Arts criticism/reviewing in Trinidad & Tobago: is there any?

Trinidad and Tobago (orthographic projection) ...
Trinidad and Tobago (orthographic projection) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why isn’t there a culture of real feedback, reviewing or criticism in T&T? It’s something I’ve heard artists and (good) journalists & editors complain about for years: that there isn’t a real core of reviewers and “critics” (however infuriating they me be) to actually give feedback on our cultural products.

I can’t remember the last time I read a proper review of local art, music, theatre, film/tv, literature or dance in the local media – one of the many reasons I read the papers less and less, outside of some favourite columnists. What substitutes is having what seems to be a features or entertainment (or randomly assigned) reporter go (or not go) to an event and just report on what happened, with the odd remark about what they liked or didn’t like – but without any real engagement or substance.

This doesn’t begin to address whether the reporter/reviewer is even remotely prepared to view let alone review the said piece of art. To even see a piece of work and respond with anything other than an off-the-cuff emotional response requires a certain body of knowledge before you even begin. Even if you come in to an art exhibition with only moderate knowledge of art history, it at least gives you a head start to be able to research not only the artist, but the style of art they might be influenced by or trying to produce. But if you don’t know anything about art, or the artist, or what inspired the pieces in the exhibition – what on earth can you possibly say that has any depth? That could engage in some sort of conversation with the work and the artist about what might have worked or not worked? What on earth can the audience glean from your not-so-informed “critical” eye?

Even this doesn’t even begin to touch on whether the person has any agendas or conflicts of interest, since going in with an informed but unbiased mind is paramount in reviewing. This of course is difficult in Trinidad & Tobago where six degrees of separation between artist and critic would be a generous estimate, and if the painter in an exhibition turns out to be the woman tong say tief yuh second cousin common-law husband and you supposed to do de review… You get my point.

Again, this doesn’t even get to the all-too-common practice of “reviewers” writing a story on an event they haven’t even been to. Quite often these “reviewers” write sometimes either without staying for the full performance (in the case of drama, dance, music, etc) – or without having attended at all. Nevertheless, there follows the report/review, hopelessly generic or padded with hearsay and generalities, and perhaps quoting wholesale from the programme of said event that the photographer picked up while taking photos. The irony in this case is that (for me at least) it might even be acceptable for the reviewer to state why they might not have stayed for the whole performance, though I can’t think of a good excuse for writing on something they didn’t even attend. That takes lack of preparation to a whole new level.

Now, I’ll be the first to confess I know very little about visual art. Didn’t even take an art history course at College, rather shamefully (since everyone raved about the Clarke Museum on campus…but I digress). But I do know a fair amount about music, film, and theatre across cultures, and a bit about literature and dance (even if my grand jeté, jazz hands and bongo leave much to be desired). As a Performance Studies devotee, I’m missing the discourse around our cultural output in T&T. As a performer/arts practitioner, I miss the feedback from people who know (and not just pretend to know – beware those who go around calling themselves, or allow themselves to be called, “musicologists” and “doctors of…” when their knowledge base may not actually support their assertions). Is it happening somewhere (other than half-heartedly in universities) that I’m missing?

I sadly suspect that the dearth of good reviewers is inextricably tied to a rather cynical capitalistic approach by the media houses: that the population/market is not discerning or interested enough to demand high quality reviews, so that good reviews are a waste of newspaper space since they won’t be read, and would be more profitably replaced by content that is more vapid – making hiring good reviewers not worth the investment. I tend to disagree with that approach, since I’ve often been pleasantly surprised by Trinis’ longing for substance over fluff (which is why some of our best journalists’ columns are quite so popular), and think the media should seek to maintain certain standards rather than lower them for a perceived gain in market share. Silly old idealist, I know. So if this scenario is indeed the case, not only will I fret about where this now leaves us, but also commend all of those who have slaved away writing reviews over the years, even if they’ve moved on to less thankless tasks since.

I think arts criticism is important, almost mandatory, particularly for a young, growing nation like ours with such a vibrant creative & cultural sector. It’s an invaluable means of contextualising a piece of work in our national canon. Without criticism, how do we know where we are in relation to where we’ve been and where we can go? What mechanism is there to keep cultural producers & practitioners on their toes, and to add meaningfully to the national conversation about our arts and culture? What standards do we set ourselves, and how do we know whether we’ve attained them or fallen hopelessly flat? What’s left is for people to set their own individual standards – which they may or may not do, and may or may not do well.

In the end, reviewing is only one component of a creative and cultural sector that thrives and grows. There are all manner of elements (education, facilities, cultural policy, functional professional organisations, etc. etc.) that are fundamental to their development. But even with all those in place, without a space for real informed constructive conversation around our arts – as opposed to whimsical responses or outright propaganda – we will never move forward. In fact, we may even move backward.

And that is what I’m terribly afraid of.

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