In defense of criticism


When analyzing the culture as we so often do, there is a tendency within us to be overly critical. There is a quietly unstated rule, to consciously make an effort separate ourselves from the thread of commonality which critics like Barry Ronge have ensured is well woven into the fabric of South African mainstream media. Here we have distinct taste for flesh particularly on local acts. Skeem and the now defunct Unti11 now all about us. Some call it narcissistic cynicism, we call it critiquing and not giving a kak

We as writers in the comments section are often subjected to rants and tirades by pseudo liberal undergraduates who are convinced of their own hegemony. The ones who write long monologues and believe that even the most considered of opinions stem from a culture of critiquing in bad taste. Often we refute this by pressing the dislike button and carry on with the rest of the day.

But maybe we should ignore it no longer. It’s time for us to consider is being overly critical such a bad thing? No! But before you go to the comments section without reading the sum of the article allow me to add some evidence to this reasoning. The only instance in which being overly critical is seen as a bad thing, is when you have a culture like ours.

 A fragmented puzzle that at any given moment takes acceptation at having critical minds engage with the meaning of the output of its creatives. People just wanna relax and have fun. Thinking is hard. Kavish Chetty’s reviews are nauseatingly insightful. Sarah Dawson makes you feel like your college professors are ripping you off. I won’t even get into the business of hyping those big time South African writers by the names of Roger Young and Brandon Edmonds. They spark emotional violence in the most refined and well read of writers. They give your headaches. The kind of critical masterclass that either makes you want to stay up all night typing away at your laptop in pursuit of those gonzo journalist traits or you opt for the easy way out. Get a day job, shave your beard and chose a better life.

This idea of constantly pressing against the placenta of the culture-pushing and twisting it until it gives birth to some originality-is not an idea with which many people are fond. Many of the people in our spheres of influence prefer being insulated.  They live vicariously though the culture using it as entry point towards elitism and public approval.

 They are not there to question the work, They hate thinking, despite being surrounded by irreverent ideas, the notion of going against the grain pleases them but only in theory. When you offer them substance that stretches the perimeters of the mind and reaches into state of constant query they are very likely to rebel. They read the full review to feel better about themselves. That and to check if their names are mentioned or their picture featured in that review. They do no scan the scene because they want to engage with art beyond the orb of cheap pop culture.

I do however not blame them we come from a culture where our criticism can at best be described as a mixture of theory and stoicism that is firmly out of fashion. Coincidently upon scanning the seams of our literary culture there is a long standing obsession that cannot be suppressed. Primarily our reviewers and art critics have been a marquee of the class divide in South Africa. The cultural establishment have used their artistic pontification as sort of an intellectual borderline separating the masses from the elite. A cut of point between the haves and the have nots.

Recently I spoke to a very well established art critic who told me that he would never consider leaving his well paying job at an established newspaper to write for a tabloid paper, “It would be cheapening my craft,” he said. Why then do we do this? If a paper sells well regardless of its format is it not worthwhile for us to at least consider influencing it for the better and bringing to the masses a new type of culture?

The primary trouble is that this critic is not unique in his stance, in fact he is symptomatic of a greater problem within South Africana art circles and their cross pollination with mainstream media. There is a kind of snobbery that is present here. A kind of philandering that can only be mastered by critics critiquing a society that has a deep rooted sense of loathing new class entries.  

And because of this loathing those undergrads that I referred to earlier have suddenly crossed that divide. No longer are they thinking of Barry Ronge from the outside in. they find themselves bumping into him at the opening of that new movie. At once they have become middle class, complete with a university degree, an internet connection and an accent that is the mixture of middle class shivery and tsotsi tall twanging. Now they have the time to consider what Chetty means when he says 31 million reasons is, “not cyclonically bad. It’s not interrogatively good”

 They start thinking of things within the realms of the establishment. The trouble with that is they are more immediately exposed to those lucid, badly constructed rants that we disguise as writing in our Sunday reads. Those torpid ‘one liners’ that are actually five lines long, are what they believe to be refined and considered analysis of the culture.

You can see this reader that have recently graduated from the Sunday papers  fan club. Their queries are littered with distasteful pronouns such as “nuance” and “labored” they also speak/write long declarative sentences. Regularly use the word ‘passion’ and are fond of having a comments handle. Cnut anyone? Or mentioning their twitter profile in normal conversation as a slight hint that you can learn from them.

 They want to gain some reputation as avid followers of the culture of the day and if they are lucky they might get invited to the high fiving festivals that are often hosted by the cultural branches of our media. These gatherings are often construed under the guise of audience development and brand extension, but really it’s a bunch of people in a room eating crumbed prawns pretending to talk about things that matters. Smile and wave is the survival code here.

These events are also held to make this creative establishment feel better about the rip of job they are doing to the culture. The injustice to which they have subjected abiding minds. Luncheons in hacklandia, book awards in small coffee shops and even wine tastings in out of town estates. Those gatherings are resolutely an upper middle class affair where stimulating conversation is kept at low gear. Everyone pretends they are being humble. And anyone who dominates the comments thread enough can at some point get an invite to these things. Provided they solely defend the prevailing views of the author of the article in which the comments are being posted.

These are the types of critics and their fan clubs, who do not care for justified criticism they would much rather accept comforting lies. Be told they the work shows potential but could till improve, even if the contrary is true. These are type of people who use what little learning they have to convince their peers that they social status is up in the world. They are eager to parade non-existent intelligence if only to impress the adoring crowd, they drink large single malts of whisky and at any given moment can break into a monologue about how they can’t wait to see what their favourite critic has to say about that new movie or book in this week’s edition of the Sunday paper. Blah blah blah, and no one will even question them.   

This however is not a uniquely South African problem, the phenomena and the idea of dumbing down and conforming opinion to appease the crowd is growing ever more present in our culture. The need to simplify information to bite size, sexy and easy to tweet chunks is growing ever stronger.  And it is lead from the forefront buy blind consumers of pop culture. These people are sickeningly active in promoting unsustainable fads, both in the comments section and in real life. They act cultured but really are just totems for a naivety so far reaching that even a Bela Tarrian wide shot could not capture its full scope of its full might.

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