Friday, 30 October 2009


"Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all,
worthy of the name ... All fine imaginative work
is self-conscious and deliberate."
- Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist

As both a critic and a practitioner, someone who both does and makes stuff and also writes about the stuff that other people do and make, I seem to find myself in a slightly precarious position. A friend who is both an actor and a screenwriter recently wrote to me on Twitter, having just read some film reviews I had written for The Quietus, "You sound like a real critic. Are you sure that's a good idea?" Knowing the man in question, I suspect that this was intended with a certain arch good humour which might tempt us to dismiss the comment as mere banter, were it not for the fact that it is by no means in isolation. In film and pop music alike, anyone who attempts to cross the great divide is often regarded with a certain suspicion - as are auto-critical works of popular art. 

"Pop music about pop music," sniffed Popjustice dismissively a propos The Pipettes, and K-Punk recently asked of popular films that they "dare to be a symptom," as though the work must stand dumb and inert awaiting outside critical enlightenment. Is it not the case though that being a mere symptom is in fact the least that a work of popular art can do? It can hardly help but be a symptom - but isn't it somehow more exciting if the work is both symptom and diagnostician? Able not only to exhibit the trace of some greater syndrome but also, in a further step, to comment on and analyse, either explicitly or implicitly, the syndrome itself as well as its own relationship to that syndrome, to make us think and pose new questions to us, rather than simply providing example to an answer we have already decided upon. This needn't be dismissed as mere po-mo eyebrow-raising, and works of this nature go back much further than anything we might sensibly call post-modernism - indeed, isn't the verse philosophy of Parmenides just that? 

It is therefore my contention that the world might profit from greater consort between critics and those they critique and that some fine work might result from this collusion. The nouvelle vague and British Free Cinema movements provide some support for this assertion, likewise the horror films of Dario Argento, and Paul Morley's involvement in ZTT records, but otherwise examples in popular culture have been relatively unusual. In 'classical' music however the opposite is almost true, and has been for nearly two hundred years now. Mendelsohn, Lizst and Wagner all wrote extensively about music, both in the form of prescriptive essays and more standard review articles. In the twentieth century, the career of Pierre Boulez has almost been defined more by his polemical writing about other composers than by his own actual music (anyone who doubts Boulez as a writer would be wise to recall that roughly half of Deleuze and Guattari's concepts are lifted straight from the pages of Boulez), and lest we forget, no less a music writer than Theodor Adorno had a parallel career as a composer. These two are far from alone in proving that aestheticians need not fail ontically in order to fully grasp artistic ontology.

Under market capitalism, critics and producers are engaged in a curious dance. Each is basically addressing the other at all times and acting as big Other for the other, whilst constantly pretending otherwise. The artist claims to be working for some reified and mystified entity called the Audience, secretly aware that it is the critics' judgement that will more decisively shape their future, and the critic claims to speak for the consumer, the man on the street (this obscure beast, the Audience again), but really longs for recognition by practitioners and prays that their barbed comments will strike the artist to their very marrow, perhaps even encourage them to work differently. For some reason, however, full assumption of this dance - for the dancers to actually look each other in the eye, perhaps even kiss - is strictly taboo.

On the part of critics, this may be due, at least in part, to the roots of popular cultural criticism in anthropology, to engage would thus be to 'go native' and any work that is itself critical can safely be dismissed as being 'uppity'. For practitioners, it may be an odd mix of fear and envy towards the subject supposed to know. In fact, I rather suspect that people who make films and pop music regard critics more highly and rate the power of the critics more highly than anyone else does - and this precisely is the source of their resentment. The critic can then safely become a scapegoat for all personal feelings of failure. If these two can be overcome, what of the notion of critical distance? Where goes the critic's objectivity if they are forever canoodling with the objects of their discourse? Surely, the only good materialist response here is to admit that there never was any critical distance in the first place, that critics do not stand aloof from the world, able to pass objective judgement on it from some olympian height, nor should we want them to. Granting this, I fail to see how a more intimate 'insider' knowledge of the process of production could possibly harm the critic, nor how greater critical reflection, or even academic abstraction, could possibly harm the author. Artists are not children and it is time we stopped treating them as such. Critics of the past have hitherto sought only to comment on the world of popular culture, the point is to change it.