The heck of a critic: fragment of a debate

Fragments of a debate

I have enjoyed this two-man dialogue on Criticisms. Much as one had been provoked along the line to hop on the wagon, one had held back, preferring to enjoy the romance across the borders. It was such an enlightening session, in spite of some of the ‘suggestives’ that manifested along the way.
But there was something that cropped up – incidentally (or perhaps providentially) by the alien factor to the dialogue -- Mr ‘Lagbaja’.
In the view of Mr Lagbaja, which St***e shared with us, he seemed to be gloating on the idea that the ‘Centre’ is an inviolable space albeit a scared site that is beyond interrogation. He subscribed to the contention that the Pulitzer winner, Jerry, is valueless unless he belongs to the Centre. And instantly I started screaming again:
Why must Jerry give a damn what the Centre represents?
Why must Jerry’s Pulitzer be validated by the Centre before it becomes accepted, even to Jerry and the public that believes in his work?
Why does Jerry need the certification of the Centre before he can gloat in his self-accomplishment?
Who needs the Centre anyway before he can assert himself?
Inevitably, I was drawn to the old endless debate about the notion of the Centre versus he ‘Other’… I refuse to subscribe to the word ‘Periphery’?
The notion of the 'Centre', Ch***a has eventually, graciously redeemed from the bottomless pit of meaninglessness to be ‘Mainstream’.
The notion of the 'Centre' as the determinant of artistic discourse is like a monster that you could conceive in the notion of a ‘Beast of no Essence’ .. . it is one of those amorphous creations of self-preservationists. It always smuggled its caustic head into discourses about art and its role in the society. And whether we like it or not we shall have to always return to it.
The ‘Centre’ was at the centre of one's earlier argument on the question of Criticisms: i.e The Centre, the Mainstream, the General Trend, the Majority, the Normal way, the Accepted Standard, the Status Quo… and the ‘Centre’ has so many siblings that commentators on arts and culture affairs ought to be conscious of. For if you are not conscious of the dangerous possibilities of the notion ‘Centre’, you may not really know when you help to obliterate the cultures of other people or their ‘Being’ in your inadvertent action of pulling them along the path (or script authored) carved by the so-called ‘Centre’ or the ‘Centre-ist’.
The essential of Centre is that it is usually the CREATION of some self-enlightened interests ! Period!
The idea of the Centre itself is dictatorial, autocratic and, in practical terms, a negation of the place of the minority (views, objectives) in the scheme of things; albeit an attempt to foist a central ideology or mode of reasoning on all even if without your consent. Whereas it might work in other professions say law, Accounting, Medicine etc, I believe it is at its very essentials are anti-art, as it’s primarily against the notion of FREEDOM – the very basis of creativity.
I personally have always been preoccupied with the idea of dis-recognising that Centre,
Dismantling it. The battle has become an addiction , especially since the emergence of Okwui Enwenzor as the Artistic Director of Dokumenta XI. The main opposition to Okwui, strange enough and unlike what it would have been expected to be, was not based on the fact he is a gaddem black smooching into the exclusive beat of the whites. It was not because he was an African from a scammy country, Nigeria attempting to bite at the greatest curatorial pie of the West-dominated visual art kingdom.
The opposition -- curious, I say-- was because Okwui was not part of the New York ‘Centre’ of artistic discourse. He had always been outside of it, again not because of the colour of his skin, or his birthplace but by the nature of his contention that art is not a regulate-able venture, and that arts cannot be divorced from its environment of production and manifestation.
Thus surprisingly, rather than the New York visual art runway backing one of them (at least by virtue of his near three decade residency there and as base of his operation) they were the virulent attackers… The fact was they were largely uncomfortable with the reason that an Okwui was coming in to breakdown the protective WALL they had constructed around the beat of art direction and curator-ship.

What has Centre got to do with it. It is that everywhere the Centre is a self-centred, selfish, self-serving, self-indulgent monster which fights daily to ensure that its hold on the general imagination remains firm. Its bid is self-permanency, or self-perpetuation. It is often deadly in insisting on the status quo it has established being sacrosanct. If you challenge it you become an irritant, or worse an outlaw.
You could see the manifestation of ‘Centrerism’ in the determination of the Third Termists of Nigeria to intimidate the oppositions and the stubborn resolve of the ant-Third Termists to shout down the proponents. The basis of it all is intolerance of the opposing views, the attempt to mortgage the right of the ‘other’, or the attempt to impose the Centre’s Will on the Rest of the divide.
It is the perennial and obviously intractable Centre-sation of the human mind that indeed has brought so much tragedy to the human world. People ‘Follow Follow’ as if they too have no sense of their own; like they have no mind that could process an idea and make the right decision that would best serve the interest of their own personal objective.
Centre indeed connotes enslavement to doctrines or objective or truth authored by others. And you would be surprised that it starts from the family level.
So because your father is Catholic, you must be Catholic: He is Anglican, you must be… even if you do not share in the doctrine of that sect. Most often you end up a bad Catholic or Anglican and the supposed objective for which you joined it would have been defeated, then you live the rest of your life in regret and misery; especially if you are so obedient as not to step out of the cage.
If man behaves so slavishly to expectation of others, in what way is he different from the animals in the deep of the forest then. Still wondering why we have great Christians and Muslims who are worse than the devils? Because they live their daily life in abject falsehood, LIES… they exist for the truth of the other people, not for their own truth. The meaning of their life is as had been stencilled by other people… they have no freedom to choose. So they merely exist according to the truth of other people, not by their own self-authored conviction. That is the tragedy I spoke about earlier.
Centre-ness is what you find in such organisations as NBA, ICAN etc. where code of conduct is the God of their professional existence. And it goes beyond the cosmetic aspects of the trade i.e dressence, language of practice, mode of practice.. it also include the notion of inclusiveness. You have to belong to be relevant. That is the dictatorial regime. Thus everything you do as a practising lawyer must conform otherwise you would not be accepted, you will be excluded.
For the art however, greater circumspection is needed in approaching the notion of the Centre.
Art itself is Freedom we have said earlier. It is the process of challenging the existing such as in creating object out of vacuum, creating beauty out of ugliness or vice versa, deploying material and immaterial idea beyond the possibilities already established for them… all of which translates to interrogating what had been.
So you ask, why would Art be subject codes and doctrines of the ‘Centre?’
The greatest Centre that ought to exist here should be the self-constructed ‘Centre’.
If you want to extend the politics of it: you may create your own Centre then and ask others to buy into it.. if they do that there gain or loss would then be their own beast of burden.
But to create a Centre and dragged others by the neck to belong to it is what freedom is not about; what ART should not be.
I advise when next time we as Arts Writers, Workers, Activists, Communicators whatever, see the CENTRE set up as a CAGE -- even when it is made of the finest of gold -- we should pause and reflect deeply before we jump in or drag others by their hapless neck into the noose. To do that is to help to kill that which we profess to advocate – ART.. with its manifest freedom to let loose the senses; freedom to create, freedom to stretch possibilities of the human mind, the human world.

In contribution to this debate about Criticisms, and to stress that Criticisms just like Art cannot share of the Christian injunction that: ‘As it was in the Beginning, is Now and Ever Shall Be’, I share below the contention of an Art Critic that I have come to respect, John Simon as published in NewsWeek magazine sometime last year:

Criticism In An Uncritical Age
With More Content Comes More Critics. But Do They Have Anything To Say? By John Simon

WE live in an age when everyone is a critic. "Criticism" is all over the Internet, in blogs and chat rooms, for everyone to access and add his two cents’ worth on any subject, high or low. But if everyone is a critic, is that still criticism? Or are we heading toward the end of criticism? If all opinions are equally valid, there is no need for experts. Democracy works in life, but art is undemocratic. The result of this ultimately meaningless barrage is that more and more we are living in a profoundly — or shallowly — uncritical age.
A critic, as T.S. Eliot famously observed, must be very intelligent.
Now, can anybody assume that the invasion of cyberspace by opinion upon opinion is proof of great intelligence and constitutes informed criticism rather than uninformed artistic chaos?
Of course, like any self-respecting critic, I have always encouraged my readers to think for themselves. They were to consider my positive or negative assessments, which I always tried to explain, a challenge to think along with me: here is my reasoning, follow it, then agree or disagree as you see fit. In an uncritical age, every pseudonymous chat-room chatter - box provides a snappy, self-confident judgment, without the process of arriving at it becoming clear to anyone, including the chatterer. Blogs, too, tend to be invitations to leap before a second look. Do the impassioned ramblings fed into a hungry blogsphere represent responses from anyone other than blogheads?
How has it come to this? We have all been bitten by television sound bites that transmute into Internet sound bytes, proving that brevity can also be the soul of witlessness. So thoughtless multiplies. Do not, however, think I advocate censorship, an altogether unacceptable form of criticism. What we need in this age of rampant uncritical criticism is the simplest and hardest thing to come by: a critical attitude. How could it be fostered?
For starters, with the very thing discouraged by our print media: reading beyond the hectoring headlines and bold-type boxes embedded in reviews, providing a one-sentence summary that makes further reading unnecessary. With only slight exaggeration, we may say that words have been superseded by upward or downward pointing thumbs, self-destructively indulging society used to instant self-gratification.
Criticism is inevitably constricted by our multinational culture and by political correctness. As society grows more diverse, there are fewer and fewer universal points of reference between a critic and his or her readers. As for freedom of expression, Arthur Miller long ago complained about protests and pressures making the only safe subjects for a dramatist babies and the unemployed.
My own experience is that over the years, print space for my reviews kept steadily shrinking, and the layouts themselves toadied to the whims of the graphic designer. In a jungle of oddball visuals, readers had difficulties finding my reviews. Simultaneously, our vocabulary went on a starvation diet. Where readers used to thank me for enlarging their vocabularies, more and more complaints were lodged about unwelcome trips to the dictionary, as if comparable to having to keep running to the toilet. Even my computer keeps questioning words I use, words that can be found in medium-size dictionaries. Can one give language lessons to a computer? What may be imperiled, more than criticism, is the word.
I keep encountering people who think "critical" means carping or fault-finding, and nothing more. So it would seem that the critic’s pen, once mightier than the sword, has been supplanted by the ax. Yet I have always maintained that the critic has three duties: to write as well as a novelist or playwright; to be a teacher, taking off from where the classroom, always prematurely, has stopped, and to be a thinker, looking beyond his specific subject at society, history, philosophy. Reduce him to a consumer guide, run his reviews on a Web site mixed in with the next-door neighbor’s pontifications, and you condemn criticism to obsolescence.
Still, one would like to think that the blog is not the enemy, and that readers seeking enlightenment could find it on the right blog-just as in the past one went looking

{Critic Sat. }
['If I were a critic....']
The arts writers in the print and electronic media including freelancers and communicators on arts and culture will converse today in the Cinema Hall II of the National Theatre Lagos for a session of self-appraisals. Especially, one of the inescapable issues to be discussed would be the standard of art reportage which has attracted much criticisms in the public of recent. Drawing example from a recent encounter with the misconception of the vocation of the Arts writer, JAHMAN ANIKULAPO reflects on aspects of the current problem with arts reporting in the media.
"Eh, you guys foje man
You guys foje man"
"I mean you guys had such a big show and you foje man..
Se you listen to the sound production tonight. That is the quality of sound that we expected from you guys. But that sound yesterday (Saturday) was very poor. E foje man."
This was the rap of a popular musician in Lagos.
He was doing an extempore critique of the Great Highlife Party '99, a concert programme that paraded no less than 10 veteran highlife musicians, many of whom time and an abject poverty of documentation and laziness of art critics have almost buried in the sea of the forgotten.
The venue of the encounter was the premises of MUSON Centre, Onikan Lagos last Sunday night, shortly after music impressario, Steve Rhodes had presented his famous pantomime - Ijapa on the bill of the MUSON. The show held in the multi-million Naira Shell Nigeria Hall of MUSON Centre and it was valued by sources at the MUSON at about N2 million including cost of halls and huge staff deployed to assist the programme.
The popular musician, himself known for hi-tech sound production (with one of his friends) continued his rap with one of the coordinators of the highlife concert, in the presence of two art journalists.
"If I were a critic like you guys (reference to the Highlife concert coordinators) I will tear you guys to pieces. I will take two pages and tear you guys to pieces."
Soon however, he calmed down after he got full information about the antecedents, actual cost and the performance circumstances of the Great Highlife concert. His jaws dropped when he learnt that the Highlife concert cost less than 10 per cent of the cost of the pantomime show at MUSON. And especially considering the conditioned environment of Shell Hall to the open air lagoon front garden of Goethe Institut where the Highlife concert held.
He was perturbed when he learnt of how much the old musicians, the forgotten heroes of Nigeria's musical evolution from which the hi-tech musician himself has been feasting endlessly in his indeed, buoyant career, were paid. The shock was even more palpably evident on the face of the musician's friend, obviously one of the young stars of profession or business otherwise called the upwardly mobile' or 'yuppies'.
After the session of disclosures by the coordinator, the musician was asked: "Well why don't you write the critique?
And he replied: "well I have written my critique by telling you what I said."
The 10 minutes encounter ended on a feast of laughter and the coordinator and his company of journalists walked off into the light haze of harmattan dust that was at that time about 9p.m -— settling on the Onikan area of Lagos.
But the incident of that night could not but instigate a deeper reflection on the business of writing on artistic products and events. Succintly put, reviewing an art work or a piece of performance.
As had been stated in many discourses, there is an inevitable limit to the degree of criticisms that can be done on the pages of newspapers or the electronic media which are good enough, getting stronger in terms of space for arts and culture reporting.
Early last year, the Goethe Institut convened a workshop for art journalists on how to improve the standard of art reporting and reviews in the print media. The workshop was the initiative of some concerned arts writers who were uncomfortable with the notoriety that reporters on arts were assuming as either unabashed praise singers or injudicious murderers of creative enterprise. There was need for a reorientation, thought the initiators.
Resource persons were drawn from two leading newspapers in Europe, with two men - Dominic Johnson and Harry Nutt (from Taz Berlin) and Angela Schader (from Austria) and: from Nigeria - Ben Tomoloju, founding Review Editor of the defunct Weekly Democrat as well as pioneer Arts Editor. The Guardian and: Dr Garba Ashiwaju former federal director of culture and editor-in-chief, Nigeria Magazine.
The worhsip after five days of work resolved that whereas art reporting in European and Western media has peaked after centuries of practice, in Nigeria it is at developmental lstage; that since the level or degree of general literacy and specificially art history education in Europe and the West is far higher than it.
Africa nay Nigeria, there was no basis for comparison, that essentially the arts writer in Nigeria would for long operate as a 'describist' and 'explanatory reporter or critic, that conscious attempt be made by African writers to educate the public on the nature, politics and character of the art, the artist and artistic product.
But submission at the workshop did not presuppose that the arts writer would be less than circumspective in his appraisal of art products. He could be limited in his application of literary and critical canons in assessing an art work, but he should't be frivolous, mischievious or simply persecutory. Except that these three odious factors have characterised much of what is published as reviews or criticisms in the media.
Of course, the art journalist is not spared the value dislocation and moral somersault that mere offshoots of the socio-political and economic intransigence of Nigeria in the last two decades. In fact, the media has been the most institution consumed by the cancer of corruption and insincerity.
However, the vocation of the arts writer should not be over exposed to these tendencies of death because the reviewer or critic is expected to through his comments, confer certain degree of status on a piece of work or the career of the artist or culture producer.
This was the vision behind the founding of the Arts Writers Organisation of Nigeria. AWON in 1989 — for the arts writer to be equipped to approach his vocation with circumspection, a sense of responsibility and a commitment to quality discourse, objective sense of appreciation and a sensibility for honest appraisal of work.
The vision lived in the early years of the organisation, which as at inauguration time, had well over 30 identifiable practising writers and a huge house of potential members, kept under observation by executive of the association.
Unfortunately, the fortune of the AWON began to crash around 1993, just when coicidentally, the huge blanket of darkness was thrown on the sky scape of Nigeria's polity and consequentially moral, cultural, economic and even psychological comportment, with the annulment of the very first full-fledge democratic election in the country.
From then on to this season of rebirth, art journalism had swam in turbulent sea of disorientation, a flourish of misdemeanors, unprofessional attitude and unethical approach to vocation. A season of exodus of untrained, half-baked and uncommitted enthusiasts into a vocation that perhaps of all the other subsections of the media, demands the highest form of education and constant re-education.
The house was populated by mostly enthusiasts; at best artists who, due to poor economic landscape could not practice their vocations and thus gravitated to the media where they end up on the arts page with their lack of basic tools for engagement in critical discourse or even for the much less technical reviews.
Arts reportage took on the colours of either minute of events, praise singers or the more dangerous 'art-pull-down', where the arts journalist operates like a judge determining, even in his own stark ignorance, what is good or poor for public consumption. An indeed, dangerous development for a nation that has a population insufficiently equipped in general art education or that could not be bothered about usefulness and significance of arts and culture to societal lneeds and developmental aspirations.
But the arts writer should not be magisterial in his operation. The one with penchance for being judgemental has failed even before his products gets to his consumer — the reader or listener. In the theory of criticisms class, students are quickly reminded that though the vocation of the critic or writers on arts makes him susceptible to arrogance of the intellect or over-bloated sense of importance, he should be circumspect.
There is a language of criticism! And against the easily accepted norm it is not the language of condemnation. The attitude is not cantankerous. The pen should not be steaming of writing off the products of another person's creative ingenuity or enterprise.
The critic obviously cannot be the hi-tech musician who watched a show, did not enquire about the history, objective and performance circumstance of the show, but was hot in his scheme to write a two-page criticism or condemnatory article as he suggested. Rather the critic is a highly intelligent, sufficiently patient and painstaking and attitudinally more reflective professional, who would ask questions about certain facts about an art product before he comments. He would for instance, be interested on why an artist chose a particular medium, form or technique amid a wealth of other options.
For example, the musician, a wishful critic declared magisterially:
"You guys were just talking endlessly without letting the music flow. You could have just done the introduction and let the band played on. The people were there for music not talk!"
Interestingly, this is one reason why critics or arts writers are often referred to as failed artists. Coming from the musician's submission, the right answer would have been 'well, if you know how to do it better why don't you go and organise your own show'.
But then, the musician critic was asked by his listener:
"Did you read the objectives of the concert as stated in the programme notes? Or didn't you hear the explanation offered by the anchor man on the aims and objectives of the project?"
He was silent. It was obvious he wasn't interested in the story or environment of the show, which stated that the highlife party was to tell the story of the great music genre; essentially, to convince a largely doubting audience that contrary to peddled misinformation that highlife music was dead it is still alive! And as the anchor man said "It is only experiencing evolution in line with the dynamics of our changing cultural experience."
And to prove that most of the new sound produced in the continent today are deriving their materials, elements and forms from highlife.
Also important, a critic would not behave the way the musician behaved - abandoned the show and still think that he could pass informed commentary on events at the concert.
No! A critic — a purposeful professional and competent critic - would not read a book half way and then write a review. That was the heart of a hyped controversy between two writers and journalists few years back, when a supposed critic who had not read (completely) the work of his friend colleague, went to press and posted jaundiced judgement. He sold himself cheap and insincere by that act to the public.
A critic would sit through a show, read through a book and live through an event, even if the show, book or event is made of a mesh of mess. He would be patient, thorough and broad minded in his approach.
The critic's joub is not as cheap and unimportant as the musician has made it. But isn't that what even most arts writers have made of the vocation with their pen and tongues steaming hot of writing of creative products or imposing their own half education or ignorance on the unfortunate consumers of critical comments.
However, in the season of rebirth which the Arts Writers Organisations of Nigeria has initiated with its convention today, much more discipline would be invested in the art of arts writing at least in the media.
One of the major programmes already designed by the steering committee of the nine-year old organisation is a periodic workshop or training session, with experts as resource persons on the act of critical appreciation of the different categories of music enterprise.


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