Letter to the Editor: The Newfoundland Criticism Problem

Samuel Wilkes' letter to the editor on criticism, or lack thereof, in local arts.

 

There’s a problem in Newfoundland and it’s pretty simple to see. While we’re a pretty great capital for the creation of art we’re rather shit at criticism. We’re shit at giving it, we’re shit at getting it, respecting it, promoting it. Criticism in Newfoundland is bad.

Don’t believe me? Pick up a local newspaper. I’ve seen it in the Muse, Scope, and even the Telegram. One article I read seemed to place blame on our close knit community. Everyone knows everyone here in NL so chances are if you work in the arts you’ll end up working with the person whose art you criticized.

That statement itself expresses an ideology harmful to the arts scene here on The Rock. The notion that by criticizing a work you are delivering offence to the creator or to those members of the audience who enjoy it. This is not true. While it is true that you can be a combative arse about criticism, the criticism at its base level is not something of insult. It is a statement regarding the reception of your piece of work and I cannot fathom how something so invaluable to artists should be regarded so poorly. Artists in NL fear criticism. It is your most important asset. You can write and write and write but at the end of the day you’re only getting better based on your notions of what a good piece of writing looks like. You need to test it. You need to send your [work] into the world and make sure your schema of what good writing looks like matches the reception.

Not to say that everyone who reads your work will be the perfect audience, that they won’t be brainless, but that’s part of the journey. You need to make those judgments with your artistic liberty. After all, it’s not what you mean that’s important, but how it’s interpreted.

So criticism in Newfoundland is in rough shape. Don’t feel too bad if you’re a critic out there. I know you exist. The thing is, we need more critics. And we need more critics willing to stand their ground and play the villain in their every day life until being a critic isn’t viewed as being the villain. That’s why I’m writing this letter. I just came across a post by a friend who titles himself a writer. Atrocious grammar, atrocious punctuation. His post reeked of lacking self respect. Didn’t much seem like he cared about what he was saying so why should anyone else? I thought I’d be a bit snarky and rather than say anything I simply linked him to the Wikipedia page on commas. Except I immediately deleted it when I began to consider the offence I would give.

That reminded me of when I created a Facebook account dedicated to criticism in NL. I figured being anonymous would benefit criticism. I was wrong. You need to be able to stand strong in upholding your opinions and for that you need a face. Most people thought me a troll. My criticisms weren’t entertained for a moment because of my anonymity. Seems I was doing more harm than good.

This is why I’ve decided to more openly and courageously play the role of a critic – to adopt the mantle of the villain. If you’re offended by my criticisms that’s unfortunate and I do feel sorry for you. However, ultimately, it’s not about you. It’s about this piece of art here and all I’m doing is remarking on its effect.

Who am I to call myself a critic, you may ask? Well, let me answer that in two ways. Take your pick.

Firstly, I love art in all forms and have loved it my entire life. I respect skill and talent alike. I adore craftsmanship and can appreciate the evocative elements of a piece besides. I have been writing for nearing two decades. I have four novels. I am modest enough to accept that they’re terrible despite what I’ve been told. I am a musician. I have acted on stage in this province. I am a lover of musicals, film, hell even video games. I have a degree in this field. I have done creative writing at the post secondary level. I have been the ML for the Office of Letters and Light for this province for the last I don’t even know how many years. It’s been long enough that they’re sending me ML swag. My bedroom alone has about twenty five shelves of books.

Secondly, why the hell does it matter who I am? Criticism isn’t reserved for the elite. It’s about telling the creator how the piece was received. Frankly, anyone can do it. Most people are just afraid to.

So for the next forever I’ll be marching on the warpath. The first on my list of things to do is to buy a book from this friend of mine so that when I do present to him my criticisms I can do so in a non-combative, non-confrontational way with a solid, legitimate argument. I encourage everyone who has cared enough to read this to completion to do the same. Go out and read something or listen to an album. Go see a performance. It doesn’t matter so long as when you’re done you talk about the parts you didn’t like.

– Samuel Wilkes

 

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15 Comments

  • Obviously you didn’t learn your mistake about anonymous criticisms doing more harm than good. Congrats on only pointing out the irony in your own actions.

    • Please tell me this is in response to the SFotR Grievance Report!

      If so, the only anonymous aspect was in respect to people who feared reprisal or ostracization for speaking out. Sam himself wasn’t anonymous for this report, he actually bravely attached his name to a highly risky report on behalf of a group of people who feared possible bullying.

      If this is about something else feel free to clarify with my apologies.

  • OOOOO! Thanks to Chad for directing me to this letter and subsequent comment thread (and thanks to you all for your comments that I’ve just enjoyed reading…especially “Novel” Nathan – that was great). Like Dave and Nathan I have (just recently) begun writing some reviews of locally produced art (dance, film, food and theatre… yes, I called food “art”). The last one was written at the request of someone starring in the show. My review was not glowing. It was such a challenge and so nerve-wracking to do a fair and interested analysis of something I felt fell short of excellence in many ways when I really really liked the people whose work I was critiquing. In the end, I think I did a good job. It is the piece I am most proud of to date. But I find that I am hoping no one reads it and I wasn’t comfortable sharing it on Facebook or otherwise promoting it in fear that I would hurt feelings. I also worried that the roll I have been on (of getting asked to do reviews) would come to a screeching halt.
    One thing that reassured me was reading another review of the same theatre piece. This one WAS glowing. It was also wrong. Literally. It got even the basic recap of the plot and structure of the piece wrong. Then it went on to praise everyone involved in a very generalized way. Reading that review, I felt immense relief. Not paying more than cursory attention to the art itself was a much bigger insult (or should be) than a thorough analysis which includes discussing weak points.

    I love the arts scene in St John’s for its inclusiveness and its generosity to people just starting to learn their craft. The RPM challenge is an amazing example of this. But there is no reason that we can’t have both inclusivity, brotherly love, support AND honest critique. There is time and space for both. As reviewers we CAN (and should) say when something is no good. I am hoping that I will be able to do so well enough that the message lands without ever sounding like a call to anyone to stop trying to make more art. As Chad said above, if something is truly irredeemable I wouldn’t waste my time writing about it at all.

    Anyway, thanks again! Reading this conversation has already made me better at what I am doing. (and feel free to critique my comment… I’m a sloppy writer in this format of tiny “comment” boxes so I’m sure there is plenty to send to the grammar/content police… but If you want to do me a huge favour, read my articles online here at The Overcast and critique my critiques! I want to get better at helping SJ’s art getting better.)

    -Emily

  • I agree with most of the points in this letter, but I’m not sure it’s a phenomenon endemic to Newfoundland & Labrador. To be sure, the very isolation of this place means we’re all forced to swim around in a fairly shallow pool, and no one seems to appreciate people polluting the water with incisive criticism.

    Once upon a time, I was a volunteer contributor to the Muse, getting my start (as most people do), by writing record reviews. I was intent on doing a good job, which meant giving each record a close listen or repeated series of listens, judging the record against itself, judging it against the rest of a band’s catalogue, and assessing its place within music in general. I decided to review records by local bands as well. I applied the same critical rubric to the local stuff as I did to the more wide-reaching music that was being released. Let’s just say, the local stuff wasn’t always A+ material. And so I wrote my reviews accordingly, trying to be fair and not mean-spirited, but certainly being honest. So what was the result? To this very day, I get people telling me to fuck off for having written this thing or that thing about their buddy’s band back in those days. I would be able to handle people disagreeing with my assessments and telling me vocally, but I’ve been informed on no uncertain terms that I did harm to the music industry here by not being supportive of it. So, there’s my brush with the Newfoundland Criticism Problem that Samuel Wilkes refers to in his letter.

    It’s sad, too. I started out hoping to play a constructive role in shaping the local music scene by adding my voice to the discourse, and I ended up being completely discouraged. I found it hard to care what kind of music was being produced here — it’s sorta the “if everyone’s special, no one’s special” thing.

    Criticism is vital to any creative field (whether that’s art, literature, music, dining, or what have you).

    Why was so much good art produced in the Italian Renaissance? Do we owe it to the power of the Catholic Church? To the Church’s patronage of certain artists? To the prosperity of the Italian city states? Or do we owe it to the fact that then, as now, Northern Italian cultures like those in Urbino and Florence were mercilessly critical. Mediocrity was simply not countenanced. People who were unsuccessful at persuading the Florentine people of their artistic prowess became roadkill as Italian art hurtled at great speed through its rebirth.

    Here’s another example. We now almost universally regard Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as one of the greatest literary achievements of the 20th century. But its contemporary reception was less approbatory. (This, after all, is a play that features such inscrutable-at-surface-level lines as “and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the strides of physical culture the practice of sports such as tennis football running cycling swimming flying floating riding gliding conating camogie skating tennis of all kinds dying flying sports of all sorts autumn summer winter winter tennis of all kinds hockey of all sorts penicilline and succedanea in a word I resume |and concurrently simultaneously for reasons unknown to shrink and dwindle in spite of the tennis I resume /|flying gliding golf over nine and eighteen holes tennis of all sorts in a word for reasons unknown in Feckham Peckham Fulham Clapham namely concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown but time will tell |to shrink and dwindle / fades away…”)

    Reception toward the masterpiece ranged from frosty to WTF; that is, reception was frosty until the Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson published his considered exegesis of Godot, concluding with: “Go and see Waiting for Godot. At the worst you will discover a curiosity, a four-leaved clover, a black tulip; at the best something that will surely lodge in a corner of your mind for as long as you live.”

    His championing of the play advanced contemporary attitudes toward theatre, and the world is the richer for it. You can reasonably trace a line from Godot to all of modern theatre. The same can be said for critics of James Joyce, or Virginia Woolf, or any other iconoclastic modernist author. The same can be said for the paintings of Edouard Manet, which more or less gave birth to modern art. Without critics to do the heavy lifting, to do the close-read and to parse challenging works of art that aren’t pellucid to the layperson, the boundaries of art, of the arts in general, remain static and rigid.

    Of course, the sting of criticism has resulted in casualties of its own. Maybe the best example of this would be John Ruskin’s review of James Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold — The Falling Rocket.” We see it today and we think Whistler might’ve been the best painter America ever produced. Ruskin, then the most influential art critic in Britain, said of “Nocturne” that it was as if Whistler had flung a pot of paint in the public’s face. This caused owners of Whistler’s other paintings to worry about the value of their purchases, and so Whistler sued Ruskin for libel. And, he won — but he only won a farthing, and the legal fees cost him everything he owned. Artists have always had an uneasy relationship with critics, and cases like this can support the attitude that maybe the world would be better off without critics. But that’s the easy out. Ruskin may have been wrong about Whistler’s paintings, but his contribution to art criticism in general was towering.

    So let me steer this novel back toward the state of criticism in Newfoundland and Labrador. Actually, I’d extend this to Canada entire. The result of a culture that doesn’t feature a vigorous dialogue of criticism is stagnation and mediocrity. Why is a rubbish band like Hedley relevant in Canada? Or Marianas Trench (get it? They’re DEEP.) Look at the list of Juno nominees for any given year and you’ll see a who’s-who of middle-of-the-road humdrummery. By rights, Marianas Trench should slip beneath the surface of our collective memory to languish in the abyss with Serial Joe and Zuckerbaby. But thanks to a culture that actually rewards safe, predictable dreck, they’re one of the top touring acts in Canada. The arts shouldn’t have a cushion for mediocrities. To me, the ideal arts scene would require artists to produce quality work, to improve, or to perish. But we don’t live in an ideal arts scene, and so we’re forced to wade in a morass of meh-worthy arts. It sucks. (Here’s the caveat where I say there is some good stuff produced in the NL arts scene, and I think there could be a lot more if people learn to give and to receive honest-to-goodness criticism.)

  • ‘After all, it’s not what you mean that’s important, but how it’s interpreted.’

    While I agree that criticism in St. John’s is non-existent in print, the above statement is the perfect example of why I hardly trust anyone to do it. You can’t make statements like that as if they are fact. This is the most subjective, high-browed posturing I’ve heard in a while. Your whole article reeks of armored courage. It scares me that you could write something like this without realizing someone might believe you. How irresponsible! It terrifies me to think that some young impressionable mind might read this and think some of the things you said are true! You’ve basically written a resume explaining why you’re qualified to tell someone their shit stinks without consequence and then you toss it to the side by saying ‘if you really knew anything, like I do, you’d understand that my many artistic abilities have nothing to do with criticism, because even if I wasn’t such an amazingly creative and artistic person I’m still entitled to my opinion.’ Stop trying to justify yourself and just do it. There’s lots of people out there who do this, without apology. They know who they are, what they think and take the arts very seriously. They have some very firm opinions and when you make statements like the one I’ve highlighted you make me doubt very seriously you have any idea what you’re talking about.

    But anyway, ride on you fierce knight…. you have an opinion that needs to be heard!

  • I 100% agree with this letter.

    People are afraid to critique. It’s such a close-knit community, and in many ways that’s a beautiful thing, but in so many others it’s a hinderance.

    I’ve been asked to write reviews for things in the past. And I have. Sometimes I’ve really put myself out there and was 100% honest, knowing full well that this could cost me possible work in the future. Other times I’m left searching for positives in a sea of negatives. And that right there is biased, and it’s bullshit. But it’s hard to be honest. It really really is. Because you don’t want to hurt anyone.

    But here’s the thing, critiquing is as much about deconstructing what is wrong, as it is — in my tiny mind — about saying what could be so right. If they only tried harder. Or had more time. Or had more money. Or stopped acting so cool and actually focussed on the work at hand (I didn’t say that).

    That is how we grow. And I don’t care where you’re from. If you can help me grow. Bring on the fertilizer.

    PS… I’m also sick of having to scurry for a dictionary every time I have to read a theatre review. I’m no dumb-dumb, and I love words — but sweet jesus, b’y.

  • A digression:

    As I read I was nodding along in more-or-less agreement until I got to the bit about the writer/friend who had ‘bad’ spelling and grammar. That brought me up short. That’s like criticizing a painting because it’s not photorealistic, or like looking at a Jackson Pollock and sneering at the lack of craft. It suggests a 19th-century critical sensibility, ignoring the (now almost century-old) innovations of people like Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, or James Joyce – not to mention the entire post-modern movement (itself now comfortably institutionalized within criticism).

    Now, perhaps the grammar and spelling ‘errors’ weren’t stylistic choices but really were errors – in that case, decry the demise/absence of the editor, not the critic; plenty of literary artists of any age had only a loose grip on rules of punctuation and spelling. There is only the loosest relationship between grammarian prescriptivism and literary innovation and vision; indeed, I’d say too much of the first might stifle the latter. It’s just that good editors are really quite rare now-a-days, and, with the internet making “writing in public” the new normal, most writing (like this post) is self-edited.

    Anyway anyway anyway ANYWAY, this damaged the argument rather than bolstering it, I thought. Which is a shame, because the core point remains an important one, one that has been made before and needs to be made again and again until we collectively Get It. Criticism, even if it stings in the short term, is the friend of art!

    Friends of mine have actually been threatened with violence because they dared to raise a critical voice. Criticism is itself an artform, and it’s one we’re not yet very good at, with a few notable exceptions.

  • There is lots of excellent criticism of Newfoundland art being produced. Most of it comes out in scholarly journals like Newfoundland and Labrador Studies. Artists read and reflect on criticism to refine their craft (they’ve told me). If the point is that criticism is not being disseminated in mainstream outlets, that is a different issue than there being a lack of criticism. The question of why that is so is perhaps a more productive discussion to be having.

  • Just to add: criticism as dialogue is missing in a lot of media here. We are all happy to accept whatever the local paper or radio show dubs as “art”, “theatre” or “new music”, but all too often it’s catered to specific tastes or specific ears, either consciously or not. You might think its a lack of folks willing to talk art in a serious way, but too often it’s someone in media deciding not to tune into or publish such dialogue. Heck, I’m surprised this letter got published. Good for you!

    I can only speak from personal experience when I tell you I can’t count how many times I didn’t get an article written or review from music or art because it was a bit “out of the box” or it rode a certain “bandwagon”. Critics didn’t decide this – editors did.

    • Yes, “Editor as gatekeeper” is a whole other conversation topic worth having. But I’d argue a good editor chooses their columnists with reason, and lets those columnists write about whatever they want to write about (while still taking the odd pitch to help the paper), and that way there’s multiple tastes curating a publication.

  • For the sake of adding to the conversation, and prefaced by the fact that if there weren’t good points in the article, we wouldn’t have run it:

    We’ll certainly all grow as artists to hear very well articulated, very specific criticisms of things we could be doing better, like, “Your bassist can’t keep time” or “your sentences are fabulous but where’s the plot?” — as they’re fair assessments free of personal opinion that the artists could take into consideration if timing and plot are deemed important by those artists. My only criticism of modern criticism is when the critic can’t separate their personal opinion or taste from the assessment of art’s worth. If you don’t like something, it doesn’t mean it’s not good: if a cheese critic slammed brie we wouldn’t take their word for it blindly and cease to eat it, but we would hear them out as to why they didn’t like brie. Criticism is about conversation on a piece of work, not the artist or critic being right or wrong. A good critic knows that.

    There’s a reason 3 people react to the same painting, song, or book differently: we’re not all the same. I’m not into radio pop hits or a lot of performance art, but I can tell when they’re striking for what they intended to be — be that catchy or conceptual. I don’t always like the way a movie ended, but I’m sure the writer had their reasons. So saying “the ending sucked” isn’t critique, it’s personal opinion, until I can express why the author messed up the ending (knowing what they were trying to do with the ending).

    Also, I’m of the opinion that if something’s not good enough to be talked about in print, why bother? I like the idea of this: If You See Someone in This Publication They’re Doing Something Worthy of Coverage. That coverage needs to be a critical, for the artist’s benefit, but the coverage should also be worthy the reader’s time: why publish about something that’s decidedly not newsworthy?

    Lastly, criticism is a profession and talent. Like plumbing or surgery, it can be done all wrong. Samuel seems to acknowledge that. It’s not about being “honest,” it’s about articulation, free of personal opinion, that happens to be honest.

  • if Samuel Wilkes thinks criticism is about going on the warpath and telling people how he feels about their work then he has no idea what criticism is. Nobody gives a fuck about some yimyaws opinion. the internet is full of them – both pontificating windbags and opinions. An art critic studies both art and criticism. Criticism is a practice. True critics understand the underlying history and contexts of the art movements and artists with whom they interact.
    It is an artist’s job is to educate the critic; It is the critic’s job is to educate the larger population, who perhaps do not have the time to study the history and context of every creation. telling us your opinion, how many books you have read or how an artist’s work makes you “feel” is going to be received like your anonymous blog – because it IS troll’s work and nobody cares what you think, unless you really care about your subject, do your homework and inform.
    you wanna know why there are no critics in St. John’s – your letter spells it out perfectly – those who aspire to be critics around here do not even know what it is – enjoy your new villainous rampage… i am sure it will be met with a collective “meh”

    • This is why the article exists.

      Gotta love that, “F-U I’m the best; take your CFA arse outta here you don’t know nuffin.” mentality that wriggles so clearly to the top. Hinge everything on a single word and plow forward from there. Who cares about the 90% of good points he makes; he said the word ‘warpath’ so lets reject his criticism.

      I don’t give a fuck about *your* criticism – the internet is full of them. A critic’s job is to tell us more about the underlaying state of the arts – which he does, and it’s a fucking accurate indictment.

      Most small-scale theatre productions are absolute shit – the high schools are fucked for theatre resources and the province’s Theatre School is in bumblefuck nowhere – where no one gives a bumblefuck about what goes on there and would rather laugh and harass ‘dem faggos’ then support them. You ever go to a Grenfell show? 90% of the audience are theatre/visual arts students from the 4 class years in each program and a smattering of other faculty people who have crushes on all the theatre people. The field is collapsing in on itself, and money only flows to ‘The Bight’ (whose management ‘bites’, from all the stories I have heard about ‘working’ out to Trinity) and as make-work projects where you’re lucky to get paid $5.00 an hour (because some grants pay half-wages and put the other half towards tuition vouchers for post-secondary).

      But it’s a hard cycle to bust out of – most productions look like they were cobbled together from the worst bits of leather available. So most people don’t go to theatre events, even if they are upscale productions. So then people who produce quality shows don’t get the returns they should and they stop making high-quality shows.

      Not to mention the lack of actual, practical theatre stages to work with in the capital. Holy Heart has a patchwork deal (I hope still) to use its attached auditorium but that’s its own little clusterfuck of fun. Then what? The main ACC stage and the Arts & Administration building are the only other two proscenium arch stages in the capital (that I know of). If you want to do anything in the LSPU Hall, you better adapt that sucker for a black box theatre and if you can’t afford that maybe pop it into the only other black box theatre in the ACC basement threatre.

      A lot of the arts structures are busted in the province, but they really should bring the Theatre Arts program to St. John’s so we can start to build a base for actors to spring upwards, instead of the isolated program currently ongoing at Grenfell.

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