embedded writing

I was talking the other night about the problems I have with writing about the art and, in this case, specifically the art world. The person I was having the conversation with thought that I was in some way independent which meant I could write what I liked and be objective about the things going on around me. But I vehemently disagreed with this point – I think I am possibly the least independent of people because I am so embedded in the system (as in the journalists who are “embedded” with troops in wartime). This is manifested either as a result of my work or the social situation, creating an inevitable bias towards my colleagues or my friends which I am constantly trying to balance in my writing. There is always the possibility that I cannot afford to say what I truly feel as I am concerned by the possibility of adversely affecting business or ruining relationships.

The question is can we ever find a critic who is truly independent? This is an impossible task. All critics will have a bias one way or another, some of which are more apparent than others. I also believe that to approach a point of pure freedom from bias would actually be counter-productive. One must take some kind of position in relation to the work in order to measure it up. But it’s this positioning which has to be managed lest it revert too much in the direction of bias (I also don’t believe in anonymity: without accountability opinion is worthless).

So I guess I am partly struggling with a problem of ethics, and partly a problem of social relations.

Looking at the reality of the situation I have to ask myself: would I jeopardise a friendship to speak my mind in a public forum such as this? I would like to think that I could say what I felt, with due consideration that what I was saying was worth saying and was well said (within my capabilities), at the same time giving the subject their due and proper opportunity to be presented accurately (to the best of my knowledge, a proviso which must be recognised where appropriate).

That said, I do have a tendency to start with the negatives when I approach art – I am suspicious of an immediate positive reaction. In some cases I end up working through these negatives to ultimately reach a positive position, and in other cases I am simply unable to resolve them and they remain negative. My point being that the process of working through my feelings is a mark of respect to the subject, and one which distinguishes the result as critique and not ad hominem criticism.


Is it really that simple, you do something and then there is an immediate benefit to show for it?

When I was in my early 30’s I went through a phase of reading a lot of Sci-Fi (I had always enjoyed reading that genre, but this was a particularly intense period). I ended up with about 350 paperbacks. I had a thing about series of books too, something which transcends genres, I’m a sucker for getting a set of books and the consistency it gives the bookshelf – but that’s another story.

I know roughly how many I had, because at some point I stopped reading Sci-Fi and boxed them all up and sold them to friend. Now I’m being asked, what have I got to show for reading all those books? What benefit did it give me? How come I can’t tell a story?

I like to think that somehow they have benefited me, in my language, my knowledge, my ways of thinking. I tried to argue that Sci-Fi encourages thought outside of normal conventions, it’s the fantasy that pushes our understanding of reality, and allows us to look at reality in new ways. Sure, it’s escapism and you can go too far down that road (I was given the example of Japanese who become obsessed with Manga). But I think there are intangible benefits to reading something which doesn’t just reflect reality, but plays with it. Without question, I think there are intangible benefits to reading.

And intangible is a good word, used a lot here in China to describe cultural heritage which can’t be saved as objects. Like theatre performances, music, temporary things, ephemeral: something which can define art in itself. I think I make use of this knowledge, this experience of reading, every day, because it’s what makes me who I am. There’s no point asking me to define it, it’s right there in front of you.


There are many reasons to write, some reasons just appear out of nothing/nowhere, maybe an unfilled form, or the keys on the keyboard, one after the other, stopping and reversing to correct a spelling error. Not random, but with no purpose other than to follow the trail that appears only after the act. I find it almost impossible to organise my thoughts into writing. I cannot be a good (academic) writer of anything beyond a few paragraphs. And then I have to remind myself that that’s all a book really is, a few paragraphs, followed by a few paragraphs, followed by a few paragraphs, and, eventually, you have a book. What could be easier. Yet, I’m laughing as I write that, lines that drip cliché, even as I write them I know this, yet it doesn’t stop me writing it. Because I know that at the end I can just <delete>

International writing styles of music (and art)

I just came across the outdustry blog which covers the Chinese music industry. All well and good, I thought, and something of a pet interest for me so I’ll be adding this to my RSS reader.

In their archives there’s an interview (perhaps more of a conversation) from early 2008 between Ed Peto, a Western journalist living in China, and one of his editors, Lua Zhou, about a review he had been asked to write for InMusic about the Radiohead album ‘In Rainbows’. The piece goes into some detail about the differences between Chinese and Western music writing, and why, in this particular case, a Western writer was selected over locals. I found the parallels between music writing in China, as described here, and art writing in China, as I have experienced it, impossible to ignore.

The points raised in the piece reflect a very similar view to a certain level of art writing here in China. I’m really referring to the standard catalogue text, which seems to dwell almost exclusively on feelings aroused by a work of art, with a lack of what this article calls a “technical” approach. I guess you could call this a formalist approach, in art-speak, and one which is explicitly linked to a “Western” style of writing, distinguished by being “colder”. This is linked to the vagueness of genres here in China, which is said to be a product of the market’s immaturity:

There is no clear line between categories of music as the genres are not mature enough, it is not so clear what type of music you are playing so things are described in a more general way. Reviewers do lots of comparisons – Say compare this album to Kid A. I don’t think they can do as much technical analysis. Traditionally they don’t do this. They always start with a factual band introduction – which I normally cut – then go into the spiritual side, the meaning of the lyrics and how it makes you feel.

I’m kind of interested in this idea of “immaturity”. Why is this style of writing a display of immaturity? It’s not as if the way writing manifests itself in China (and Japan, according to the article) has not had a long history. It would be wrong to see this as a progression, a development, writing is essentially non-evolutionary and can pick and choose it’s styles and tropes as it pleases. Some styles may only be possible after a certain point, but this would represent a small-scale development not a grand scheme. It’s just as easy to forget history as it is to remember it, and “fitness for purpose” holds little meaning.

The style of music writing criticised in this piece and apparently common in China, is presumably there for a reason, as a result of pressures which have led to this being the accepted and appropriate way to express oneself at this point in time (hmm, is that evolution after all? But I think it could just as easily go in a completely different direction without any other reason than fashion, for instance). Now other styles are being seen as useful and appropriate in this context and the result is this editor’s need to call upon the Western journalist to fulfil this need.

I could jump to the trite conclusion that this is as a result of China’s opening up to Western influence, but we have also been given the example of Japan which has a much longer and more in depth relation with the West than China has at this point. Perhaps the respect for set forms of tradition is that much more in Japan, keeping this style alive, whereas China seems to thrive on absorbing any and all influences with an equanimity in the face of change.

So when the article says that China is “a real mash-up country”:

We just listen to different stuff. The record shops don’t tell us what is what, they just put all the records together and you take all different styles at the same time.

… I think this holds a clue to the Chinese way of managing the many influences that affect it, and the new-found need to incorporate a “Western” style of writing.

What I have tried to avoid in this post, is looking at the “Chinese” style and the “Western” style as in some way in conflict, or in a hierarchy, which is how they are being presented in the original article. I think judgements like this mask the constructive aspects of each side and are detrimental to an understanding of what they are doing.