Why am I blogging?
Although there’s no need to justify anything, everything needs a foreword – and my intentions for beginning this venture will be, I hope, a sufficient introduction. Blogs usually cover a niche subject; whether that’s in the food and drink area – herbs, spices, root vegetables, tea leaves – or perhaps gardening – herbs, spices, root vegetables, tea leaves. But this isn’t going to be so specific, or that isn’t the plan. I’ll be writing critiques, criticisms, on things – just things in general – and hoping you will be encouraged to do the same.
The word criticism immediately suggests negativity; a harsh remark about a film, or perhaps a bitchy aside concerning your friend’s pretentious film snobbery. Yet an art critic doesn’t spend their career condemning pieces of art (at least not exclusively). A critic of art – or food, or gardening – chose their profession due to a passion for their subject. The bad reviews are the ones, usually, that they enjoy writing the least. A critic doesn’t merely criticise – they evaluate.
But nobody in the writing trade would desire the title “art evaluator” – it radiates the suffocating air of an auction room. To be called an “art critic” has bohemian resonance, which is desirable in a job title, even to the most aesthetically indifferent. So that’s what criticism is: evaluation, assessment, views, and, most importantly, appreciation.
Good art wouldn’t exist without bad art. Cliché films, dire plays, formulaic music and questionable paintings allow us to notice the good ones. So discussing, slating, and dismissing them is a vital activity in our journey through artistic appreciation. In the introduction to his latest collection of essays, Keeping an Eye Open, Julian Barnes challenges Georges Braque’s ideal state of viewing art in a gallery; the ideal of standing in front of a painting – silent, dumbfounded, having nothing to say. Barnes argues that:
…we are very far from reaching that state. We remain incorrigibly verbal creatures who love to explain things, to form opinions, to argue. Put us in front of a picture and we chatter, each in our different way… it is a rare picture that stuns, or argues, us into silence. And if one does, it is only a short time before we want to explain and understand the very silence into which we have been plunged.
The next time anyone tells you to keep your (negative) opinions to yourself, tell them that. Tell them we are verbal creatures who love to explain things, before casually and joyfully continuing your rant.
That being said, I can empathise with anyone who suggests that we “just enjoy” something. Criticism, I suppose, can spoil the fun of what we once adored. This is usually suggested in the realm of entertainment and comedy; for example, P.G Wodehouse, an effortlessly readable humourist. Of his works, Stephen Fry once said “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour”, and Punch magazine remarked that to criticise him is like “taking a spade to a soufflé”. Even if re-reading his novels and short stories with a critic’s eye would reveal cringeworthy conservatism (which it doesn’t), it would be difficult to write about it seriously. And this is because we are reading satire; the only real criticism you can give comedy is to say that it isn’t funny; a critique Wodehouse’s fiction is immune to.
This reminds me of something Susan Sontag said in Against Interpretation. She believed art should be seen for what it is, and what it does, and it’s the critic’s job to relay this – not to give their own subjective interpretation. She says that the pop art of the sixties uses a content “so blatant, so ‘what it is’”, that it “ends by being uninterpretable”. And of comedy – “to avoid interpretation, art becomes parody.” So then, we critics should work out what it’s trying to do if it’s so “blatant”, and point out if it indeed does do it (and how well it does it). And with regards to parody, we should point out that it is parody before discussing whether or not it works. So nothing is immune; everything should be put on trial; satire, comedy, and criticism itself. Barnes’ sentiment is ever relevant: sometimes we are stunned to silence by music, film, art, and all the rest – but we’ll eventually want to talk about that silence.
Politics comes into it too. The title for this piece of, “Why I’m Blogging”, is an intentional imitation of another. George Orwell wrote a piece called “Why I Write” in 1946, in which he examines four popular motives for writing – motives that he claims drive every writer. They are: sheer egoism (no qualms there), aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. If I’m to be honest, the first and final motivate me the most.
The word political, like critic, has negative on-the-surface connotations. In my third year as a student I was asked to write an essay about the political elements within a certain novel. The novel in question was Cwmardy, an epic 800-page observation of Welsh miners, by Marxist writer Lewis Jones. I had the essay mentally planned in an instant. When I didn’t get the grade I expected and wanted, I arranged a meeting with the lecturer to discuss, and perhaps complain about, his marking.
“Well you wrote about class, yes,” he said, grinning from behind his desk.
“That’s what you asked me to write about,” I replied. I remember attempting to hide my irritation with an innocent-naïve façade.
“I asked you to discuss the political themes of the novel. You discussed one political theme.”
I couldn’t argue with that. Discussing such a class-centred novel, I had disregarded other issues – gender, sexuality, education, colonialism, the justice system – all of which are “political”. Orwell stated that, in the essay mentioned above, the belief that politics should be kept out of art is itself a political attitude.
We are political creatures who like to talk about stuff, so why resist such a productive and enlightening part of our nature?