Critics practising

Katherine Brisbane (ed.)
Critical Perspectives:
Eight award winning arts critics
Currency Press & Pascall Foundation   193pp.

Australian Book Review, July 1997, pp. 21-22.

Geraldine Pascal was a Sydney journalist with a passion for good living. In her memory, the Pascall prize has been awarded each years since 1990 for “critical writing”, which the judges have equated with reviews in mass print media. Contributions to television are yet to be recognised.

A 450-word review of a current movie can present demands as great as those for an essay on the oeuvre of a Gillian Armstrong. The new film must be considered for its intrinsic worth as well as for its contribution to the medium, discriminations which must be made in a rush, overnight even.

Critics are chastised for injuring the arts whenever we do not plagarise handouts form PR agents. Promotional budgets for a Hollywood blockbuster can exceed annual expenditure by the Australian Film Finance Corporation. The suggestion that a newspaper reviewer should rally around the marketing department ignores the fact that, by the time the arts get to us, they have been hyped. Critics therefore have a duty to cut through the bumpf, as they have done with the travesty and tragedy of the Helfgott tour.

Critical standards are undermined when reviews are displaced by interviews and profiles, which happens most often on radio and television. Matters are at their worst in electronic media when supposed reviewers are themselves interviewed instead of working form a script.

The Pascall is not a prize in the sense of being linked to a single piece of work but goes to a longer term achievement. This perspective lessens the danger of a critic writing to win gold rather than to do justice to the work under consideration.

The oddity of prize-gathering appears in the biographical note on Marion Halligan who has been “nominated for most of the major literary prizes in Australia”. How does that achievement differ from failure to take out any of the big ones?

In the 1890s, a drama critic for the Bulletin submitted reviews in rhyming verse. Not until a review can manager that feat will it be time to reconsider the virtue of prizes for other than boy scouts and stud rams.

Six of the eight Pascall winners have come from Sydney, one from Canberra and one from Perth, though the latter has now moved east. This Sydney bias is stronger than any alleged against the Australia Council. Will that imbalance lessen now that the Award is decided by the previous recipients?

That three winners were academics highlights a dilemma: is it worse that academics take the fees out of the mouths of freelancers, or that university staff confine their judgements to learned journals? One solution is for university staff to write only for the periodicals that cannot afford to pay, thereby letting the money go to the untenured writers while the ideas are available for indigent editors. That arrangement is not an ideal solution since it can crowd out beginners.

All the contributors to Critical Perspectives are aware that the art forms about which they write have traditions in this society. None gives any sign that their own area of reviewing also has a tradition here. Yet, criticism of the several arts has had distinguished practitioners since the nineteenth century with James Green and Nettie Palmer.

In addition, the essayists do not see how reviewing has contributed to the practices on which they comment. Alan Saunders gives no indication that restaurant reviewing played any part in the creation of an Australian cuisine. Gourmet, One Continuous Picnic, Cheap Eats and Leo Schofield are not on the menu.

Similarly, John McCallum does not see himself in a line of even recent theatre critics from “Brek” and Katherine Brisbane, let alone from any of the reviewers from last century, such as J. B. Neild.

Sandra Hall begins with a sketch of her tracking the rebirth of Australian cinema since the late 1960s but passes over even other Sydney reviewers such as Sylvia Lawson, Meaghan Morris and P P McGuinness.

Despite their lack of historical awareness, all the Pascall essayists imply that creators should know the Australian tradition of their genre. If that rule is essential for artists, why does it not apply to their commentators?

The critics have not turned their talents back on their own efforts. They comment on criticism as if they were not part of the processes they are analysing. A comparison between a review of Fidelio which Roger Covell prepared around 1960, when be began at the Sydney Morning Herald, and one of his recent efforts on that opera might have helped us – and him – to understand his place in our culture of music-making.

After the lineages of reviewing in Australia have been traced, it should be easier to discern whether we have a national style or tone. Is there a combativeness linking Robert Hughes on the visual arts of the 1960s with James Smith on theatre in the 1860s? Are such traits more prevalent here than overseas, and more noticeable now in Sydney than a century ago in Melbourne? One concern often voiced about the arts in Australia is that gangs of creators and performers go in for back-scratching or back-stabbing. Which is closer to the truth?

Katherine Brisbane opens her “Foreword” to Critical Perspectives with the claim that she “found the accounts in these essays as revelatory as I might have as a beginner.” I don’t believe her.