16 May 2014

On the poverty of art-appraisal*

Last week I wrote a comment on Liyanage Amarakeerthi’s take on the Sinhala novel and especially his gripe about the relationship between this and what he calls Sinhala Buddhist Nationalist Ideology.  I objected to his assertion that a critical distance from dominant ideologies was a prerequisite for becoming a great writer and argued that he was as guilty of what he implies are exclusionary tactics such as those used by those professing adherence to some form of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism or are labeled as such.  I also took issue with Amarakeerthi’s carelessness with regard to the temporal axis of politico-ideological process. 

I was hopeful that he would respond.  In a personal communication, he has said that he is otherwise engaged and will not.  That’s his choice of course.  The issues I raised may or may not be considered important enough to warrant comment.  No issue.

No, this is not a ‘Part 2’ piece on Amarakeerthi, don’t worry.  I mentioned it because I did get a response from a fan. Amarakeerthi’s fan, not mine.  Eric Illayaparchchi, well-known poet, whose work I admire, appears to have been upset by what I’ve written.  This is essentially what he wrote:

‘I am writing for and to defend Dr Wasantha Amarakeerthi who is unfortunately out of the country, thus might not be able to write soon against what you have written against him.

I don't think that you are fair to Dr Amarakeerthi who is at Harvard University teaching courses on Buddism and Modern Fiction. No one of our generation can boast of such Himalayan achievements!’  See the link below:

Then, perhaps to drive his point home, Eric gives me a link to Amarakeerthi’s bio: http://www.hds.harvard.edu/cswr/people/Liyanage.html and wants me to do justice to ‘Professor Wasantha Amarakeerthi who has reached the highest in academic world and post-modern writing’.

Talking about missing the bus!  What’s sad is not the fact that Eric feels that throwing biography and/or curriculum vitae constitutes rebuttal to argument but that he’s doing the done thing in that this is what ‘debate’ and ‘discussion’ tends to be. Moreover this method of responding has not helped the poor culture of critical appraisal when it comes to literature, film, theatre etc.  Eric has given me an opening to talk about ‘review-culture’ or lack thereof and I am thankful.

There was a time when there were many individuals who had what it takes to write decent reviews.  Now it’s down to a mere handful.  Instead what we have are ‘write-ups’ about novels, poetry collections, plays or films, usually written by the authors/directors or their promoters.  When did we last see a good review of an art exhibition? 

It’s a human resource problem at one level.  Newspapers are seriously short-handed when it comes to people interested in art and capable of commenting on it.  Editors have to depend on some outsider being interested enough to write something serious.  Turn to the ‘Feature’ sections of any Sunday Newspaper, especially the English ones, and you might find an events-listing, one or two write-ups about a play or exhibition with some pictures but reviews will be rare.  The Sunday Observer’s ‘Montage’ is in this sense very ‘oasismic’ but even here it is clear that a couple of people are pulling most of the weight. 

There is also a lot of mutual-back-scratching that goes on.  Maybe it is because we are a small country and these circles pertaining to the arts are always a tiny fraction of the population.  What has happened is that the community is so small and there’s so little learning with respect to the art of appreciation that practitioners by default are also the best critics.  Therefore, a would-be critic is also a competitor at some level and therefore if he/she reviews something and happened to be unforgiving (as any decent critic should be) he/she would be called ‘envious’.

An anecdote might help put things in perspective.  A novice film-maker was worried that her film would ‘fail’.  A media conference was called and the invited journalists warned that there were plans to launch a smear campaign against film-maker and film.  They were told that they alone could turn back such malicious moves.  All this without anyone being shown the film!  A few weeks later there was a ‘media show’.  There was an ‘introduction’.  We were impressed upon to be kind to the film and fim-maker because there were vile and mischievous elements trying to clip its wings.  We were also given a souvenir which contained comments made by ‘experts’. Glowing praise! 

The film was nothing like the ‘glowing remarks’ promised.  I asked one of the people who was quoted what the hell he was talking about. This is what he said, ‘machang, narakak kiyanne kohomada….ithin hondai kiwwa….mama hithuwe nehe eka record karala ohoma daai kiyala!’  (How could I say anything negative….so I said it was good…I didn’t know it would be recorded and published!).   This is how it goes.  People are arm-twisted into saying nice things.  So either you say nice things or you just shut up.  

I am not claiming that critics are all saints of course and this is why the artists view them with suspicion at times.  Critics have favourites.  And they have those they love to hate.  These love-hate issues have very little to do with the work that is being (or not being) appraised.  It’s personal for the most part. It has to do with one’s preferred circle of artistic friends (yes, there are clubs, gangs, cliques and cartels).  It has to do with ideological orientation. 

This is why some people just can’t suffer anything produced by people from a different politico-ideological camp.   Fearing that saying good things would ‘mark’ critic and locate him/her in that other ‘camp’ or would further a politics that one is opposed to, critics prefer to focus on the negatives or to dwell on peripheral issues such as the particular person’s political preferences, track record, friends etc etc. 

Ezra Pound supported the fascists and this at a time when fascism was clearly the dominant ideology in wide swathes of the earth.  Would anyone say that Pound wrote crap?  Lenin loved Pushkin, how was by no stretch of the imagination a writer for the working class.  Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher supported Adolf Hitler and yet is one of the most influential contributors to contemporary social theory and theorizing.  If we were to dismiss artists and critics on account of academic qualification (or lack thereof), political history, preferences of association, friends and enemies, we would get a blank sheet.  

What Eric has done is not new.  Defenders of a particular writer, say, can very well talk about his/her academic qualifications or question the moral right or reviewing credentials of a critic.  A critic can ignore the work at hand and focus on the artist’s political associates and actions.  They can throw qualification and lack of qualification as the situation demands. They can engage in name dropping and book-dropping.  They can dismissively say ‘this is beneath me’ or ‘I am too busy’ or ‘this is not important’.  These are all options used by those who really don’t have an argument.  

There are also, to be fair, those who can take both brickbat and bouquet; those who actually solicit serious and critical reading of their work.  One produces and one must expect evaluation and be humble enough to accept that there will be harsh things said that cannot easily be sourced to malice. 

Asoka Handagama and I have had our ideological disagreements in public for example.  I’ve taken issue with the politics associated with the marketing of his ‘thani thatuwen piyambanna’ and he has defended people I criticized.  He and I are not in agreement ideologically and it is possible that although we can both like something, it could be for different reasons. My reading of the film was not quite what he ‘wrote’, but he said he liked it (my reading).  People who share my ideological positions see Handagama differently. Some have agitated for his films to be banned. I have opposed them.  I think ‘thani thatuwen piyambanna’ is a good film; better than ‘aksharaya’ but weaker than ‘me mage sandai’.  I don’t like the politics that Handagama promotes; but I will make it a point to see all his films because his is an important eye and voice in our overall cultural milieu. 

The same goes for Vimukthi Jayasundera.  He’s an extremely talented young man.  ‘Sulanga enu pinisa’ was a good film overall, but betrayed a certain carelessness typical of a newcomer. The politics was crappy and his understanding of social, cultural and political realities wanting.  The ‘depiction’ then was flawed; the rendering superb.  I will go to see his next film. 

There is another element in this whole ‘review business’ that we tend to gloss over: only those works that seem to be important get reviewed. Why? How can we tell before seeing a film whether or not it is good?  Will Jayasena Jayakody’s next book be ‘great’?  We can’t tell beforehand, can we?  But we choose not to watch certain films and certain books never get reviewed.  All films should be reviewed, all books too. Doesn’t happen. No time? No personnel?  No ability?  All of the above, perhaps. 

I told a young chess player recently that he should forget the name of his opponent in that his (the opponent’s) reputation should not factor into the overall thinking process.  At some point we should read novels and not authors. That’s what biographies are there for. Those who throw qualifications, reputations and the titles of books they’ve read betray an inability and/or unwillingness to engage in meaningful dialogue.  Time passes over them pretty quickly and so too their use-by date.

*First published in 2010 in the Sunday Observer.  The issues, however, are no less relevant.  Jayasena Jayakody passed away not too long afterwards.  


Anonymous said...

professional jealousy could be a cause as well.