It was early December, I'd just arrived in Malta and it felt like I'd stumbled into the second act of a play. The scene was a library in the University of Malta and the characters were all arts critics, deep in discussion around a long table. For two hours I tried to figure out what was going on.
It wasn't that I couldn't follow the conversation; that was straight-forward enough, although some off-stage characters and historical incidents passed me by. No, what was hard was to understand the context.
Who were these people? What was their professional standing? Did they have an agenda? What was the pecking order? Who were allies? Who were foes? Was there a subtext? What exactly did I miss in the first act?
It was an impossible task. Not least, as it turned out, because this was the first time Malta's critics had ever met for an informal chat. They knew this with some certainty because among their number was Dr Paul Xuereb, the former critic of the Times of Malta, who'd been writing about theatre since 1963. If he didn't remember a meeting like this, then it didn't happen.
As a result, they had a lot to get off their chests – and a lot for me to get my head around. Much of it was directed at Ramona Depares whose editorial role at the Sunday Times of Malta meant she had, in theory at least, a touch more influence than the assembled freelance writers. Gamely, she said she was used to being attacked and defended her corner in good spirits.
The conversation veered in every direction, lacking shape or resolution, but it felt like the air was being cleared.
The motivation for the meeting came from Arts Council Malta, who had approached the University of Malta's department of English a few months ago. Working with the Department, Arts Council Malta is on a mission to raise the country's standards of arts criticism. I'd been invited as the author of How to Write About Theatre (http://www.howtowriteabouttheatre.com), a book about the craft of reviewing, with the aim of generating a discussion among artists and critics.
Coming from Scotland, I'd imagined I'd find common ground with others working in a small arts community. To an extent I did – but only to an extent. In Malta, I recognised a scene where the closeness of artists and critics can, at best, be culturally supportive and, at worst, lead to favouritism, blandness and bias.
But I also underestimated the difference it would make to be working in Scotland, with its population of five million, and Malta, with its 420,000 inhabitants. Critical independence is so much harder when everyone knows each other.
Add to that the decline in print media that is affecting criticism all over the world and I can understand why people in Malta are especially concerned about the health of the cultural conversation. It's hard to talk about standards when publication, let alone payment, is in jeopardy.
Yet my visit to Malta gave me heart. For one thing, close to 30 students voluntarily turned up to the mini-course I led at the university. Not only were there a lot of them, but their writing was intelligent, informed and engaged. Before the week was through, one of them, Isaac Azzopardi, even set up his own blog (https://artsieve.wordpress.com). If the future of arts criticism is in their hands, Malta has nothing to fear.
Additionally, the public discussion on 7 December at Spazju Kreattiv in Valletta on the subject of Reviewing the Arts demonstrated that artists, critics and audiences are equally committed to a future of vigorous critical debate. The conversation was opinionated but civilised, impassioned but constructive. If only a little of that energy could be channelled into creating a forum that broadens and deepens the critical discussion about Maltese art, then there's every reason it should go on to flourish.
I've put some further thoughts on this subject in a vlog: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wo7RBcsRcls
Mark Fisher was in Malta to deliver a three-day mini course to University of Malta students between 5-7 December 2016. He also held an informal discussion with several local arts critics on arts criticism in Malta and beyond as well as leading a public debate on Reviewing the Arts: A Conversation between Critics and Artists on 7 December.
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