WHAT IS CRITICISM?

06/08/2009 at 7:49 am 3 comments

5thwall began as a response to the appalling state of arts coverage in the media.  Whether it’s film, theatre or a photography exhibit – as Geoffrey Rush recently lamented in the Herald – Australians would rather read about C-List celebrity sports scandals than find an imaginative report into our thriving arts scene.
It’s high irony that the SMH ran the Geoffrey Rush story on the front page of its website for three days straight – when it’s a prime mover in the very problem Rush is talking about.  The Fairfax reviews are akin to a game of Blankety-Blanks and as for the diversity of the kinds of shows they cover you might as well just subscribe to the STC/Belvoir marketing newsletters and cut out the middle man.  There’s hardly a speck of analysis or contextualisation given and as far as ‘criticism’ goes, so long as Brendan Cowell or that delightful Toby Schmitz is involved you won’t find too many harsh words amongst it.
Not that I believe criticism should simply tear down the work of the artist – far from it – a good critic will see past flaws in the technique and respond to the art itself.  It’s no good to simply write down whether you liked it or not along with a list of reasons why.  To say this play was ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ because of ‘x & y’ is the audience’s right- but for a critic to make that the limit of their work is irresponsible.  It perpetuates the position of authority and immediately shadows any proper positioning of the art in the mind of the viewer. Forgive the expression but that’s just criticism for criticism’s sake.
Lazier still is the tendency for reviewers to trot out the plotlines for the work they have seen.  This wretched practice spits in the face of every artist or writer who slaved over a line of dialogue or piece of mise-en-scene to bring powerful stories into being. Sandra Hall recently wrote a very positive piece on the Australian release Cedar Boys. The review itself was encouraging for the cast and crew involved, although offered little insight other than glancing descriptions of things that happen in the story.  Disgracefully – she proceeded to include in the review a blow by blow account of the first act turning point.  Which – if you have seen you will know is very carefully set up by the writer/director to turn the film on its head.  If you hadn’t seen it and you read that review – this key moment won’t be surprising when you do.
So in the face of marked media indifference to a vibrant arts scene this tiny chink of light we call 5thwall is born – to bring back proper arts discussion unhindered by marketing interests and call to account the insipid cultural gatekeeping of the media at large.

5THWALL is a response to the appalling state of arts coverage in the Sydney media.  Whether it’s film, theatre, photography or installation – as Geoffrey Rush recently lamented in the Sydney Morning Herald – Australians would rather read about celebrities & sports scandals than our arts scene. A quick glance at the mainstream press and you might think the NRL holds more complexity & cultural significance than, say VIVID or Sydney Festival First Night. This may or may not be true but the level of coverage is way out of proportion. Sport is more popular because our sports journos actually offer insight and analysis. The sporting meal has a meaty bite while arts journalism, by comparison offers a thin gruel.  Little wonder there’s noone chewing the fat.

It’s high irony that the Geoffrey Rush story ran  on the front page of the SMH website for three days straight – when it’s a prime mover in the very problem Rush is talking about.  The Fairfax reviews are akin to a game of Blankety-Blanks and as for the diversity of the kinds of shows they cover you might as well just subscribe to the STC/Belvoir marketing newsletters and cut out the middle man.  Oh there is the occasional independent show reviewed – but nothing like the dozens of productions held in Sydney each year.  Put on an indy show in Sydney and see how far you get trying to get an SMH reviewer to turn up for free tickets and booze? Despite the fact that it’s their job to know about this stuff – not likely.

For the mainstage reviews that do get published, there’s hardly a speck of analysis given and as far as ‘criticism’ goes, so long as Brendan Cowell or that delightful Toby Schmitz is involved you won’t find too many harsh words amongst it. Not that I believe criticism should simply tear down the work of the artist – far from it – a good critic will see past flaws in the technique and respond to the art itself.  It’s no good to simply write down whether you liked it along with a list of reasons why.   To say this play was ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ because of ‘x & y’ is the audience’s right- but for a critic to make that the limit of their work is irresponsible.

It perpetuates a position of authority – as if only the select few can decide what constitutes good art.  This age old technique of self-aggrandisement thoroughly defeats the purpose of conversation through art and immediately shadows any proper positioning of the work in the mind of the viewer. Forgive the expression but that’s just criticism for criticism’s sake.

Lazier still is the tendency for reviews to trot out the storylines for the work in lieu of anything interesting to say.  This wretched practice spits in the face of every artist or writer who slaved over a line of dialogue or piece of mise-en-scene to bring powerful stories into being. Sandra Hall recently wrote a piece on the Australian release Cedar Boys. The review itself was  very positive and encouraging for the cast and crew involved, although offered little insight other than glancing descriptions of things that happen in the story.

Disgracefully – she proceeded to include a detailed account of the first act turning point.  If you have seen it you will know this is very carefully set up by the writer/director to up the stakes and turn the film on its head.  If you hadn’t seen it and you read that review – this key moment simply won’t be surprising when you do.  It’s all very well to encourage people see an emerging director’s work – but giving away key plot points undermines the dedication of cast and crew you have made such a big deal over. Why not use the review space to carefully dissect cultural significance of such a film – engage the audience’s appetite for new work without encroaching on their enjoyment or surprise?

Simply put – it’s lazy writing.  Very little research or analysis, just general descriptions of what you can expect to see and hear.  This isn’t criticism, it’s not conversational and it certainly doesn’t do justice to the diverse arts movement across Sydney and Australia in the 21st Century.  So in the face of marked media indifference to a vibrant arts scene this tiny chink of light we call 5thwall is born – to bring back proper arts discussion unhindered by marketing interests and call to account the insipid cultural gatekeeping of the media at large.

Enjoy.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bernard  |  18/08/2009 at 6:03 pm

    Very well put out.
    I generally don’t like to read reviews of films I’ve yet to see as a lot of reviews do reveal some plot. Heck, even my own reviews do. But I’m no critic and I feel that my own analysis of a film is through my filmmaker (or lack of) eye.

    Can’t wait to see what else you’ll be writing.

    Reply
  • 2. George  |  09/01/2010 at 12:19 pm

    Once I read a largely negative review of a small film, which ended on a joke regarding something diacovered in the last five minutes of the film. Having not seen the film yet I was furious that the reviewer decided to simply ignore the artistic value of the film and concentrate on making fun of it as much as possible. That ended up being my favourite film of 2008.

    Reply
    • 3. anvildrops  |  10/01/2010 at 12:07 pm

      who was it??? these people will never learn unless they are publicly humiliated. name & shame, baby

      Reply

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