The heck of a critic

‘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’.

The subject of criticisms and the African (Nigerian art) has become something of an obsession for one since 1996 when The Arts Writers Organisation of Nigeria, AWON, staged a workshop on Literary Journalism tradition in the Nigeria media in 1996. In essence the debate had started in 1988, when Nigeria hosted the African Literature Conference, ALA to mark the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, Prof Wole Soyinka. As one of the foot soldiers (organisers) in the conference, the session on Criticism and the African Art was a most anticipated programme. For one it was the first time that one would be engaging in prognosis of the sacred subject of Criticism beyond the confine of the academics. Prior to that time Criticism was supposed to be a most sacrosanct subject not to be touched. It was a sort of god not to be dared. As a matter of fact I recall that in he university while reading Theatre Arts with boas I Dramatic Theories and Literary Criticisms, , you wee a god if you found admission into the Theatre 303 Class room and weekly seminar. You had to carry a chip o your shoulder, as you were considered well above your colleagues the department, and indeed the Faculty of Art. I recall that at the beginning of the Course 303, 25 students had indicated interest, and indeed paid the expected registration, but hat as the time of submitting the application form, only 15, forms were returned. But by the time we were graduating, only three of us sat for the final examination. Others had since dropped by into other course\ of studies. I have never ceased to be amazed by such a phenomenon, especially when I recall how fat the other Courses – Playwriting, Dramatic Studies, Directing, Dance and Acting etc, were. If you were ever caught in the Literary Criticisms class you were a scared cow, an elite, an intellectual. The community in the arts faculty respected you for it. It was an achievement.
Years after graduation, I continued to ponder at what made the enterprise of Literary Criticism such an elitist vocation. And working as an arts and culture reporter almost straight from the classroom, in 1987 (started writing on the arts, especially Criticism in 1983 even as a Year one student, though my first byline ever was in 1981 as a Higher School Certificate student), I had been confronted every now and then by the question: Who is a Critic? What is his/her role in the creative e enterprise? What is the context of his operation? What are the cognitive structures that define his operation? What is the relationship between his vocation and the environment of his operation? What are his source-pool of vocational inspiration and operation – the established critical theories and traditions from his Colonial educators i.e those who took his natural mentality and imposed on him a set of strange ideas and ideologies that have contributed to the underdevelopment and mis-development of his mental and national life? What in fact are the cognitive structure that he has to deploy to the practice of his trade?
As I have mentioned the ALA conference in 1988 was a platform to unravel these mysteries. Fortunately, the post Independence African scholars had already situated the argument in the various debates and contentions that had been engaged in , particularly in such seminal works as Decolonising the African Mind, How West Underdeveloped Africa, Negritude debate. This also include Soyinka’s monumental declaration in Myth and the African World, which suggested that Western Critical canons are not well-equipped enough technically and theoretically to tackle the question of myth and folklore in the African art. There was\also Ngugi wa ‘Thiong’o contention that original indigenous ideas expressed in other language other than that which gave birth to the idea, would never be totally explained or understood by a critical canon that is strange to it. All these contentions were forming into certain conclusions I the 1988 conference. I though that the resolve by the many resourceful persons at the seminar pointed in the direction of evolving new paradigm in the approach of criticism of arts and cultural products emanating from Africa. You could say that the redefinition of he Critical canons started formally at that conference, and luckily it was to be promoted by the horde\of Literary workers who were drawn largely from the popular media.
That initial 1988 encounter with the attempt to deconstruction of criticism of African art, influenced my personal engagement in the popular media, especially at The Guardian newspaper where I have since worked as an Arts and Culture reporter rising to Arts Editor for 12 years, until 2003 that I moved on to edit the Sunday title though with a supervisory portfolio for the entire Arts and Media department of he Guardian titles.
Since 1996 as\mentioned earlier when the Arts Writer Organisation of Nigeria, which I served in the executive for eight years, I have been engrossed in the shaping of some definitive character for Criticism in the media.
I draw inspiration from the contention of the former Arts Editor and later Deputy Editor of The Guardian, Ben Tomoloju, who is famously regarded as the founding father of Arts Journalism in Nigeria because of his pioneering role, in his keynote at the AWON Conference. He said:
"Whereas Nigerian literature boasts of an established tradition when compare with other parts of the world, it is quite a different matter with literary journalism. The latter is, at best, an evolving tradition struggling against forces of economic, socio-cultural and political disablement which, jointly or severally, make it difficult for the journalist to measure up effectively to the expectation of the public".
Tomoloju went on to illustrate the various constraints, which included the socio-political environment of the newsroom which makes\no room available for full deployment of critical sensibilities in art reporting, for instance the dissonance in the expectation of the newspaper managers and the art critic. Whereas one is mercantilist the other is academic. And these have divergence attitude to the institution called the bottom-line.
And in evaluating the realities that existed in the newsroom vis a vis the performance of the first set of arts Journalist or supposed critics that he employed at The Guardian, he wrote: not all arts journalists were supposed to be critics in the sense by which the professional critic is known. Some of them served as reporters. Their resources were primarily in the areas of gathering and writing news about happenings in the arts world. The performance of this set of arts journalists was based on acceptable standards in news evaluation, production and presentation. A few others, especially young graduates of the arts and humanities just venturing into journalism were assigned to beats having to do with criticism".
And balancing newsroom expectation against that of the public, he recommended:
‘the arts journalist, whether as a reporter or critic, needed to know his subject. But the reading public should also realise that the approach of a reporter to a particular subject must, necessarily, be different from that of a critic.’
Particularly instructive in Tomoloju’s contention is the recommendation that: "In viewing journalism and the Nigerian literary tradition, therefore, the critical observer should be guided by this dichotomy, especially within the framework of development journalism which seems a most applicable strategy for the growing practice…"
Let me recall a statement I made recently on the enterprise of criticism. Though I was speaking on Criticism in the context of the Nigerian filmic phenomenon, I am confident that the statement remains valid for the current enterprise:

In the course of the 2005 African Journalist Award held in Kenya late June was a session tagged Media Debate on the theme: Direction of African Media: Changing the Paradigm. It held at Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi sponsored by MultiChoice. It was a sort of roundtable with two media executives as well as three professors of Media Studies — all from Africa — as panelists and as many as 25 editors from all over the continent in attendance.
What we took away was the emphatic statement that: of necessity, the focus and operational modem of African journalists as well as media houses must change, if the continent is to truly realise its destined greatness.
The media practitioners had opportunity to review their journey so far, and they came to the conclusion that much as the media had seemingly discharged its role as a professional organisation and flourished resourcefully on the continent, it had not lived up to its most important agenda:
(1) Speaking FOR the people of the continent and NOT above their head;
(2) Telling the story of the people and the continent through a home—grown paradigm and NOT through models established by the West.
(3) Helping to lift the veil of ignorance and mis-education, which certain historical antecedents —i.e. slave trade, western education, erosion of cultural ethos and colonialism— had placed on the psyche of the people of the continent.
The resolution of the house was that henceforth, a responsible African media must change its style of operation; must begin to:
(1) Speak FOR the people in the language and tone that are not only FAMILIAR but also ACCESSIBLE to the people.
(3) Expose the voices (and in that cause the hope and despair) of the people the way the people will UNDERSTAND it.
(4) Tell the story of the people in such a way that will drastically CHANGE the status quo — i.e. the way most Western media tell it — full of misinformation, mis-education and sometimes deliberate distortion of facts about realities of the continent and its people.
Of these three resolutions, which are my own summary of the many resolutions of that resourceful gathering, the point that grabbed me — or as we say, the Waow factor — is the one about telling our own story in the way that is FAMILIAR to; and ACCESSIBLE to our people.
Also very instructive to me is the resolution, which states expressly that the African media must Speak to the people and NOT ABOVE their head. I particularly cherish this statement for it is in tandem with my long-held conviction on why Theatre as practised by those the late Chief Hubert Agunde branded Acada Theatrer (school trained, or expandingly, Theatre in English practitioners) has failed to become a profitable venture or sustainable vocation for the teeming practitioners. One had said this at other forums in the past: that the theatre legacy handed down over time by our colonial curriculum as well as our elders, was that tailored at SPEAKING ABOVE THE PEOPLE.
And this is why English Language or Acada Theatre — has failed to produce its own Hubert Ogunde, Duro Ladipo, Icheoku and others in their clan who became legend in their own time, without being media-assisted as the one or two legends of Acada Theatre. This statement, I know is scratching the bottom of many of our theatre/film elders and colleagues here — it is contentious, an aberration — but there shall be other forums to expand on it.
But just think of this: Why has Nollywood become such a popular Brand in spite of its many complexities, innumerable flaws and contradictions? Whereas the film industry of old remains tottering even in its old age? Why has Nollywood warmed itself into the hearts of a large segment of our people, in so short a time? Why is it on the lips of everybody, including politicians to whose concreted ears and senses, culture and the arts are bugs of burden? Why is Nollywood such a favoured brand so much that virtually every newspaper, broadcast station and media organ in this country, has at least a page or slot per week devoted to it? Whereas most media houses still think that a theatre review on an arts page, is a waste of space, resources and human energy?
I say the answer is simple: Nollywood speaks TO the people, not ABOVE their heads.
Here, I hasten to the fulcrum of my conclusion that film critiquing in the context that will be relevant to our immediate environment, responsive to our immediate needs and responsible to our peculiar social, cultural and economic circumstances must take off from where Nollywood itself has berthed: SPEAK TO THE PEOPLE. You could extend that to say the film critiquing that we need must speak to Nollywood itself; must not attempt to dictate to Nollywood what its character should be, but accept the circumstances of Nollywood and access it based on the established character traits of the industry. It must, however, do all these without compromising the established cannons of media practice in terms of educating, informing and entertaining.

Film Critique
So for me Film Critiquing in the context of the new film industry represented for now by Nollywood, must adopt the characteristics of DEVELOPMENT JOURNALISM, which I am sure I do not need to define here, except to say that it is the brand of journalism that has been highly recommended for a developing economy such as Nigeria. It is the brand of journalism that is willing and ready to develop side by side the society it serves.
Film Critiquing thus must step down from a perceived arrogant comportment, to align with the very vision and energies that drive the current film industry or Nollywood. It must adopt a new set of paradigms and dynamics of evaluation. That is when it can be responsive, responsible and relevant, otherwise it will commit the same pervasive suicide that Acada Theatre, Acada Literature, Acada Visual Arts, Acada Music had committed over the ages — speaking above the people; speaking above its primary constituency — Nollywood and its practitioners.

Nature of Criticisms
Criticism stripped naked of the bombardness of the name, is nothing but personal opinion of one person who masquerades as a character called The Critic.
Criticism, however, put in its proper garb, is not more than an informed reading of a subject or material and rendering such informed reading in informed opinion. Embedded in the word informed is the necessity of painstaking research, patience for facts, readiness to seek clarifications (i.e. engage the creator of the work on areas that are unclear to you); and above all truthful to your conscience as you evaluate the work.

Monsterisation/Deification of the Character of the Critic

It is curious that the general public has been conditioned to see the critic as some kind of god. And it has to do with the self-institutionalising antics of the ancestors of the critics. Over time and through the various literary milleux, the critics have successfully entrenched themselves as monstrous institutions in the creative industry.
As a matter of fact, the critic has become something like an over-institutionalised person. We have created tin-gods out of the vocation of the critic. But he is no more than an ordinary professional but with a specialised consciousness for the vocation of evaluating or assessing a piece of art and offering informed opinion on same. In other words, the critic is only an informed commentator or evaluator or assessor of a creative product.
We have to bear in mind that there is a critic in every person. The television viewer is a critic, just as the man who reads a book, even as a hobby. This is because when the fellow is watching this interview session on the television programme, he is forming his own opinion; he could say for instance: "Now Jahman is talking rubbish, I’m not interested;" and he picks his cigarette and lights it and puts his mind on more productive or self-satisfying venture… he has shut me off from his senses! That’s a critical enterprise at work.
A critic is not to write a negative opinion. Unfortunately, that’s what the critic vocation has become, especially in a creative environment like Nigeria where there is perennial struggle for power between perceptibly contending forces; and envy and avarice reign in the mind of most men — all products of poverty of purse and the intellect. You know, there is a way wants and unfulfilled dreams affect the reasoning and actions of men…
If you evaluate my explanation again, you’ll see that the critic is not definitely somebody who makes negative remarks. A critic is one who forms a technically informed opinion about a work, and who then projects it. And in presenting it, it could either be negative or positive; depending on the way he perceives the work. But as I said his evaluation of the work, his judgment will be informed by his own cognitive structures, a summation of diverse factors, which could also include his own mischief and human flaws and frailties.

Environment & criticisms
When people talk about the absence of Criticism in the culture sector, you tend to ask yourself: what are they expecting?
Criticism can only thrive in an environment where there is enough room for creativity; quality creativity. But when you live in an environment that stifles creativity, you cannot expect criticism to thrive.
You want to look at a work of art; you want to talk about somebody’s performance -- a dancer or a visual artist -- you must look at the environment of performance.
What has the state or the society provided for Norbert Young not just to produce his film but to produce effectively, or to produce a quality work?
What has the environment provided for Olu Ajayi who is a quality painter to produce a qualitative work of art?
What has the environment given to Lagbaja to strive to produce his songs to the best of his ability….
When you put all these things together you’ll see that the environment is not even prepared for the artist to perform effectively, or optimally.
Why are you expecting the artist to live above that environment?
Then you say you are a critic, you sit down and you are observing the trend of performances and making comments on them, and pointing a way for the future! What future are you pointing to, when the people that consume the works of art are not even prepared for qualitative ones?
We cannot expect the art, the entertainment produced by artists living and functioning in this stifling environment to be well rounded in all creative departments as that produced in other societies where there are, at least, the basic infrastructures that enable creativity to flower; societies that encourage clean, clear thought; and make provision for facilities, including social respect and understanding; and thus, assist the artist to concentrate on the business of thinking and creating.
We have to first create the right, functional environment, and that is what I have dedicated my intervention through the media, especially after 13 solid years as arts reporter and so-called critic.
We do need the critics at all time in our creative enterprise. I’m not saying that we don’t need the critic! If I said that, it will be a subversion of sensibility; a subversion of my personal conviction that the critic drives the creative energy and resourcefulness of the society. I still operate basically as a critic in the sense that, when I am confronted with materials, I weigh the material, I say ‘okay this material deserves maximum attention’; this material deserves the best that I have got; then I look at another material and I say, ‘this material deserves lesser attention’… this assessment will reflect in the way I present the subject, the way I write about it or I comment on it! It is a result of the way I weighed the material, a product of my evaluation but it is still essentially subjective albeit informed by my personal cognitive structures.
This is why I have insistently argued that criticism is no more than a personal opinion of the critic; a product of his cognitive structures, the sum total of his past experiences, cultural tendencies, taste, training, skill, exposures, and the school of criticism to which he subscribes, among others.

Absence of appropriate training of critics
Indeed, how many theatre schools are training critics?
Now, Fine Artists are complaining that the quality of Fine Art discourse in the papers are not impressive. And I ask them: "how many art historians and critics have you produced from your school who are ready to work in the media". We have about 10 departments of Fine Art, how many of them have produced art historians writing frequently in the papers. In fact, how many of them have their own faculty or department’s journal to propagate the ideals of its peculiar scholarship?
It is not easy, sir. It is not easy because no media house even want to employ you in the first place. If not that The Guardian with Ben Tomoloju, started a formal arts desk… (that was after that impressive collection of academics and scholars had flagged off the literary culture in the paper)… and he then trained a generation of arts journalists, writers so to say because many of them were just graduates of liberal arts and sometimes, sciences and related fields. Those are the chaps sustaining the seemingly robust arts and culture journalism in the Nigerian media today…
In the past, no one would employ you to write on the arts. It takes far deeper passion by the publisher or the editor to insist he was employing you to write on the arts.
No media house is even ready to open up pages for reports on the arts. They think it is not worthy of serious attention. It won’t generate adverts anyway!
The fact is that, the critics and journalists have to be careful about what they write because, what you are writing is very, very long lasting than that work of art. Perhaps it is only Fine Art, Literature, recorded music which originals could be resurrected in the original forms. But not so for theatre, concert and other such performance art, which thrived in momentary-ness. If I’m presenting a play, people must have seen it and gone, but what I have written as a critic would be read hundred years after my departure; or even thousands of years later. And generation who never encountered you and who were never part of the conditions that dictated the creation of the work and as well the tone and shade of your critical opinion might have to issue queries on what you had written. In literary criticisms and theories, isn’t that what we are doing today? Interrogating the paradigms that had been set by our forebears?
The people are not used to open criticisms and this is part of the fundamental dilemma of development that we face in Africa. Even in our socio-cultural lore, criticism of the ruling class or the affluent was often coded in symbolic languages, cultic signs or in proverbs, gestures, wits etc. This was part of the self-preservation ethos of the society; sometimes, measures to ensure that only few people are availed of the details of such criticisms. And Africans do not have to be apologetic about this. It is an integral part of our cultural being. And it serves so many functions including to ensure preservation of mutual respect and harmonious living in the community. But applied to modern time, the collusion of this African ideas of criticisms and the Western type of open speak, is responsible for the conflict characterised by intolerance that we often witnessed in the modern African state.
And for the artists, because he has produced his works within the ambience of lean resources available to him, he is expecting that whatever you are going to say about his work would be complimentary, so that people can buy it. To him, you, the critic, you are only an extension of the marketing department of his operation!

Expectation of a Critic in African setting
The best you, the critic, can do is to work according to your own conscience. You know what you are trying to do, and you say it the way you see it.
But the language of criticism is not condemnation. It is not to say that this work is bad. The language of criticism is, ‘may be’ or ‘if he had’, things like that. It is not a magisterial proclamation or postulation where you say that work is bad! There is no bad work of art because the creative process that produced that work is informed by certain inspiration, certain mote process that produced that work is informed by certain inspiration, certain motive, certain expectations, certain cognitive structure. Sweat has gone into it; thinking has gone into it, money has gone into it, somebody’s being as a person has gone into it
Just like every journalist, first of all, you write from your conscience, you write for your conscience. Just be sure that what you are saying is according to how you have seen it, how you have perceived it; be true to your conscience; even if the person is your arch enemy or he has just dished you slaps for he last work you did on his work.
I am saying that criticism is not basically evil. It is opinion essentially. If I saw your blue dress and I say that what you are wearing is red, it is my opinion; that is what my mind tells me; that you wearing are red. It may be black to another person, it may be blue to the next person, but as for me, it is red. So, it is a matter of opinion. And the audience like I said had an option to either accept it or reject it.
So, first of all, as a critic, work from your conscience and work for your conscience. Then the target of a critical discourse should necessarily be for the two sides. You should write in a way that the man who has created the art work can learn two or three things about the way you see it as a member of the audience. And the audience too can learn one or two things that they could understand in the work of art from you.
In other words, the critic is more like a medium. A medium between these two extremes -- the audience and the producer of the work. So you should see yourself that way and the only way to see yourself as a balanced medium, a balanced refree, is to work for your conscience. You write the truth the way you have seen them, without being unfair to the artist, without being unfair to the public.

Landmines that a critic must circumvent all the time:

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.


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