You want to be a critic

You want to be what? A critic…?

(Being an extended version of a ‘mentoring letter’ that I was asked by me friend Ita for her magazine, Muse’)

Dear Comrade-to-be,
Shall I humour you with a lie? I was really silently bemused albeit rankled by your expressed desire to work as an art critic after your graduation. If you had observed closely, there was this bold improbability sitting at the corner of my mouth in response to your statement.
Oh, you saw it?
You thought it was a sign of approval?
Wrong, friend!
And there goes your first lesson in arts criticisms… always seek the inner (hideous, if you like) meanings of statements and actions; except if such was made by an angel! Left to me anyway, even the angel should be probed further.
… Well as I was saying; being an arts writer (or arts critic as you have called it) is like signing a pact with poverty… please, do not be scared. All I mean is: it is pretty difficult to get a job anywhere to operate optimally, efficacious or even professionally.
The factors are many.
If the artist or culture producer whose work you have just taken through the dissection mill smiles at you, you have to be very sure, the smile was meant for you; or that there was no bile colouring beneath such a flash of teeth. Every time you do such a critical reading of anyone’s book, watch your step; do not leave your drink carelessly open in a pub, especially if you know the artiste could be lurking somewhere in the vicinity.
Also, know that you are the least wanted in your newspaper establishment; and the moment there is the need to retrench, you are most likely to be on top of the list.
Oh, you don’t believe that?
C’mon, naiveté is a luxury you must not befriend on this vocation. As we say in Lagos, ‘shine ya eyes, bobo’. Haven’t you noticed that every time the editor needs to smuggle an advert into the paper -- in the dying hours of bedding the paper-- your page is usually the first to be yanked off?
Oh yes.
Your page is the measure of your value within the organisation; and if it is being yanked off so ignominiously, what the heck gives you the confidence to bestride the newsroom as if you are the next best thing after Bill Clinton?
Did I mention that your vocation is the turf for impoverishment? Not that you will not earn your pay in your office (well, many of the publishers do not pay anyway)… I mean you are most likely to be the very, very poor cousin of your comrades on the Business and Politics beats; your lot is not just poverty, but p-o-o-r-verty.
Okay, in these days of corporate sponsorship of events by telecomm and beverage companies, you are likely to have your house swimming with branded tee-shirts, towels, fez-caps or even pens; as mine is.
And of course, you may be chanced to fill the hollow of your home with free copies of the patronising artiste's book, CD or VCD etc… Well, that also depends on how much the fellow values your supposed contribution to his/her career. And yes, you most times get free tickets to events -- the high, the low and the silly. Never mind, that at such event, the tag of a ‘manageable-guest’ hangs around you all through, and so you should not be surprised when during Item 7, the leggy dame in charge of food serves everyone on your table but you… pray that on such ill-fated day, you were not there with your spouse… worse still, that babe you have been dying to impress.
Am I scaring you?
But better to be forewarned.
I wasn't as lucky 20 years or so ago when I plunged into the muddy waters of this beloved-but-sometimes despised vocation.
Must have been crazy then.
Okay, there are certain credos the INTELLIGENT (note the stress) community will expect of you while you are still relevant on the job.
Try these notes they have worked for me:
* Criticism stripped naked of the bombastic character of the name, is nothing but personal opinion of one person. Put in its proper garb, criticism 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).
* The arts critic is not a magistrate; oh no. Please beware, do not be infected by the virus of deceit that has over the years eaten deep into to the soul of the vocation, with many quacks, who in other saner, well structured media climes should never have smelt the noble vocation of criticisms from a distance, do now parade themselves as ‘critics’ (as in ‘we are the critics, can’t you see us’ fashion), and so engage in intellectual masturbation and arrogance of the head; heaping uninformed, magisterial commentaries on works of arts. The one with penchant for being judgmental has failed even before his products get to his consumer — the reader or listener. In the theory of criticisms class, students are often 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, a genuine critic should always be circumspect; constantly improving his crafts just as his subject, the artiste. Criticisms we learnt in school is not declarative or a proclamation, rather it is an intelligent reading of, and commentary on an artwork. For me the evergreen statement on this beloved vocation was that uttered by my friend Olivier Barlet ( at a workshop on film criticisms in Ghana a few years ago: Criticisms, he said, is like a having a love affair with a woman; you have to have a romantic relationship with the work… In other words, in approaching a work of art for the purpose of criticisms, you have got to be circumspect, tender, attentive and, oh yes, firm but affectionate at the same time. You see, it is a delicate vocation – demanding of service from all your senses and sensibility.
* There is a language of criticism! Against the easily accepted norm, condemnatory writing is not the language of criticism. The attitude of the critic is not a cantankerous one; do not, I beseech you, be drawn in by the sweet-sounding but ludicrous reviews preponderant in the media nowadays – they are at best pitiable work of miserable half-baked self-anointed so-called critics, who in truth, ought to be doing some other things with their life but have found themselves wheeled (oh, you know, that in this country, ‘anything goes’) into the heart of this noble vocation. The pen should not be steaming of writing off the products of another person's creative ingenuity or enterprise. It is not to say ‘this painting is bad’; ‘this piece of music is rubbish’; ‘this film is the worse I have ever seen’ blah blah blah. This will be ridiculous, cheap, unintelligent and a mark of disingenuous. The language of criticism, one of my teachers drummed into our ears, is -- ‘may be’ or ‘if he had’ -- you know, circumspective in tone and texture. It is not a magisterial proclamation or postulation where you say that a work is ‘bad’! There is no bad work of art because the creative process that produced that work is informed by certain inspiration, certain motive, certain expectations, and cognitive structures. Sweat has gone into it; thinking has gone into it; money has gone into it; somebody’s being has gone into it…
Hello oooo….
The critic obviously cannot be the fellow who watched a performance, did not bother to enquire about the history, objective and performance circumstance of the show, but was hot in his heels to write a two-page criticism or condemnatory article. Rather the critic is a highly intelligent, sufficiently patient and painstaking man who burns the candles to understand thoroughly the work he has decided to comment about. He is equally an attitudinally reflective professional, who would ask questions about certain facts about an art work before he descend on the blank pages or bangs away at the keyboard or even open his mouth to comment. He would, for instance, be interested on why an artist chose a particular medium, form or technique amid a wealth of other options.
* Above all, be truthful to your conscience as you evaluate the work of art. You know what you are trying to do, and you say it the way you see it. Just like every journalist; be sure that you write from your conscience and 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 the last evaluation you did of his work.
And 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 artwork can learn two or three things about the way you see it as a member of the audience; and the audience too can uncover one or two things -- hidden virtues -- in the work of art through you. In other words, the critic is more like a medium, a nexus 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 referee, is to work for your conscience. You write the truth the way you have seen it, without being unfair to the artist, without short-changing the public.
I am saying that criticism is not basically evil. It is opinion essentially. That is why some veterans of the vocation, have said a critic should develop a romance with the work he/she wants to engage.
Do we agree?
Here are landmines that a critic must circumvent all the time:
Thanks comrade… for your ears.


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