Criticism and the (small) city

Critics are vital for the arts to flourish

One of the first adjectives people use to describe the arts community here in St. John’s is inevitably “supportive.”  Supportive and closely-knit. This is true in many ways. But I have been wondering lately if we aren’t somewhat lacking in one of the most important areas when it comes to supporting artists and their work: there doesn’t seem to be much of a culture of art criticism here. There is a lot of promotion of art shows and theatre and concerts and readings, but there are few honest reviews.

Critical engagement and honest discussion are crucial to an art scene for it to remain vital and for artists to continue to grow.  It’s easy to see, however, why this is a bit of an issue in St. John’s – it’s such a small, and rather isolated, community. Everyone knows everyone else and everyone is afraid of offending. But by keeping our mouths shut, or limiting commentary to anonymous internet rants, we won’t be getting any further ahead.

We’re in a very particular situation here. An island with a capital city as far away from the mainland as you can get. This geographical isolation plays a big role in defining what sort of artistic community springs up here. It’s expensive to get here; it’s expensive to leave. Nobody just passes through. Up until rather recently (thank you, Mightypop), it was even pretty rare for most contemporary Canadian musicians to add a St. John’s date to their tour.

Everyone knows everyone else and everyone is afraid of offending.

So we are largely left to our own devices, and this does breed interesting things. It also means that we’re all friends here, or friends of friends, and thus, there are few people willing to give honest critique or say publicly something that might be considered controversial. And what becomes of an artistic community in which hardly anyone dares challenge the established sacred cows, or seeks to foster emerging artists by giving honest feedback?

Something lacking

When I started thinking about the current state of criticism in the city, I became interested in getting some insight from a couple of people who maintain local blogs or websites concerning the arts. And while each had a different take on just what criticism means to an arts community, and how important it is, the consensus seemed to be that something is lacking here in St. John’s.

Filmmaker Darcy Fitzpatrick runs Signal. It’s not an art-centred blog necessarily, but he and his rotating cast of writers often cover artistic events, review theatre, and generally have an eye on what’s happening in the city.

“Artists in St. John’s have two things going against them,” Fitzpatrick says.

“First off, they’re less exposed to the works of other artists, as one might be if living in not just a bigger centre, but a place where art and artists can roam more freely. The whole island thing makes that difficult for St. John’s artists, so the work produced here is the result of a far more insular environment. In that sense, artists are, unfortunately, protected from the opportunity to compare their work to the works of others. […] Coupled with that is the close-knit nature of the artistic community in St. John’s, which ensures criticism is rare and far less honest than it ought to be. Again, artists are protected and as such robbed of an essential ingredient of development. Without criticism, work suffers, no matter the discipline.”

Engaging overall coverage

Chad Pelley, author of Away From Everywhere, started Salty Ink as a means of promoting Atlantic Canadian literature and writers.

“I saw a real failure in local media covering local arts in an engaging manner, so I started Salty Ink. And the response and support has been overwhelming. There’s free books in my mailbox every day, I’ve gotten to know the publicists at every Canadian publisher, and I’ve even been invited to speak on panels, outside of the province — which proves there was public interest there, and a niche to be filled that mainstream media wasn’t filling.”

But Pelley is more interested in overall arts coverage than criticism.

“Criticism is too biased by the critic, whereas general overview articles let the reader make up their own mind about an artist’s work.  Look at what Heavy Weather are doing with local musicians: it presents the artist in an interesting way and lets the viewer decide if they’d buy the album.”

While Pelley feels that the quality of some of the general arts coverage has often been lacking in the past, there doesn’t appear to me to be a shortage of it. With The Scope, The Telegram, CBC’s The Weekend Arts Magazine, Heavy Weather, and even the nightly appearances by musicians on Out of The Fog, there is a good deal of coverage happening in the city, and a lot of it is dynamic and engaging. There is always room for more, as the positive reaction to Pelley’s blog shows, and always room for improvement, but general arts coverage doesn’t negate the need for criticism – it doesn’t offer the same kind of opportunity for challenging discussion and debate. 

 A risky proposition

Pelley notes the problems that come with living and working in a small city.

“One major difficulty in being a critic in this city is that everyone knows everyone. The same issue exists on a national scale – but the issues are concentrated in the ultra-literary Newfoundland. The local writing scene and its writers feel as small and interconnected as a strip of rowhouses on Gower Street. Luckily it is just as vibrant and colourful, but still – we tend to read our friends more gently, and want to see the good in their work: we’re more forgiving, and hesitate in putting the bad parts down on paper for the world to see. Also, some people hold grudges if you do so, and you know those people, because this is such a small province, might end up on a jury next year that your own book’s submitted to.”

“I saw a real failure in local media covering local arts in an engaging manner…” (Chad Pelley, local author and Editor of Salty Ink)

Fitzpatrick also brings up the possibility of offending.

“Since there is very little genuine criticism that takes place here, artists aren’t accustomed to receiving it. As such, I think the first reaction an artist might have when their work is criticized would be to take offense. This makes it a risky proposition to offer criticism here since, in all likelihood, you may find yourself working with those people at some stage in your career. Or you would have, had you not offended them with your honest critique of their work.”

Both Fitzpatrick and Pelley mention the potentially awkward scenario of working with, or being judged by, fellow artists whose work one might have criticized. It’s a distinct possibility if you are both making your own work and critiquing that of others.

A few good critics

Fitzpatrick sees the need for experienced critics to take on the responsibility.

“Now all we need are a few good critics. The problem, there, of course, is that criticism itself is an acquired skill. It comes with practice.”

Artists can invite critical response to their work as well, Fitzpatrick adds.

“Artists can do their part by openly encouraging criticism of their work. Set up feedback sessions after performances and gallery show openings and/or closings, or even just let it be known that, hey, if you’ve got something to say about my work, please say it… contact me directly or publish your thoughts on paper or online… I welcome it.”

Pelley sees potential harm in criticism that is poorly delivered.

“Too many “critics” seem more interested in using their article as a chance to sound intelligent, talk about their personal life, or how they would have written the book. All of which are irrelevant, and only make them sound nasty and self-absorbed […] Half the reviews I read in our papers are good, the other half are more like, “Here’s what I thought of the book!” and that’s damaging.”

Without challenging dialogue, we will end up patting each other on the back and settling…into mediocrity.

But what of honest and informed critique? If we say that the criticism that does happen is often not constructive, what if we seek to change that, rather than abandon the idea altogether? Without challenging dialogue, we will end up patting each other on the back and settling, however slowly and by degrees, into mediocrity.

And as Fitzpatrick notes, it’s all out of a love of art, and a desire for continued growth.

“Ultimately the artist and the critic are on the same team. They’re all seeking to foster the positive development of great art within the community.”

But even recognizing the need for something to change in this respect, there are still a lot of questions to ask. How does one navigate being both artist and critic in a small city? And what about anonymity, so easily available online?

Consider this one to be continued.

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