Letter to the editor of The Australian Higher Education Supplement (28/5/98)

I am grateful to Peter Craven for delving into the Graduate Diploma in Arts Criticism. As the first of its kind in Australia, this course benefits from wide-ranging discussion, even if negative. Rather than let Craven’s criticisms rest, then, allow me to respond point by point.

Craven questions whether arts reviewing is a coherent subject of study, given the difference in objects of appreciation. Certainly, there will be specific concerns that are peculiar to individual art forms. That said, it would be difficult to deny commonalities in critical approaches across disciplines. The most obvious case is formalism, which argues that disciplines must develop their own unique language. Craven seems to vilify broad cultural studies as ennobling the trivial (e.g., research on tampon ads). Surely, issues such as formalism constitute a substantial platform for bringing disciplines together.

Craven concedes this in predicting that the course will come down to aesthetics and rhetoric. While these two fields constitute a large proportion of the course, it is by no means the end of the question. As well as borrowing from established disciplines, one of the challenges of this course is to forge new subject matter geared to the business of presenting individual aesthetic responses. In concrete terms, there are many legal and ethical issues that critics must consider in positioning themselves within the cultural field. More difficult to define are the personal avenues to disciplining one’s aesthetic response. Such practical skills go beyond aesthetics and rhetoric; they relate more closely to creative writing and physical training.

In the final paragraph, Craven recommends the inclusion of literary and art history. This is already scheduled in the course through a series of hypotheticals and case studies. It forms one of the key objectives for this course, which is to widen our critical horizon beyond the circle of critics currently practicing in Australia.

This leads me to my final issue with Craven’s column. He raises the inevitable question of the employment prospects for such a course. As a one year diploma, such a course has no pretensions to offer instant employment for its graduates. However, the emergence of this course comes at a time of consonant cultural alignments. Let me list a few. There has recently emerged a new art form—multimedia—which is yet to find its culture of criticism. The Internet is just beginning to impact on arts publishing with specialist online magazines and journals. And finally, with increased levels of cultural consumption, the quality of available arts in Australia is becoming an issue of broad public concern.

One can certainly say that everyone is a critic, just as everyone is an artist or a writer. There are some, however, who choose to invest time and money in training that faculty. For the first time, there is a formally structured means for individuals to develop and refine their critical faculties. While the result will not be an instant Renaissance or Manhattan, it will hopefully equip certain talented minds with the means to survive in the cultural jungle. Both audience and artists stand to benefit.

Yours sincerely
Kevin Murray