I am the critical gaze

Gatekeeper confesses: I made it up as I went along

Words & images © Paul Ransom

The critic is generally, and perhaps rightfully, reviled. As Theodore Roosevelt so famously said in a 1910 address entitled Citizenship In A Republic:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”

As a critic of nearly thirty years standing across various media platforms, I concur with Teddy. However, for all its flaws, the practise of criticism is not without its graces. Done with humility, and an understanding of what it takes to be “in the arena”, the act of critique is the refined art of seeing. It is a more active form of watching. A multi-level observation. Indeed, the core discipline of criticism is critical thinking itself. It is the ability to defuse hype, to see through the distractions of spectacle and ascertain the inner workings. Thus, the higher purpose of the critic – if indeed there is such a thing – is to transcend the vanity of the tastemaker/gatekeeper function and to alert the rest of us to buried treasures and hidden snags.

But it wasn’t like that back in 1992 when I published my first review in an Adelaide based magazine called dB1. Influenced by various UK/US music mastheads, and by a desire to be as witty as Wilde, my criticism was more like self-aggrandising opinion than cultured analysis. I championed the stuff I thought was cool and savaged the things I didn’t. In hindsight, it was simply a long-winded incarnation of the now ubiquitous and far quicker Like button.

  • For the record2, early on I waxed lyrical about Radiohead’s The Bends, was lukewarm about Oasis’ Definitely Maybe and positively scathing of The Flintstones Movie. Later, I extolled Luke Davies’ novel Candy, was underwhelmed by Suede’s Coming Up and hugely unimpressed by Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.

However, with time and practise I came to understand that my opinion was just that; mine. Not merely subjective but a virtual irrelevance. What’s more, I realised that it required moderation and perspective if it was ever going to have any public value. Thus, incrementally, I discovered the real art of criticism. These days, the poison pen makes only rare appearances; and even when it does it remembers that behind every bad show are real life human beings who pour sweat and effort into their work. (And anyway, as a writer/director and maker of various forms of content, it’s not like I’m innocent of poor execution. Nor of laziness, conceit and error.)

Yet, to confess the limits of criticism is also to break the self-sustaining code of assumed authority that critics, influencers and listicle luminaries largely stick to. Having met many fellow pundits over the years, I have found a majority to be emboldened in their opinions by a curious kind of entitlement. I suspect that many enjoy the fawning of publicists and the quivering supplication of artists – not to mention the numerous freebies and the ego-stroking pleasure of seeing themselves quoted. In return for this largesse they offer what they claim to be ‘expert’ opinion. Whereas the vox-popped punter will decry “wow, it was awesome” the respected critic will respond with “a dazzling amalgam of virtuosity, technical exactitude and narrative nuance.” (Spot the difference?)

What this points to is perhaps the dirtiest secret of the game; namely, that a significant part of criticism is about the language. As such, it is a kind of performance. As Susan Cain intimated in her 2012 book Quiet, a way with words is frequently conflated with intelligence and leadership potential. Though many of my reviewer buddies will not like it said aloud, a good deal of being accepted as a critic is sounding like one.            

  • In evidence, here’s a link to a review of Yang Liping’s Rite Of Spring I penned for Dance Informa whilst I was composing this article. Click here.

After twenty seven years as a name on the door, it strikes me that – aside from being a freeloader – I am ‘the audience with added lingo’. In essence, my opinion is no more valid than yours. I still like what I like and don’t what I don’t; only I’ve taught myself to say it in a way that comes off as insightful.  

And yet, it’s not all flim-flam and fakery. Far from it.

For once you get past the promo copies and after parties and are no longer as dazzled by the sound of your own cleverness, there is something almost ‘mystical’ about being a critic. Not only does it teach you to pay attention, to notice, but to be aware of the act of noticing. To acknowledge the role of spectating and therefore to pay heed to the ceremonial underpinnings of art making and public performance. To simultaneously watch the show and observe yourself watching. To be at once present and absent, near and far.

Should this strike you as self-indulgent rubbish – let me put it in a more worldly way. During my time as a critic many people have asked me if it spoils the fun of going to the movies or listening to a record. “I mean, aren’t you really just composing your review in your head, rather than just enjoying? Don’t you wish you could just sit back and be a fan?”

Partly, they are right. I do take mental notes during performances. Sometimes I even semi-compose paragraphs. But does this practise take me away, fundamentally shift my focus? Well no. It used to when I was trying desperately to sound like the most erudite critic on the planet, but with experience and age I have learnt that:

  • The critic process seriously enhances my appreciation by sharpening my gaze and, in turn, revealing layers of detail and complexity that enrich my experience
  • The process also engenders a way of seeing that looks beyond mere taste, and in doing so, considers the various prisms through which I and others ‘appreciate’ work
  • The critical eye, properly calibrated, takes the helicopter view; seeing the social, historic and personal contexts in which work is created
  • As a reviewer I imagine myself in the artist’s shoes, which then creates an opportunity for a more humble and humane expression

Plus:

  • At its core, the critic process has starkly revealed the nature and scope of the performative self; and in doing so has honed the mechanism by which I both act and regard myself acting, and this in turn allows me to better imagine the view of self from the perspective the other 

And of course:

  • Realising that not many people pay attention to my reviews, there is little point sabotaging my own fun for the sake of a largely non-existent audience or to maintain the pose of authority  

Being a critic – getting paid for your opinion, plied with freebies, etcetera – can indeed be a recipe for delusions of self-importance, but it can also be an invitation to witness the other, and to do so with concentration and detail. Here again, (without wanting to get too ethereal), we arrive at something fundamental about the role of art – of symbolic storytelling – in human culture. Because what it’s like to be you is, principally, what it’s like to be me, and through story we can connect those dots, thereby expanding the scope of self and, significantly, rendering the other less otherly.

Thus, since I started reviewing as a cocky twenty-something, I have effectively taught myself several important lessons, not the least of which is humility. Nowadays, I don’t take my pontificating too seriously. After all, no one taught me how to be a critic. I just picked it up on the fly. At first, I was a mimic, aping what I thought was the coolness of pithy phrasing, but slowly I learnt to find and distil my own voice and, more importantly, to hone my gaze. In other words, to both refine and become honestly aware of the act of judgement3

Star rating is idiotic, and like/dislike similarly lazy. To say why takes a little more effort. To acknowledge the habits and mechanisms of such judgement is to clear a path to a wider perspective; a point from which we may regard ourselves as being both in the stands and in the arena.     

So, while it remains simple to sit on the sidelines and snitch, to build up yourself by cutting down others, the gaze of the critic, like critical thinking itself, offers the possibility of more. Much more. To critique with care is to deconstruct in order to better comprehend the manner of making and, hence, to pass on the secrets of building. It invites others into the circle and equips them with new ways of seeing. Look at it like this, think of it this way, see it in this context. Now what do you think?

In conclusion, after reviewing literally hundreds of books, films, albums, shows, festivals and restaurants, my aim is not so much to regale the world with the apparent wonders of my own opinion but to create triggers for others to re-examine theirs. To sharpen their own critical gaze.

1: It was a review of the Australian film Aya (released in late 1991 and written & directed by Solrun Hoaas). It tells the tale of a Japanese woman living in small town Australia. I saw it at a preview screening at the Mercury Cinema in Adelaide and, as I recall, I really liked it.

2: In the interests of transparency, I have also raved in the media about: Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, Sydney Dance Company’s We Unfold, Nautilus Restaurant in Port Douglas and Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss. Given the column inches, I would also gladly extol things like Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and the live performances of Canadian band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Conversely, I would be hard pressed to find especially kind things to say about recent Star Wars movies, Arcade Fire’s Everything Now or Xavier Le Roy’s Self Unfinished.          

3: Working as a critic has also massively expanded my range. I have discovered – in the process of being commissioned to review – artists and ways of art making that I would almost certainly not have uncovered otherwise. In the end, I have been the chief beneficiary of my opining prowess. Through this practise I first came to appreciate artists as diverse as Pedro Almodóvar, Portishead, Tao Ye, Margaret Atwood and Nicola Gunn.