Diary of an Arts Critic

CultureNorthernIreland's David Lewis undergoes a critical awakening in DC

In May 2007, the Arts Critics’ Exchange Program connected three arts writers and journalists from NI with three of their counterparts in Washington DC. The two week program saw the writers spend time in both Belfast and Washington DC, attending workshops with top arts critics, visiting galleries and seeing a variety of shows. Designed on the basis that a community of critical writers makes an essential contribution to democratic societies and a flourishing arts scene, the program aimed to create links between different cultures as well contributing to the appreciation and development of arts criticism. Here, David Lewis provides a diary of events.

Sunday, May 6
A first for me to view Belfast from an open-top bus and an excellent way to see how our city has radically changed in the last decade. Another first, and no doubt it’s my ignorance here, was to meet three Americans that I actually like – Alison, Drew and Chris. Interesting to hear their experiences and find that Washingtonians’ number one topic of discussion is indeed Politics with a capital P.

Monday, May 7
Our tutor for the fortnight is the redoubtable Linda Christmas, a journalist whose long career has spanned print, radio and television. As director of the postgraduate newspaper journalism course at City University, London, she has had many a trainee journalist for breakfast, lunch, dinner and light supper (including me). As well as writing about arts throughout her career, she was married to John Higgins, arts editor of The Times, i.e. she knows a bit about this arts journalism stuff.

‘If you don’t love the art form you are writing about,’ she advises. ‘Give it up.’ 

Linda is passionate in her belief that arts criticism is an essential part of a healthy arts scene, helping to demystify and democratise culture. Our role as arts critics is to service the reader, she says, as well as nurturing and promoting the art form. There is a symbiotic relationship between critic and creator, although perhaps an artist on the end of a bad review is more likely to think of that relationship as parasitic.

We all agree it’s very easy to slag off productions, less easy to be constructively critical. And take a pledge of sorts not to put the boot in gratuitously. I don’t mention how my younger spikier self was once banned from a pub theatre in London for writing a stinking review of a piece of execrable Oirish theatre…

We get stuck in with several writing exercises. The first involves me having to interview Alison. Among other things, I find out that she is a Kentucky girl, plays football for a team called Gangreen, and that her fiancé Simon is the smartest person she knows. I throw in a question that an old journalism teacher swore by: ‘When did you last cry?’

The reasoning behind the question is that chances are the person will tell you something revealing. Also, if they cry all the time then you can say they are mentally unstable, and if they never cry, that they’re clearly repressed. Did I mention that my old journalism teacher was a tabloid hack?

In the evening we go to see Henry & Harriet, Carlo Gebler’s new play. For the critic it’s manna from heaven, with plenty to write about, including the unusual promenade format around Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, the Titanic disaster, Home Rule, armed robbery…

Read David's review of Henry & Harriet.

Tuesday, May 8
A black cab tour of west Belfast turns out to be interesting and infuriating in equal measure. The Assembly should bring in legislation forcing black cab tours to give out fact sheets of the Troubles, including the numbers killed by the various factions. The unwitting visitor would come away from this tour thinking the IRA was a peace-loving charitable organisation. I make sure to inform our American visitors that in fact Republican paramilitaries killed more than 2,000 people during the Troubles. Loyalist paramilitaries killed more than 1,000, the security forces just short of 370. Some statistics lie, but these ones don’t.

We move on quickly to a round-table discussion at the new Arts College, chaired by Declan McGonagle, director of INTERFACE, a research centre at the University of Ulster. We debate the roles of art in the context of conflict and arts critics in socially engaged practice. I’m not sure the hard-bitten Belfast journalists quite buy into the jargon-heavy exchange or the concept that funders should fund art projects with no discernible end product. The debate does, however, strike a chord with several of our less cynical American friends.

Wednesday, May 9
We have a session with Tom Maguire, a theatre critic and lecturer at UU, one of the best on the program. An engaging teacher, Maguire gets down to the nuts and bolts of criticism, making us think about how to bring all our senses to bear on the event under scrutiny. He also gives us a useful critical framework – critic as standard-setter, interpreter, champion, good friend and artist. In theatre the buck stops with the director, Tom argues. They sign off on the set design, give the actors direction and room in which to move. If we’re going to put the boot into anybody it should be the director. A similarly useful tip, and one I really should have thought of before, is to sketch the set design before the play begins so you can refer to it the day after when you’re desperately wondering what to write.

In the evening we go to see the Owen McCafferty play Days of Wine and Roses. This turns out not to be everybody’s drop of rum but the theme of drinking certainly struck a chord with me.

Read David's review of Days of Wine and Roses.

Friday, May 11
Novelist, dramatist and book reviewer Carlo Gebler has us round for lunch in his converted schoolhouse home in Fermanagh. Carlo doesn’t agree with Elliot’s assertion that ‘art is the escape from personality’. He says: ‘What you are and have been makes a huge impression on what you produce.’

Some of his rules for book reviewing include:
• Do not review books you hate or are bored with
• Do not review your own book
• Do not get involved in a literary feud, unless you are 100% sure you’re going to win
• Don’t make notes, just circle interesting paragraphs
• Always deliver to length
• Don’t show off or try to be clever
• Try to write for a right-wing daily newspaper – they pay most
• Always have Orwell’s precept – is the book worth the money and time to read it? – at the back of your mind
• Don’t give away the story.

We finish the session by firing questions at Carlo about his play Henry & Harriet.

LISTEN to David and the other arts critics in conversation with Carlo Gebler

Saturday, May 12
The journey to DC passes off without incident. Matt and Linda are culturally engaged on the plane with books and a DVD. Philistine that I am, I plug in my IPod and sleep.

Sunday, May 13
Shoe on the other foot now. We take a touristy trolley tour. It’s hard not to contrast the fabulous monuments and buildings of DC on a sunny day with those of Belfast on a greyish afternoon, the only consolation being that a fair few Northern Irish helped to put them there in the first place.

We attend an afternoon concert with young NI classical musicians Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea at the Phillips Collection. A more beautiful setting for music is hard to imagine – the majestic Music Room is full of dark wood and paintings by old masters. The performers and composers must be delighted to be given the opportunity to showcase their talents in this space. I find the music a little challenging, however, and I’m not sure how I would review it. Perhaps by approaching the event sidelong. Did anyone else notice the Red Hand of Ulster carved above the huge fireplace?

Monday, May 14
Unfortunately around this point I begin to ail and my contribution in workshops and ability to partake of generous American portions are not what I would like... Glenn Harper is editor of Sculpture magazine and has written widely about the visual arts. I’ve always been wary of having a go at visual arts criticism because I know nothing about art, but Glenn succeeds in demystifying the process. It’s particularly inspiring to hear how he fell into the field, having neither a background in art history or art creation.

Describing the art exhibit is particularly important for his international magazine as 99% of people won’t see the show, he tells us. ‘The trick,’ he says, ‘Is to be able to write a sentence that conveys clearly to people what you are looking at.’ Although clearly it’s useful to place an art work in the context of art history and other artists, he adds, ‘every work of art [also] has to make its own case’.

We head to the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to view a site-specific installation in the foyer by Virgil Marti and Pae White. The Hirshorn is just one example of Washington’s cultural richness. The city has a museum for everything, from the Holocaust to American Indians to Air and Space. My particular favourite esoteric museum title is the National Museum of American Jewish Military History.

Glenn finishes up by dangling the carrot of writing for Sculpture magazine. With the arts scene in NI flourishing as never before and big investment on the way in public art, critics here would be wise to take him up on his offer.

In the evening we are lucky enough to go to the Opera – Verdi’s Macbeth at the Kennedy Centre. Jury’s Inn rather lets me down in the run up. All my smart shirts are at the laundry, which the front desk assures me will have them back by six pm sharp. I arrive at the opera one minute before curtain up, dressed in a $2 FBI T-shirt and denim jacket. Well, they do say that opera needs to widen its audience...

Tuesday, May 15
After glowing reports from my peers, I am even more disappointed to have missed a session with book reviewer Scott McLernee, who gives critical feedback on our reviews of books by American and Northern Irish writers.

Read David's book reviews of Dean Bakopoulos’ Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon and Glenn Patterson’s Number 5.

Thursday, May 17
So after an action-packed two weeks, what exactly is Arts Criticism? We round off with an interesting discussion kicked off by reading out the intros to our reviews of Macbeth:

The dagger in the air is always a conundrum for productions of Macbeth. Does the director leave it to his leading man to fashion the image in the audience’s imagination? Or not trust either actor or audience and employ a physical prop? In the Washington National Opera’s version of Verdi’s Scottish opera, high-tech stage and visual director Paolo Micciche opts for the latter approach, projecting a huge dagger onto a gauzy screen in front of the performers. The effect is risible, as subtle as a prick.

As our very different intros show there’s more than one way to skin a review. And they also show the subjective nature of the business – how one person’s fabulous night out is another’s infinite tedium. Tom Maguire’s words echo in our ears. Taste is not related to judgement, but the ability to describe taste is.

Friday, May 18
Everybody who comes to DC should visit Anacostia, the city’s most notorious district. Our trip there brings home just how segregated Washington is, on a par with, er, Derry. I am particularly interested in the work of the ARCH Training Center as my employer the Nerve Centre has a similar feel.

We meet up with NI artist Tracey Gallogly and Cheryl Foster, a DC-based artist, who are transforming a wall into an artwork with the help of local kids. Saving the best to last, fried chicken and greens at Mama Cole’s café is a highlight of the trip.

Overall, it’s hard to overemphasise the benefits of this fantastic exchange for the six journalists lucky enough to take part. I gained lots of tips to help me with my own critical writing and in training some of the young (and not so young) critics coming up through CultureNorthernIreland. I also made friendships in NI and DC which will last beyond the program, developed the confidence to turn my hand to new areas such as visual arts and opera, and there’s not many people on the planet who can say they’ve had Linda Christmas as a tutor twice in their life and survived to write the tale...