Cruelly I Beat Them, Yet Still They Love Me

When I worked in England as a critic, I used to get bags of hate mail. Letters often contained all sorts of unpleasant terminology and usually began with a disjointed phrase such as, "Not too clever, are you?" Once, in the London Underground I got stuck in a crowded elevator with a dour comic actor who announced to all present in a deep, booming, pseudo- Shakespearean howl that I was an "insect and a parasite" and revealed in between sobs that my negative review had appeared on his birthday.

Things are rather different in Russia. In the past year I have written more than a few harsh words about the St. Petersburg art scene, where mediocrity rules and some of the most dominant figures are experimenting with suspect right-wing ideologies. But instead of the usual outraged counterattacks, I have been bombarded with invitations to gallery openings and treated by my victims with unbelievable hospitality and cordiality. Either artists here are a preternaturally nice, forgiving bunch of guys, or something weird is going on.

In Soviet times, critics were regarded as a lowly, despicable part of the apparatus of cultural control, just as journalists were seen as little more than party hacks. So, while their words might have carried great weight, the actual opinions of the individual critics were never taken seriously by artists, writers and the general public. Though they wielded great power, cultural critics were essentially ignored.

In the past 10 years, the situation has certainly changed, but not by much. A derisory attitude toward the critical fraternity still persists -- a problem which the critics and their newspapers don not help by often printing reviews weeks, or even months after a show or exhibition has closed. Also, there is still no tradition of tough criticism, and reviewers seem nervous about fulfilling their most basic duty: separating the good from the bad. Instead, we get pages of tendentious waffle which seem designed to make a critic seem urbane and knowledgeable without ever divulging any real thoughts or opinions.

"The situation now is due to the lack of a normal circulation of ideas within Russian society for a very long period," says Yekaterina Andreyeva, a curator at the Russian Museum. "There is no tradition of public discussion. There is no tradition of discussion in the press. We need to establish this tradition."

In the meantime, Russian artists and writers look primarily for only one thing: attention. They don't seem to care about the nature of this attention as long as it is extensive, spread over a couple of pages of a national newspaper and, preferably, foreign.

So I can continue to spout forthright opinions without fear of reprisals for some time to come. The more I beat them, it seems, the more they love me. It is a rare and rather enjoyable luxury.