Published April 3, 2009
They tell me that Iceland, and in particular Reykjavík, is too small an environment to foster a critical arts debate, since the feeling of being able to speak freely is a luxury given only through a certain remove, a certain distance which is not to be found in the Icelandic arts world (and moving abroad, I assure you, doesn’t help much – unless you decide never to return). Sooner or later you’re gonna share a table at a bar with the artist in question, and although the situation is more likely to turn out to be less violent and more strained, repressed and weird, it’s still uncomfortable and religiously avoided by almost anyone that engages in criticism in Iceland.
And thus literary reviews have become a minimalist art form where the reader is more or less left to interpret what the reviewer thought of the book in question – leaving the option open whether he or she had any thoughts about it whatsoever. All poetry is so-and-so – and the few truly lauded seem to be lauded mostly for being old men who have begun to believe their own hype writing new books as if they were word for word imitations of their own best-of collections.
Icelandic art seems to be “mostly ok” and the spectrum of quality for Icelandic movies spans three-and-a-half to four stars – while the spectrum for music is a tad wider, it still shares the same sort of mentality: An utter fright of any concrete opinion.
Being “cruel” – or “open” or “honest” or whatyouwannacallit – is not going to get you any friends and we all know that without friends you’re basically worthless. Dale Carnegie calls it “How to win friends and influence people” because the two tend to go together. And besides, you should do the work justice: judge it on its own merits. Does it achieve what it sets out to do? And by all means, ask not whether what it sets out to do makes any sense, if it’s any fun or has any merit. Speak carefully, for you may later prove to have been (historically) wrong. As if discussing arts was a matter of being right or wrong.
Now let me state that being objective doesn’t deprive you of your right to an opinion – and commenting on plausible/possible faults in a piece of work doesn’t mean you hate the artist and all his or her kin. It doesn’t even mean you hate the work in question. And yes, you’re allowed to misread and misinterpret – just don’t be cowardly. If you’re not willing to risk misreading you’re probably not reading at all.
Arts differ from, let’s say, engineering. If you miscalculate the structure of a bridge it might crumble – and it means you were probably wrong. A book? A play? A film? The bridge of a song? – while it need not sit well with the artist you’re still entitled to an opinion. And the artist, the artist’s friends, the artist’s mother, fans, other critics and culture enthusiasts are entitled to have opinions about your opinions – it doesn’t mean you’re wrong and they’re right. It doesn’t even mean you’re right and they’re wrong.
It means that to some degree you disagree.
It’s called a discussion, relax, get over it.