A Criticism of the Role of Criticism in Vancouver’s Arts Apocalypse … (or not apocalypse)

This is a creative critical response (attempting to be kind of) in the style of New Journalism to:

  • ideas from the Morrison article “No Place for Self Pity, No room for Fear”
  • Thoughts thrown around in last night’s panel discussion with Max Wyman, Larry Green, and Susan Mertens
  • Peter Dickenson and Jerry Wasserman’s talks to our class about the Vancouver arts scene, and their experiences within it as critic/artist

I was 18 when I was first introduced to the world of criticism. I had just entered into my first year of university in a Bachelor of Fine arts program. My being was vibrating on another wavelength than it is now, one that I have been trying to get back to. I was immersed in exploration tuned on to art and ideas and creative exploration, what Susan Mertens calls becoming. I was also a keener so one evening I bravely took bus over to Detroit .Not brave because I was going to downtown Detroit; I did that almost every weekend to see music. I was brave because I was 18 and sacrificing my Friday night to go and see a famous art critic David Hickey lecture at the DIA (or was it Wayne state?) This was the first time I’d ever been to an event in Detroit where the rock star wasn’t playing any music. This was not Jack White, this was some old white dude in a suit talking about fine arts yet the place was buzzing. If you know anything about Hickey you will know he’s (in the words of Ron Burgundy) “Kind of a big deal” having written for giants like Rolling Stone, ArtForum, etc. In retrospect I’m not always congruent to what Hickey has to say about Art. However in this instance my 18 year old self sat for 2 hrs and listened, transfixed, to a man talk passionately about supporting new art, new artists, and showed examples of artists he’d found doing street art/graffiti in Detroit, Japan, New York and other places around the world. He was supporting and validating new ideas and arts practices through his criticism. I realized there were cultures, discussions, and worlds of art I knew nothing about. As a budding artist, and musician I wanted in. I knew that it would be a hard choice but in my world I would have critics like David Hickey as my both my devil’s advocate and my champion, pushing me towards greatness yet supporting and defending the new. At a certain point in my life eventually I gave up on my goal to make arts a career for many reasons including necessity due to lack of financial support in combination with depression, grief, and loss. I’ve been slowly working my way back to practicing art and music for the last 3 years now, which has been essential to my overall well being. I’m not sure if I will ever become the full fledged participant that I had once intended but I know now at least no matter how small my participation I will not give it up again!

Last night Max Wyman and Larry Green talked about two things that I connected with my own personal loss of arts to the bigger loss of arts (and their affects) being experienced on a human scale. Larry spoke of a shared Human experience of having no home; Max spoke of us losing a moral centre. Loss of memory, history, place, and self tend to be at the centre of what an apocalypse feels like. As the arts represent all of these themes (and more) then a lack of arts in a culture is indicative of an apocalypse. According to both Peter Dickenson and Jerry Wasserman’s assessment it seems that they would agree (I know Jerry mentioned he thought the scene was thriving but his lens and tone of criticism makes me want to argue that he supports a rather apocalyptic view of Vancouver arts.) As was mentioned in the Morrison article, “No Place for Self Pity, No room for Fear” in this time of crisis it is more important now than ever to produce work as an artist, to resist, to create, and to inspire. This sense of loss in combination with our obsession with individuality drives a Human crisis that I believe the arts can answer. If supporting the growth of arts is the answer than what becomes the role of a critic during the apocalypse? If the arts are at an all time low in terms of needing support how does criticism maintain its integrity but redefine its function so as to not hinder the much needed space and growth for all artists today in Vancouver? I think it is important for the health of an artist’s growth to be able to step outside the art and critically examine it as a tool for evolving, In that way the role of the critic is essential. I would also say that criticism is its own kind of art form that is lacking in support. That being said in an arts apocalypse how useful is it for a critic to take on the duty of stomping out mediocrity within the arts if that is all a city is capable of producing due to its surrounding conditions? Is there a danger of critics stomping out the flame all together? Vancouver has a flame, and as Jerry Wasserman and Susan Mertens pointed out it can burn with mediocrity. At least it’s still there, trying to burn under all the conditions that threaten to blow it out. What if that mediocrity is a stepping stone to something greater? Every guitar virtuoso probably started by badly playing songs like smoke on the water, what if that was the moment a critic caught him or her at the game?

In its defense I also need to say I have seen Vancouver burn brightly with passion, talent, and innovation particularly within what I know of its large yet small music scene. I say large because there are a large number of musicians living here. I say small because most of them work elsewhere to make a living. Many of the musicians I know playing in this city are grinding it out, and do everything they can to push themselves to be the best they can be in the most challenging of conditions. There are consistently amazing live shows happening in small clubs, rented halls, dive bars, and illegal venues such as house concerts on any random evening. How does a critic contend with that? How can a critic be aware of a secret venue? A secret venue is an affordable option for musicians to put on a show where they can play what they want to play. Because of that it this venue might exist in an industrial area that smells of chicken factory and musty old couches, but inside there is Jazz being played by a group of heavy Vancouver players that undeniably has a finger on the pulse of what is hip and happening in Vancouver music… for an audience of three. The musicians though invigorated by their performance go home without their rent money because the cover was by donation, and it was raining too hard so no one felt like coming out. The next night they play in a large, relatively well funded venue with comfortable seating for a band that plays cover songs people like to dance to in order to please the audience, who they will remain seated, on their cell phones, taking pictures, and texting, and tweeting their selfies, and statuses such as “Mind blowing show tonight at the _________.” A critic attends and calls the musicians out on the mediocrity of their performance. This brings up another problematic scenario in the arts apocalypse. Who/what is driving the direction of the arts besides artists and critics? What is the responsibility of the audience and how does that effect the artist’s performance?

I have few answers, little continuity within my thoughts and writing, apparently some bitterness, and lots of questions about the things I just wrote. I am pro critic and criticism, yet what I’ve said above contradicts that. I guess I’m trying to present and embrace my ambiguity as was suggested by one of the panelists last evening. I’m hoping this critical/reflective response will improve once you all start to give it some of your criticism….

andrea t –  aka.( blogger handle) beetbanshee

P.S. Yikes, I promise my next post will be closer to 500 words! I just needed to get this out there!