Can arts criticism as a writing discipline be taught in a university setting? One should hope so. Particularly if it is being taught to a room of Professional Writing MA students.

Or, to be more specific, I should hope so. As I am one of those students, and I am in that room.

Though I was obliged to take this module by scheduling concerns rather than burning passion, it was an enjoyable first foray into Professional Writing in an academic setting. And, when I consider that I am known to offer my own critiques about restaurants, bars, music, film fests, film, and theatre on this very blog, it doesn’t seem very far at all from my natural writing practice.

The diverse group of students was tentative at the outset, as you’d expect from ‘first-weekers’, but the combination of co-tutor Gianandrea Poesio’s relaxed and warm energy and a clip from Ratatouille warmed us up to a discussion on the Role of the Critic.

(We watched until 0:58)

Unfortunately, the discussion was not terribly animated, as the group struggled to shake off the opening day nerves. Also on the downside: the elements to be covered in class – as indicated by the syllabus – were not exhausted. The idea of critic as ‘Artist, Celebrity, Champion’ is a rich one, but we glanced from topic to topic, without drilling down into those provocative ideas.

The course tutors, Gianandrea Poesio and Anne Karpf, are both working journalists and critics. They were thus able to liberally pepper the session with real-life examples of their own experiences. The easy rapport between the two, and their obvious enjoyment of the subject, allowed for a pleasant and swift three hours. Their occasional disagreements illuminated the importance of the critic with an opinion, and added a welcome creative spark.

The final movement of the class was watching a short art piece – without any context provided – and then reading out our hastily scribbled reviews. This brought the engagement, the writing experience, and of course the pressure, to a high point.

These early and undrafted reviews were counted by the tutors as unanimously successful. The pressure and subsequent relief of the exercise and the convivial atmosphere of the room provided a feeling of togetherness which will no doubt strengthen as we progress, and hopefully this will lead to more dynamism in the discussions. But as far as a ‘testing-of-the-waters’ and a foray into arts criticism, the early steps were strides. Tentative strides.

I suspect the work to get more challenging, and the feedback to become more, um, critical. As Anton Ego says “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy.” However, the work of the arts criticism student is much less so.