Cultural Criticism Without Borders

When I just got into Germany we managed to pin point something I had noticed before. It is striking how conservative people in Germany are when it comes to the internet and especially people who work in cultural positions. Compared to that, the Netherlands of the past five years has gone through a rather tumultuous revolution.

This was prompted a bit by responses are to the new play “Edward II” directed by Ivo van Hove at the Schaubühne here. I am yet to see the play, but I hear it’s pretty good. Judging from the set pictures and the trailer it is one of the more modern pieces at this particular theater1. It seems to have been rather poorly received in the papers, which have treated it not really on merit, but with thinly veneered hatchet jobs where critics employed their position to jab at this or that enemy in the German cultural landscape. One particular critic even projected his own frustrations and personal perversions onto the play in a national daily. Germany still seems to be that place where personal gripes are written down and nailed to a door somewhere.

The modern look of the play seemed to draw particular ire and especially the liberal use of video projections on the stage (a staple at Toneelgroep Amsterdam). It seems that German theater viewers cannot deal with mixed media and are either confused on where to look or too closed minded to accept projected images alongside the action happening live on the stage. This is one symptom of a lack in media literacy.

Ivory towered gentlemen with a strangle hold on culture may be one extreme, in the Netherlands we suffer from the other. Reviews of works of culture in the papers are oftentimes as thin as the paper they are printed on. Usually they superficially treat a work and tack on a bit of buyer’s advice. It is painfully obvious that they are written by people who have to write twenty such pieces a day lest they are fired. I write video game reviews in Dutch periodical myself, but looking for my piece in the paper one day, I read a review for a movie I’d been to that was so bad, it brought tears to my eyes. Theater reviews have held their own, but they are hit and miss and you’re better off reading only those written by Simon van den Berg.

As I see it a piece in a newspaper treating a work of culture should be some parts of either a review or a critique and probably a bit of both. A review is a brief summary of a piece without giving much away, explaining how it will fulfill the expectations of a prospective audience so they can decide whether to go/buy/use it or not. A critique should be a deep diving treatment of that piece, how it compares to all other works and how it is relevant to society in any subset that the critic deems relevant. Such a critique should contain judicious amounts of post-modern literary theory, internet savvy remix, unit operational analysis and it should bridge clefts of continuity, medium, style and social stratum. Above all both reviews and critiques must be entertaining to read and they must bring something new to the table.

I get to write 80 words or so for the paper and in that little space I try to do the above because we want to further discourse around video games in the Netherlands. As we see it procedural media2 are busy upending the entire traditional cultural landscape and strict divisions of any kind in culture and art will not be tenable in the future. The institutions are crumbling and that is a good thing. This is unfortunately a radical notion even in the Netherlands, I have no clue how it will hold up in Germany where institutions are even more conservative and society is much more stratified.

In any case we cannot fill the entire newspaper by ourselves, nor should we want to. We can only strive to educate and elucidate by writing and talking about media in this particular way and hope that it catches on. I’m interested to see if my notions are at all true and if the German or Dutch discourse can be inched forward in the coming year with some choice interventions. Help to achieve that or explanations in how I am completely wrong are always welcome.

  1. Save perhaps Trust that I saw this week by Anouk van Dijk and Falk Richter. A bit long in the tooth, but still a very successful interdisciplinary collaboration.
  2. Not only games but anything that encompasses a system and can be delivered at scale.

3 thoughts on “Cultural Criticism Without Borders”

  1. Hi Alper,

    it’s really interesting reading this (and your other posts about Berlin) and comparing it to my experience: I’ve also recently moved to Berlin, from Barcelona, and to me things here seem more like light years in the future. I’ll keep following your notes about our new city and try to post something about coming here from the south.

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