Everyone’s a critic; Thinking science thoughts at the Auckland Writers Festival

So I had told myself that my next post would be about my PhD but, like my PhD, plans change and sometimes it’s just not worth getting hung up on why, how or whether it matters.

So I took a break from pipetting and squeezing spider muscles out of their legs like a teensy calippo to go to the Auckland Writers festival. In particular I went along to The Role of the Critic, a panel (but really more of a conversation) between NZ art critic, Wystan Curnow, and international Shakespeare critic, Peter Holland, mediated by Rosabel Tan.

writers fest
Holland is on the right, Curnow in the middle, a logo on the left

Both Curnow and Holland believe that art criticism is not about assigning a value judgement per se (in the spirit of the original Greek term meaning “to judge” or referring to “a judge”). Rather, criticism comes from a personal impulse to understand the object (e.g. theatrical performance, artwork, song), to retain some memory of the live experience or indeed even possess the art through writing about it, and, above all, criticism is compelled by a deep abiding passion for the critic’s preferred medium or object. Peter Holland explained in response to a question that there are very few works without some redeeming quality and that examining why an object failed can be as compelling as pronouncing how it succeeded.

However, both also acknowledged that the critic mediates the space between the object and the public. In particular, Holland described how important it is for critics to understand the process involved in producing art and recounted a time when prominent theatre critics were invited to direct a play. One of the critics remarked that they had had no idea what happened in a rehearsal. Using this understanding must only aid the critic in another task which Curnow outlined. He spoke about the critic translating art works for the public, referring them to as “art knowledge” and “literary knowledge”. He emphasised that art is a body of knowledge in the same way that other academic knowledge is “knowledge” and that, in this way, one of the primary roles of the critic is to help translate this knowledge for others. Holland agreed that part of his role is to help others to see the “value” of the work. (In this case “value” refers to new ideas or experiences that an object bears rather than about assigning an artwork a place in a hierarchy).

So. I now spend more time in the biology building than the English department so I naturally twisted this all around in my head to think about science and how it is communicated. I strongly believe that science and art are more similar than we usually give them credit for but, even if we only think about them as bodies of specialist knowledge in which are the products of drawn out, largely unseen processes which are, in turn, packaged and sent out for public consumption well…you get the idea.

Mostly it just re-iterates the idea what there is value in having science communicators who can translate and re-frame scientific information for the public. Let’s face it, scientists do a lot of study in very abstract concepts before they’re allowed to start publishing papers and its not workable to expect the layperson to immediately recognise the same beauty or value in an elegantly designed experiment or in a high r-squared.

It also raised questions about value and distribution. Most universities have subscriptions to your major journals but what is the end product of our science for the public? Where is that information coming from, in what form and how is it being framed? Furthermore, how is science judged? I don’t mean in terms of citations or altmetrics but what are the value judgements ascribed to science and who are applying these judgements?

We already have people who I think we could call science critics such as Siouxsie Wiles, Shaun Hendy and other members of the New Zealand Association of Scientists. But could we use more? Art critics already have to battle with the false need for objectivity, balancing their authority to judge and their authority to speak to personal experience. Is the concept of a large number of individual critics compatible with science given that it is broadly considered more “objective” (strong quotation marks there). How qualified should you have to be to critique science? What avenues are there for critiquing science?

Too many questions for a Friday afternoon. Time for a pint.

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