The Role of the Critic is to create and document Culture – IfeOluwa NihinlolaJanuary 23, 2018
IfeOluwa Nihinlola is a Lagos-based writer and editor. His essays and short stories have been featured in Ozy, Klorofyl, Saraba, Afreada, and Omenana, and he writes about music for MusicInAfrica.net. He was a participant in the Young Critics workshop organised by the International Association of Theatre Critics and British Council Nigeria as part of 2017 Lagos Theatre Festival, a participant of the 2016 Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop, and an inaugural fellow of aKoma’s Amplify fellowship
We talk about the writers he admires, his thoughts on the importance of criticism and the role of the critic, and much more.
This conversation took place one morning in Lagos.
Lade Tawak: What are your thoughts on the Loose Talk Podcast with MI and the articles it spawned?
IfeOluwa Nihinlola: I think that it’s a problem that we don’t know where to draw the line between opinions and facts, especially in a space where we’re not really concerned about editorial integrity: people don’t fact check what they say and you can say things without providing proof. The culture here isn’t concerned with the integrity of facts.
Then to the TIA article. Mediocrity isn’t seen as a problem in these parts, as long as you’re loud and as long as people know and see you. That sort of validates your work no matter how mediocre it is. And it cuts across all media. It isn’t even a Pulse problem. It’s a Linda Ikeji problem. It’s not about the fact that she’s doing celebrity blogging, it’s that she is a mediocre celebrity blogger. You can admire her hustle, but it doesn’t preclude the fact that she’s bad at what she does. It’s a general problem.
Nobody is upset by mediocrity. Why it’s concerning with writing is because if all what you’re doing is celebrity blogging like Linda Ikeji does, indeed, nobody really cares about your grammar or the strength of your argument. But if you claim to be doing journalism or criticism, then everything should matter: how strong your argument is, how well you present it, your use of words. Just misusing an adjective word can change how something is perceived in future. Because context is lost to someone reading it say in 10 years’ time as they might not know the history behind it. You have to say what you mean.
LT: Let’s move to you. When did you start to write and when did you begin to look at yourself as a writer?
IN: I finished University in 2012 and started serving in 2013 as a teacher. I had some time and I had this long list of books I wanted to get into: English classics and Nigerian authors. I also started blogging around that time just to document all the weird, funny stuff that was happening then. And it seemed to be something I was fairly good at, so I decided to try to master it as a skill. I decided that it was something I wanted to do full time, so I took some time to learn the craft and I started to focus on grammar, style and all that.
LT: Which writers do you admire? Style wise?
IN: At the start, the person I really wanted to do what he could do was David Foster Wallace. He’s not a stylist per se. I liked the freedom he had. He was the one person I knew who could always easily switch between highbrow and lowbrow language. He writes in language that is high register in one part of an essay and then switches to language that is close to vernacular in another part of the same essay. It was something that, at that time, I wished I could achieve. To write in extremely high register language and switch to low register language. With criticism, the person I admire is Susan Sontag. Just how brilliant she was on page. She could write about anything and make it brilliant. It didn’t matter whether it was high culture, pop culture, or whatever. Once she’s writing about it, you get this very strong sense of understanding of what it is.
LT: Why do you think criticism is important?
IN: I think art criticism is important because it’s kind of the other side of art. When someone produces something, what they want to do, at the heart of it, is to communicate. The artist essentially wants to translate something to the people that will listen to it and have them receive it in a way. Whether it makes them happy, whether it makes them dance. That is what you expect: to elicit a response.
For me, criticism is a response. Someone presents a work of art and me saying this is how I received what this person did. Some other person might respond on the dance floor. It completes the process. If all that happens is just the creation of art and there isn’t anyone to interact with that art and respond to it brilliantly, on the page especially, you kind of have an incomplete process of culture making. The making of the art is one part of the equation and the response to it — of which criticism is central — is the other part.
When you can achieve that back and forth, you then have a culture that is complete. As opposed to when someone makes art and no one responds to it. People will forget about the art, and even if they remember, it’s going to be remembered in a way that isn’t accurate. So if someone was singing in 2017 and the person used language, for instance, that is peculiar to 2017, if there was nobody to translate it in 2017, when someone comes back in 2027, that same language might mean something else and by that time they would probably misinterpret it. You can’t make culture without criticism.
LT: So, you think the role of a critic is to create culture?
IN: Yes. To create culture and to document culture. So, document it in the sense of giving meaning to and context to everything that is happening. The critic’s job is to look at the art, put it in context — some people think the critic’s job is to say whether it is good or bad, but that’s just one part. Criticism also involves art appreciation; to complete the process of culture making. It is not complete if nobody interprets it. Maybe interpret is the wrong word. Just to respond to the art. The critic responds to it and does it in a way that kind of enriches the art itself.
LT: Do you think that critics should be considered tastemakers?
IN: I think they are. To what extent people believe that varies. Sometimes, also, critics have a very inflated sense of what they can do. So there’s a limit to which critics can say this is what people should want. What the critic has is that sense of taste. I think it was A. O. Scott who said that all that the critic has is their taste. So they can then go to the page or whatever medium they choose and try to communicate that to everyone else. If they do it well enough, the audience can then look at what the critic has done and if the audience thinks “this critic speaks a language I understand”, they can then use them as a measure of their taste. So, yes, critics make taste in a sense, but not in the sense of being the ones who dictate it. They are like … wine tasters. They might not be the ones who determine what the winemaker makes, but for someone who doesn’t know what good wine is, he can go to the wine taster and figure out where to start from.
LT: I read something you wrote about the utility of art, especially here in Nigeria. Should art be political? Always? Some people say they don’t want to read a book, for example, and see what’s happening in real life because it’s supposed to be an escape, while some others say that art should reflect the realities of life.
IN: I don’t think either side can really dictate what the artist makes. The person who says “shut up, get out, I want escapist art” is wasting their time because if the artist says I’m not giving you escapist art, you can just decide with your money where you want to go. Same goes for the person who says “you guys are not conscious”.
What I do expect the artist to do is to reflect as much of whom they are and what is going on around them as possible. How they choose to do that is up to them, but when I’m coming to their work, I hope to be able to find some part of them, no matter how little, and some part of the world that they come from too. So an artist comes from VI, for instance, I expect to find some piece of him and some piece of VI in the work that he has created. And if the person does it well enough, even if they’re entertaining me, I can get a little sense of what the person is about.
What I wouldn’t want is if someone comes and says suddenly I want to be political and everything he brings out, he wants to send you a message all the time. Even that would be bad art. On the other hand, if someone just buries their head in the sand, they won’t be authentic with themselves. Say someone comes from Nigeria and writes or sings, for instance, that they come from a place where they always have light, obviously that’s not true. I don’t have the power to dictate to you whether you should be conscious or not, I just expect you to be authentic, art should be a product of your experiences.
LT: So, art should be both political and entertaining
IN: Art should just be art really. So when people say art for art’s sake, there are two interpretations. One, art should be in this separate world where it’s just by itself. But that’s not how I see it. I kind of see art for art’s sake as being art should be invested in being good art. And if it’s good art, you’d be able to come to it and find layers. So if a person makes a work of art, and focuses on making it as good as it should be, I’ll come to it and I’ll find everything I want to find in it. So, I’ll find entertainment when I want to find it, I’ll find consciousness when I want to find it. We have many examples of that. Asa is a very good example. There’s entertainment in her music and there’s also a sense of consciousness and being aware of what’s happening in the world. And that’s only because she has made art that is very good. So you can come and peel layers off it. That’s how it should be. I don’t think art can even exist in this isolationist place where it doesn’t interact with the world around it.
LT: What do you think makes a good critic good and a bad critic bad?
IN: I think criticism, good criticism, depends on a lot of things. It involves having some sense of cultural capital: if you’ve been around a form of art long enough that you have knowledge of what was in the past and you’re knowledgeable about the art itself. It also involves having a sense of taste: this is what you know, can you then decide what is good and what is not good out of it. And then, the concluding part is how you then communicate that to the audience. What makes a good critic is how you can then make all of that clear to the person who is either reading or watching. You have enough knowledge of what it is, you have a taste for what is good or bad, and you have the language to communicate that to the audience.
You take your knowledge and your sense of taste and communicate it in a way that is lucid enough to the audience. I think, ultimately, if you can marry those three that is what makes a critic. Of course, not all critics have all three, so there are critics who are heavy on the knowledge, but low on taste, and not too good with how to communicate to the ready.
No matter how much knowledge you have and how great your taste is, if you can’t communicate that lucidly to the person who is experiencing you, you’re a bad critic. If you have all the knowledge, and your taste is all over the place, no matter how well you can communicate, your results won’t also be great. If you have a very high sense of taste and you can communicate lucidly, but you don’t really know what has happened in the past, then you also won’t be able to write good criticism
I’d rather just take it on a case by case basis. Knowledge is important, and not just in the sense of history, but in the sense of technique. For instance how music is made, how films are made, how books are written. If what you’ve written as criticism doesn’t reflect any kind of knowledge of how the thing is made, it can’t be taken seriously. You’re trying to critique something you don’t know.
I think balancing those three is important. Not all three have to be perfect. For instance, you might be quite low on knowledge, but have a fair idea of what’s happening and what has happened, but can communicate your taste very clearly and say this is what I think is bad and this is why. Like Pauline Kael. She’s not big on whatever the cultural knowledge is. Even if she knows it, she’s not very invested in showing you that. She’s more interested in showing you that “I think this is bad and this is why I think this is bad”.
LT: Apart from writing essays and criticism, you write short stories. How do you choose to write something as a story instead of an essay?
IN: I think it’s on a subject by subject basis. Essays are easier for me to write than fiction, but there are subjects I can’t tackle in an essay because that would require journalism I don’t think I can manage. With fiction, I rarely start with what the theme will be. I don’t start with saying I want to write a story about this or that. With essays, I’m a little more focused with saying this is what I want to write about.
This interview has been edited for clarity.