A critic is to art what a doctor is to health and a teacher to education. A critic is a flash light, mirror, historian, archivist, scribe, guide, prophet and gate-keeper in whose absence creativity withers and dies.
But first things first; what is a critic?
A critic is an artist who uses history, logic and analysis to add value to creativity. Artistry, on the other hand, springs out of society—defined as a group of people with shared values, world view, traditions, norms and taboos that, together, form a people’s culture or the creative and intellectual expressions, achievements and aspirations. Contemporary could be defined as ‘of now’ or ‘present’. But why kill myself with definitions when Oxford dictionaries, Longman dictionaries of Contemporary English and various thesauruses exist in our age of Wikipedia and citizen journalism? All right, let’s move on.
One of the factors hindering an explosion of creativity in Africa is the absence of critical discourse. Many Africans take arts criticism (or is it critical appreciation?) to be synonymous with ‘praise-singing’; that one must praise anything they create—paintings, films, music, architecture, sculpture, dance, literature, games— without discrimination.
Many Africans in the creative sector take criticism personally and view critics as enemies hell-bent on destroying their ‘master-works’. That criticism is yet to be formally recognised as a profession or career in most parts of Africa only makes things worse.
This, however, should not imply that the art and science of appreciating creativity cannot be developed in Africa.
To bring about some understanding of critical discourse, we in Africa who already ply this trade must conduct seminars, workshops and in-house training for children, youth and communicators like journalists; festivals and other cultural events ought to incorporate seminars and workshops on arts criticism in their programmes. Media schools would do society justice were they to come up with new curricula focusing on critical appreciation and evaluation of the arts.
Nairobi’s ArtMatters.Info has been mentoring children, youth and students of communication, journalism, mass media, video production and other communication-related disciplines in critical appreciation of creativity since 2005. The organisation has over this period held workshops on criticism in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Nigeria, among other places.
Among the qualities ArtMatters.Info stresses as being crucial in the practitioner for the art to thrive are:
• the critic must be a good observer of one’s society
• the critic must be competent in the use of the tools and rules of trade
• the critic must be visionary, courageous, honest, objective, trustworthy, truthful, right-minded, honourable and fair.
These qualities, ArtMatters.Info emphasises, enable the critic to stand against powerful manipulative forces from economic, political and social quarters.
What am I saying?
That a good critic must challenge, inspire, educate, inform and entertain; such a critic has the innocence and brutality of a child who does not fight shy of telling the truth to a naked emperor about his state. Yes, such an artist exposes the hidden shames and sources of infection of the society as much as the greatness of that society just as Dr Stockman does in An Enemy of the People, that 1882 play by Henrik Ibsen that has become a classic around the world.
A critic is not necessarily the saviour of the world though there would be no harm in doing so where possible. Moreover, a good critic is not content with the way society is but seeks to transform it for the better of everyone.
From the foregoing, it is clear that a critic occupies an important position in society: that of a selfless prophet, advocate, teacher, entertainer, journalist and mentor all rolled into one.
This is an abridged version of ‘The Role of the Critic in Contemporary Society’, a speech by Ogova Ondego whose How to Write on 1001 Subjects! manual we recommend for cultural writers, journalists and critics in Africa.