The art of creative criticism
Dr. Rabbi Yosef Wosk, right, presents Max Wyman with the inaugural Max Wyman Award for Cultural Commentary. (photo by Fred Cawsey)
In the program of the inaugural Max Wyman Award for Cultural Commentary, Dr. Rabbi Yosef Wosk describes Max Wyman as “a cultural paragon whose clear vision, incisive writing and fearless voice have both grounded and encouraged us. In his half-century here in British Columbia, he has been an unparalleled personality, a cultural critic and midwife of creativity whose influence is sure to be modeled by future generations.”
In establishing the biennial, province-wide award – which will include a $5,000 honorarium and allow the recipient to choose an emerging commentator, who will receive $1,000 – Wosk will help ensure Wyman’s continuing influence, as well as “catalyze the art of creative criticism.” The award will be “presented to a writer for an outstanding piece or body of work that will raise the level of cultural conversation and, ultimately, human creativity.”
Wyman was the first recipient of the award that bears his name. He received the honour at a gala at Vancouver Playhouse on April 18 – 50 years plus a day after Wyman’s first shift at the Vancouver Sun. “Pure, lovely serendipity,” Wyman told the Independent about the timing.
Born in England, Wyman immigrated to Canada in 1967. He was a longtime arts columnist, dance and theatre critic, and books editor with the Sun and with the Province. He is an actor, radio and television personality; cultural commentator; arts policy consultant; author of several books; educator and arts advocate; former mayor of Lions Bay; and an Officer of the Order of Canada. Among other things, he was involved with the Canadian Conference of the Arts, Canada Council for the Arts and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. He was a juror for numerous competitions, chair of several cultural committees and served on the board of the British Columbia Achievement Foundation.
That Wosk wanted the cultural commentary award to be in Wyman’s name “brought a tumult of responses,” said Wyman.
“I was astonished, deeply touched, profoundly humbled and, of course, delighted,” he said. “Delighted not just for the personal recognition (every ego likes to be stroked, after all), but, more importantly, because the award would lead us to a clearer understanding of how serious and intelligent criticism – creative criticism, the informed observation and contextualization that is an essential tool of the examined life – could best function in these momentously changing times.
“My joy, astonishment and gratitude have not diminished now that the project is up and running. I have been in awe of Yosef’s social activism for years: he seems to live the essence of the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, the notion that we should perform acts of kindness to repair the world. He puts his resources where his idealism is.”
The idea for this type of an award was first raised some years ago at a dinner at Wosk’s home, said Wyman. “The topic came up again more recently at the inaugural meeting of another of Yosef’s initiatives, the SFU [Simon Fraser University] Jack and Doris Shadbolt Community Scholars, and, early in 2016, Yosef brought forward the proposal to establish a prize to stimulate and recognize creative criticism in various disciplines.”
“I have thought about championing the idea and the ethical practice of criticism for many years,” Wosk told the Independent.
Shying away from criticism when he was younger, Wosk said, “In our tradition, we are told that God created the world through words. Rabbinic teachings emphasize guarding our tongues, not speaking badly about others and not spreading rumours. Life and death, we are reminded, is often controlled by words. Just look at the prevalence of bullying in schools and the tragedy of so many youth who are driven to suicide in an effort to escape the unbearable embarrassment of verbal abuse. I had to work through numerous stages of emotional and intellectual maturity before learning that intellectual opinions or personal preferences were not the same as lashon ha’rah, derogatory speech about another, nor was it the same as moral rebuke.
“Criticism, I learned, could be a gift. It involved courage, clear sight and expression. Saying ‘no’ to one thing also means saying ‘yes’ to something else. I rejected mean-spirited criticism but embraced creative criticism.”
Wosk first heard of Wyman when Wyman was at the Sun. “I admired his work,” said Wosk. “From the sound of his name, I thought he was probably Jewish. Later, I found out that he wasn’t but, as I got to know him, I realized that he certainly had ‘a Jewish soul’: he was kind, smart, sensitive, humble and active in helping the world be a better place. I got to know him better when we were both involved in the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars at Simon Fraser University. When I was appointed a Shadbolt Fellow at SFU in 2015, I invited Max and his wife, Susan Mertens – also a critic and a brilliant scholar of esthetics with a doctorate from Cambridge – to be in the first cohort of Shadbolt Community Scholars, with a mandate to knit together the academy, the arts and the community.”
Wosk said he approached Scotiabank Dance Centre with the idea for the Wyman Award because, although “Wyman was recognized as a culture critic in general, he was most famously known as a dance critic.”
Wosk sought the advice of the centre’s executive director, Mirna Zagar, and was introduced to associate producer and chair of the Dance Foundation, Linda Blankstein, who was hired to research the feasibility and nature of a possible award.
“Not only did Linda produce an excellent report that became the basis for future planning,” said Wosk, “but we also subsequently hired her to produce the inaugural event. With considerable advice from the organizing committee, she assembled a professional team from the Dance Centre, the British Columbia Alliance for Arts + Culture, a filmmaker to produce a video on Max, found the appropriate venue, worked with a graphic designer, publicist, assembled mailing lists, arranged for media interviews, and so on.”
In addition to the award presentation, the program at the Playhouse featured Bard on the Beach’s Christopher Gaze as the emcee, various speakers, video greetings and several dance performances.
Among Wyman’s publications is the first on Canadian dance history, Dance Canada: An Illustrated History (1989), as well as The Royal Winnipeg Ballet: The First Forty Years (1978), Evelyn Hart: An Intimate Portrait (1991) and Revealing Dance (2001).
“If you only knew me to look at me, and tried to work out what I did for a living, a career in dance is of course the first conclusion you would jump to,” said Wyman. “In fact, when they hear that I spent my life writing about dance, the first thing people say to me is, well, of course, you must have been a dancer. And I’m reduced to explaining that, in fact, no, I have only ever danced once. But it was for the Queen.
“I was 8 or 9, living in Nottingham, where I grew up. She was Princess Elizabeth, and she was on a visit to the city to open a gasworks or cut a cake – anyway, every kid for miles around was rounded up and taken to a clearing in Sherwood Forest, where we were made to do country dances around the maypole as part of her program of entertainment. I can still remember her vividly: coming down a slope into the clearing in an open car, beautiful pink dress, big pink hat, the famous wave. The memory has stayed with me all my life, so you can imagine how disappointed I was when I finally got to meet her – she had no memory of me at all.”
Wyman believes that “dance is the most moving and communicative of all the artforms.”
“It crosses the borders of language and logic, lets you see beyond the interacting bodies on the stage and, through the interplay of rhythm and pattern and energy, to an idea, or an emotion, or an intuition within yourself that the dancing has provoked – puts you in touch, at the best of times, with the intuitive, the spiritual, the transcendental, and you go away refreshed, thoughtful, energized.
“What makes all this so hugely poignant, at least to me,” he said, “is the transience of it all. The body, such an impermanent scrap, moves, and the dance is gone. No other artform speaks so directly about the fragile, temporary quality of life, or about the human instinct to cast off its physical bonds and aim for that perfect moment of self-realization. It exists in the realm of the transcendent and the truly brave.”
On May 14, Wyman turned 78. He has been intermittently writing his memoirs over the last few years, he said. They are “currently at 325,000 words and counting – and I post bits quite often to my website, Notes Toward a Life: essays, diary entries, pen-portraits, maxwyman.com.”
He is also working on a variety of other projects. At the time of his interview with the Independent, he was preparing a paper for a conference at the University of London. In an interview with the Sun in the days leading up to the award ceremony on April 18, he reminisced about his early years at the paper.
“We covered everything,” he told writer John Mackie. “Everything professional in theatre and music, dance, visual arts. It was a wonderful time. The Sun sent me off to Stratford and Shaw (in Ontario) every summer for the opening weeks. They sent me to Europe for the summer festivals one summer.”
The industry has changed since then, but Wyman is optimistic about the future of newspapers.
“The steady coarsening of public discourse, the shallowness of what passes for debate, the polarizing of political thought, the pernicious crudeness of public taste mean that our need for mediated, trustworthy information and informed opinion can only intensify,” he told the Independent. “Traditional media are flailing around to find their footing and their market in the shifting digital landscape … but I believe this is an interim period. What will emerge will be a leaner, cleaner delivery service that will give informed context to events and issues that affect their readers. However, the splintering of reader interests will mean that the one-paper-fits-all model is over. Given the way technology is evolving, it’s not hard to envision tailored-to-the-individual e-publication at a workable price.”
And the future need for cultural commentary – that which the Wyman Award hopes to perpetuate?
“The whole point of engagement with art, it seems to me, is to expose yourself to something that has the possibility to change you,” said Wyman, whose books include The Defiant Imagination: Why Culture Matters (2004). “I always want to come out of a theatre or a gallery or a concert hall a different person, even just slightly: I hope to have been shown a different perspective on how the world works, understand better the ways other people think or feel or express themselves. Many of us have stood before a painting, listened to a piece of music or watched a play and felt – along with the pleasure of the experience itself – a sense of inexplicable, even inexpressible, understanding or revelation.”
He acknowledged, “Cultural commentary will not produce a cure for cancer. It will not take us to Mars: not physically, at least. But, in its constant probing of new ideas and its ceaseless explorations of the human spirit, it gives us ways to rethink who we are and contemplate how we can be better. We are privileged and passing occupiers of this marvelous earth: books, plays, paintings, ballets, music – they guide us to the hidden truths of our daily being.
“So it is time – beyond time – to relocate creative activity and engagement at the heart of the social agenda, with an imagination-based education as the keystone. Engagement with arts and culture, the humanities, helps develop the flexible thinking that lets us see our world in fresh ways. In ways that allow us to build resilience, vision, innovation and generosity into our thinking so that we can cope with the unpredictable and adapt to rapid and complex change. If society is the Petri dish, culture is the, well, the culture that catalyzes change: makes us a better society, makes us more empathetic people, lets us understand our neighbours, civilizes us. It is the way we realize and communicate our shared humanity.”