So you want to be an arts reviewer? Peter Holland and Wystan Curnow share their insights into the role of the arts critic. Auckland Writers Festival 2015, 15 May, Lower NZI Room.
As a sometime music and theatre reviewer I signed myself up for Auckland Writers Festival session The Role of the Critic, hoping to learn some practical reviewing techniques. Although I felt more as though I was eavesdropping on a conversation between Shakespeare critic Peter Holland and local art critic Wystan Curnow than gaining hard-hitting insights, I did pick up five useful tips. You can find the tips, and my notes from the session, below.
Tips for good arts criticism
Pantograph Punch editor Rosabel Tan hosted the session and posed a series of questions to the critics. I have rather bluntly paraphrased their answers below - they are to be read as notes rather than as direct quotes.
What should good criticism achieve?
Wystan: The critic is a mediator between the artist and the audience. The critic should see themselves as an exemplary viewer. The function of the critic is to postpone value judgment, because the value judgment closes the discussion. I seek to write about what I admire the most. Moving from something seen and experienced to something written is a particular kind of translation.
Peter: Good criticism seeks to understand the object before making a value judgment. Being open to the artwork is sometimes the toughest part of the assignment.
Who is criticism for?
Wystan: For the critic, the audience, and for history.
Peter: There is a duty to record for history, and to conjure up what’s worth remembering about an ephemeral art form. A review or piece of criticism can capture some of the ‘liveness’ and atmosphere of a production in a way that a recording cannot.
Is there a distinction between reviews and criticism?
Wystan: Critics have more scope. When I started out my aim was to get away from reviews whenever I had the opportunity. When I published an essay on art that was 5000 words long it was a real achievement - no one else in New Zealand had done anything like it. Having said that, I admire the talent of writing well to deadline. The other difference is that a critic is already familiar with the artist or the work.
Peter: A reviewer may have to go straight from the theatre and into the radio station or to the computer. They are controlled by urgency. A critic is not at the opening night, writing about it for the next morning. A critic is able to situate the artwork within a wider context.
Is criticism in decline?
Wystan: The situation is rather impoverished, but it won’t necessarily stay that way. I want criticism to be mysterious, thrilling, shocking, surprising, thought-provoking - to add value and make a difference.
Peter: There’s been a curious change. Previously the model was to filter (via a publisher) and then publish. Now the model is to publish and then filter. We all have to do our own filtering to find what’s worth reading. Other than the odd angry note from someone, there hasn’t been a lot of feedback for reviewers until now. Now you have comments threads to read - it holds you to account. Audience members are sharing their own intelligent reading of events.
How do you avoid compromising yourself as a reviewer?
Peter: Your integrity can be skewered when you keep things hidden. For example, Wystan is almost part of Billy Apple’s work, but he has never hidden that. So his integrity is intact. You can also compromise yourself by being out of sympathy with a work. Sometimes it’s not the work’s fault, it’s your fault. There are also moments when you know you got it wrong. With very many great artworks it takes time to appreciate them. I watched Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books three times before I understood how brilliant it was.
What if the work has no redeeming features?
Wystan: I only write specifically and at length about art that I like and that I think matters. I have actually been criticised for not writing about certain artists.
Peter: It’s so easy to be rude. It really doesn’t reflect well on your intelligence - it’s the reviewer showing off, rather than engaging with the work. Instead of being rude, discuss why the artistic decisions haven’t worked.
2023 Burns fellow Kathryn van Beek has an MA from Victoria University Wellington - Te Herenga Waka’s International Institute of Modern Letters. She is a winner of the Mindfood Short Story Competition and the Headland Prize. Her collection of short stories, Pet, is available as a podcast, and her work has also appeared in Overland, takahē, Newsroom, and the Sunday Star-Times. She lives in UNESCO City of Literature Ōtepoti Dunedin with her two rescue cats.