by Yun-Cheol Kim[1]

Jonathan-Mills-photo-by-Seamus-McGarvey-2-8x6

Sir Jonathan Mills AO[2] is a prominent Australian-born, composer and festival director, who resides in the UK. In the 1990s he worked in the Architecture Faculty of RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, leading courses in acoustic design. He is the composer of several award-winning operas and works for chamber ensemble and orchestra. His opera Eternity Man was recognised by a Genesis Foundation commission in 2003 and his oratorio Sandakan Threnody won the Prix Italia in 2005.

He has been director of various music and multi-arts festivals in the Blue Mountains (near Sydney), Brisbane, Melbourne and Edinburgh, UK where he has been director of the Edinburgh International Festival since 2007.

He is a visiting Professor at both Edinburgh, and Edinburgh Napier Universities, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Chair of the British Council’s Arts Advisory Group. He was recently appointed by the Australian Government as Creative Advisor to the Anzac Centenary Arts and Culture Fund
His work has been recognised by awards from the governments of Australia, Britain, France, Poland and South Korea.

Q. What do you think of the role of theatre critic in this 21st century?

We need to separate anecdote from analysis. I think that’s a very important thing to say. And one of the unintended consequences of the Internet has been that every source of information is treated equally. So there is no hierarchy in the Internet. And that means that people who are wanting to make trouble, who are anarchistic, or people who are very informed, very scholarly, can be treated equally. Their voices are given equal weight. That’s the first thing that I think is very important. It’s to come to terms with the context in which the culture is being made.

The second thing to say—and this is even more important because of what I’ve just said—is that I think that critics are too often making value judgments based on an incomplete assumption of what the work is trying to do. I sympathize with a lot of critics who find it very difficult to understand what the intention is. But I think the role of a critic nowadays needs to be much more sociological. You need to understand the context and intention behind any work of art.

So often I am reading criticism that is saying, “I don’t like that because I don’t agree with its context,” but actually they are not trying to come to terms with its context. And too often, frankly, it’s a reactive piece of writing. “I don’t understand this context,” “I think it’s bad,” or “it’s not what I am used to”… We had a lot of that a couple of years ago in this festival where people were quite, I mean, willfully ignorant of a particular form of music practice, which was early music performed on period instruments, or replicas of original instruments. And they said “Oh, it sounds different,” because it sounds different on different instruments. But actually you need to know about the instruments.

So the paradox— this is all relating to a very, very complex paradox. At the time when there is ever more need for translation of the context, there are evaporating opportunities for serious criticism to translate these contexts. Newspapers are not investing in this, and online forums, because of their very amorphous nature, do not have the time or the resources to do it. So, at a time when our world is becoming more complex, and ever more needing certain forms of translation, it’s not happening.

And the role of the critics has been diminished because there is neither the support in an old-fashioned media [inaudible] for that to happen nor the inclination in the new media to understand how to find a business model, or even a simple transaction, where that could happen. So I think we are headed for quite a challenge, quite a conundrum in terms of future criticism. Too many critics are, therefore, locked into a time warp.

We’re at the beginning of the revolution. The paradigm has shifted, shifted fundamentally. And (we’re) at a moment where we need to have a much greater level of appreciation of the evolving context in which art is made. We have people running to their familiar territory, hiding and being territorial, because it’s all too hard. They’re ring-fencing off the bit of the world they know and understand. The problem is, it’s not the world that we’re inhabiting any more.

Q. As festival director, do you have any suggestions for theatre critics?

Just as simple as this: I have often had criticisms of this festival simply based on an analysis of the theatre program, or the dance program, or the music or the opera program. And I have to point out that actually it’s not a music festival, or a dance festival, or a theatre or an opera festival. So if one is only focusing on one genre, one is missing the entire point of it. And yet people are still going as specialists in that area to review it. So why wouldn’t we have festival specialists?—people who actually know how to run across different genres, who go and review festivals, as opposed to these other sorts of companies that are relics of the 19th century, and are frankly in great trouble.

Festivals are doing okay. These other places aren’t.

Q. Last question. What are your thoughts about how the critics can make the theatre community or arts community more inspiring?

I actually believe that the critic has a fundamental and very important—and increasingly important—role in today’s performing arts and visual arts culture. And the critic has to navigate quite challenging terrain. I mean the critic in a mainstream context, who is not an academic. Academic criticism is very valuable and very important, but can be very inaccurate. It can frame [inaudible] postulations about an artwork because they also speculate—and even academics are furthest from the mind of an artist in that moment.

I think the true critic at the moment has to be given more resources to investigate across a number of genres and make sure that they can do it. A critic today needs to know more about ever-evolving and changing contexts. That’s the challenge.

There are some people who are simply not given the resources to do that. And between the diminution of the economic model that used to pay for journalists and critics, and the diminution of academic resources and [the] massive increase in social media… that means that there is no difference between someone talking about an episode of “The Bill” or a play by Shakespeare; they’re all equal. Then we’ve got to kind of come to terms with that. We’ve got to find roles for critics. And maybe all we need to do is to fund residencies for critics who are artists and critics, and we need to find another model of support, whether it is a university education or journalism courses, literary criticism, or cultural theory, whatever. We also need people who are prepared to make judgments off the back of a very thorough process of such an investigation.

The first question the critic needs to ask is often the last one. The first question is: what are the terms that the artist is setting for herself or himself? What is the challenge that’s being set by this piece or this play? What is the kind of inner logic in the workings or mechanisms of this piece? If you can find what that is, then it’s a great service to help decode that. Only then are you in a position, in my opinion, to make a judgment about whether it has been successful on the basis of what is set up. Because hundreds of years ago, there was an accepted and agreed context that was shared. These days there is not a context that is shared between art forms, generations, and cultures. And a truly perceptive critic needs to be truly cosmopolitan—not multi-cultural, but cosmopolitan— embracing, appreciating and able to translate those differences: differences of genre, generation, context and circumstance.


Yun-Cheol

[1] Yun-Cheol Kim is President of IATC; Artistic Director of National Theater Company of Korea; recipient of the Cultural Order of Korea; Professor at the School of Drama, Korea National University of Arts; editor-in-chief of Critical Stages. Two-time winner of the “Critic of the Year Award,” he has published ten books so far, two of which are anthologies of theatre reviews.
[2] Sir Jonathan Mills AO is a prominent Australian-born, composer and festival director, who resides in the UK. In the 1990s he worked in the Architecture Faculty of RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, leading courses in acoustic design. He is the composer of several award-winning operas and works for chamber ensemble and orchestra. His opera Eternity Man was recognised by a Genesis Foundation commission in 2003 and his oratorioSandakan Threnody won the Prix Italia in 2005.
He has been director of various music and multi-arts festivals in the Blue Mountains (near Sydney), Brisbane, Melbourne and Edinburgh, UK where he has been director of the Edinburgh International Festival since 2007.
He is a visiting Professor at both Edinburgh, and Edinburgh Napier Universities, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Chair of the British Council’s Arts Advisory Group. He was recently appointed by the Australian Government as Creative Advisor to the Anzac Centenary Arts and Culture Fund
His work has been recognised by awards from the governments of Australia, Britain, France, Poland and South Korea.

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Interview with Jonathan Mills, director of Edinburgh International Festival