Monday, November 29, 2010

WANTING MORE: By PETER MINSHALL

Peter Minshall was one of four panellists in a discussion on “The Future of the University” at Daaga Auditorium, UWI, St Augustine on Monday 11 October , 2010. The discussion was one of the events in a week of activities to commemorate the campus’ 50th anniversary. Following is the text of Minshall’s presentation:

When I was a young man, anything that had to do with art or theatre, I had a hand in. In particular, I remember designing and building and painting the scenery for a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Yeoman of the Guard by the Trinidad Light Operatic Society. The reviewer in the Trinidad Guardian made special mention of my designs, saying this was a young designer to watch.

I also participated in an exhibition that we called, simply, Five Young Painters. Three of them—Pat Bishop, Jackie Hinkson, and Peter Minshall—are artists still working today. My contribution to the exhibition included a portrait of Lance. (Lance was a sort of brother to me, living, as we did, in the same house, he the stepson of Clemmie, who minded the house, me the son of Jean, the household breadwinner.) Lance was a striking young man, and my painting captured that striking-ness, such that the review of the exhibition singled out “Portrait of Lance”, subjecting it to an astute critical analysis, explaining how the piece succeeded as a work of art and pronouncing its author, me, a promising talent.

The reviewer writing in the Guardian at that time was Derek Walcott.

These critical appraisals and substantive encouragements were important to me in my formative years, and a good introduction to the more comprehensive and exacting critical atmosphere I encountered in London when I studied and worked there.

One would have thought, one would have hoped, that as our society became independent, and matured, that we would have built upon this practice of critical assessment in the arts. And, that we would have expanded its range to include not only such “traditional” art forms as painting and proscenium stage theatre, but to our own indigenous artistic practice.

Instead, we have regressed. There is no critical analysis of artistic practice. Every review is a blandly benign PR blurb. Every painter is talented and self-taught, every play had the audience in stitches, all the work is wonderful—when in fact a pall of mediocrity blankets the landscape.
Innate talent is all very well and good. But talent can’t develop, can’t produce anything of real quality, if there are no standards. And there is no way to establish standards other than by critical dialogue, a conversation among artists and those who know art, as to what works and what doesn’t, what is good and what is bad, what is original and what is derivative, what is brilliant synthesis and what is pale pastiche, along with a common understanding of art history and international references.

Every single work of mas that I have ever made, I approached with all the discipline, rigor, and creative effort that a serious artist puts into making any work of art.
Never in this country has a work of mas been the subject of a critical assessment as a work of art. I know this as a fact. I have all the clippings. There have been only news reports. The work was colourful. Or it was not colourful. It was, inevitably and without reason, “controversial”. It was keenly anticipated. It had “X” number of masqueraders. But never, ever, has a writer addressed how it worked as a work of contemporary art. This is a great disappointment to me.

At a certain scholarly remove, my work has been the subject of some analysis, mostly “from foreign”, but almost always this analysis has been anthropological, or sociological, not aesthetic, not artistic.

As a consequence of this situation, we as a society do not know what art is. We certainly do not know what good art is. And we do not know—we have not done the work to establish- what are the critical terms of reference by which our own indigenous art forms can be assessed. This puts our artists and our culture —a culture that is inherently creative, and creatively participatory—at a terrible disadvantage. Artists cannot build on precedents if the precedents have not been identified. Artists cannot meet standards of quality if the standards have not been articulated.

Now, I know little about how a university goes about setting its curriculum and developing its academic program. But it just seems to me that in the area of critical analysis a university can and should have a role to play. And it also seems to me that in a small place like an island, a university should not be an ivory tower set apart from the rest of the community, but can and should have its intellectual activities integrated into the cultural life of the island community.

I know there are programs at the university that teach art. This is good. But I wonder if more could be done to teach not only how to do it but what makes it good, or not. And certainly more could be done, beyond trying to produce people who can make art, to develop a culture of aesthetic analysis, critical rigour, to scour the international field for the most rigorous standards and then to incorporate these into our island experience and to develop our own rigorous standards.
I am aware of some writing that comes out of the university. Professor Rohlehr, bless him, has honoured the form of calypso with serious scholarly application. What writing has been done, however, tends toward the historical and the sociological: what were the songs and the masquerades and the pansides, and how did they reflect the society in their time. This is valuable. But I want more.

I want the serious critics jostling for space in the popular media and making this critical conversation part of our daily lives. I want someone to be able to pick apart and articulate the elements of a work, the interplay of these elements, how they functioned in context, and how they managed to produce that spine-tingling sensation in five thousand onlookers that caused them to rise to their feet in a roar. I want a culture of critical conversation that can break this down for us and put it back together again, so that we as a society can better recognize the next great work when we see it on the horizon, and so that the artists of tomorrow have something to aim at in order to reach there.

It would be wonderful if the university could be a part of making that happen.

SOURCE: Trinidad & Tobago Review
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