the news bled into the arts pages, with reviews popping up overnight or even earlier.
Reviews, or criticism – or anything else, for that matter – cannot be written thoughtfully and quickly. And while there’s value in publishing a review while the a play is still on or the movie is still playing, there’s questionable value in publishing one just hours after seeing a show, without the benefit of time to reflect and build on what you’ve seen. The only person an instant review serves is the publicist, yet it’s a trend that’s gaining momentum with bewildering popularity, to the point where people are brazenly and unapologetically writing book and film reviews without having even read the book or seen the film (Frank Bacon, who has reviewed for People and Loaded, apparently bragged in his 2013 memoir that he hadn’t watched many of the films he’d covered).
This problem of immediacy is heightened in the performing arts because you’re capturing a moment in history. If you don’t write about it, who will? The review’s archival function takes on new significance, and it does so in a tiny community. Not only do you have to save history, but you have to do it without stepping on anyone’s toes: it’s not uncommon for artists to respond to bad reviews with threats of physical violence or cries of ignorance and disloyalty – and this becomes complicated when you consider that many of our critics are working alongside these same artists in other capacities. None of this helps anybody. Because of this blurry occupational distance, and because of the perceived importance of recording the impermanent, we’ve managed to amass swathes of archival puff pieces like our very own cultural fatberg.
A good theatre review (let alone criticism) is a rare treat. Reading the rest evokes the same pain as making small talk with someone you used to love: everything that once shifted your centre of gravity is still there, but it’s been paved over by polite and descriptive banalities. Ultimately, while critics shouldn’t tell us how to think, they should illuminate new ways of seeing. We want them to be invisible, but we’re making them ineffectual. We are, in essence, killing the conversation.
It’s not the critical impulse that’s at risk of extinction. We’re with no shortage of smart and passionate thinkers in this country. The complex and perplexing challenge is how we foster this in an environment that threatens to suppress it: how we can encourage a necessary part of art’s ecology to thrive. Some of this will lie in recognising these constraints and disassembling them where we can, having fun with them where we can’t, and subverting them where it’s possible. Another part will be much simpler, and will involve reminding each other why critics exist. The century-old perception that their relationship to art is parasitic continues to persist, despite the fact that the relationship is more accurately mutualistic. Critics are gut flora. They’re art’s forgotten organ. We can survive without them, but it’ll only make us weaker.
 The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary On Historical Principles.