Apathy, not criticism, is the true enemy of culture

Intelligent voices of dissent are as important to a healthy arts scene as generous words of praise

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 December, 2013, 4:29am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 December, 2013, 4:29am

Can a publication promote arts and culture by taking a critical stance on it? If you have pledged your allegiance to arts and culture, should any criticism on your part be termed "unpatriotic"?

These are the questions inadvertently raised by critical reviews one often finds in such authoritative literary-intellectual magazines as The New York Review of Books or The New Yorker. In a recent issue of The New York Review, for example, Professor Lorrie Moore, a frequent contributor, has this to say about Blue is the Warmest Colour, the Cannes Palme d'Or winner showing in Hong Kong and regarded by many as a triumph of independent filmmaking: "[The film's sex scenes] go on too long and are emotionally uninformative, almost comedically ungainly and dull to watch, as most long sex scenes are."

This, I think, is the best way to promote arts and culture - by subjecting it to critical scrutiny and, whenever possible, engaging it in a vigorous and thoughtful debate. Dissent, in this case, can be the highest form of patriotism.

Any cultural enthusiast will tell you that his enjoyment of a film, concert, exhibition or stage performance will be enhanced, not diminished, if he gets the chance to discuss it with friends over coffee or noodles. As a film reviewer, I live by the motto: You go to see a movie now so that you can talk about it later.

Indeed, a theatre director knows he's in trouble if the audience is silent at the curtain call. One significant indicator of the cultural significance of the mainland Chinese director Zhang Yimou is that he never fails to get taken apart in the press every time his new film comes out. Just how important a film Blue is the Warmest Colour is can be measured by the amount of controversy that has beset it since it premiered at Cannes in May. Apathy, not intense dislike or even disparagement, is the worst enemy of arts and culture.

The reason is simple. Art is averse to explaining itself. That's why it needs criticism. In the words of the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, criticism can talk and all the arts are dumb. Criticism, rather than explaining away a work of art's complexities and ambiguities, keeps it urgent and compelling. Arts and culture exist to stimulate insights, provoke complacency and excite extremes of passion. It hasn't done its job if nobody wants to talk about it, or if they do so with the kind of polite respect one reserves for the dead.

The cultural pages of local newspapers should, therefore, strive to provide a home for vigorously written criticism and a voice of critical dissent. This is something as important as, though often much less appreciated than, celebrating the bold and the original, the beautiful and the creative in Hong Kong arts and culture.

Perry Lam is a local cultural critic