Theory in Studio: George Orwell and the Art of Writing Criticism

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Picture of George Orwell, which appears in an old acredidation for the BNUJ, 1933. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

George Orwell has the rare literary achievement of writing completely wrong-headed essays incredibly well. Almost everything he wrote was a polemic, and almost every polemical prediction he made failed to occur. Orwell greatly overestimated the enduring power of Stalinism in Russia and European-style colonialism in Asia; the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Vietnam War definitively proved him wrong. He also slammed T.S. Eliot and dismissed Henry Miller, two pillars of twentieth-century literature. Granted, Orwell did not have the benefit of hindsight—his world was almost entirely consumed by World War II England and the fight against Fascism—but his straightforward and confident style gave him an air of foresight and the pretense of authority in all his predictions. His essays and reviews are written so compellingly that even 60 years later, after the fall of Soviet Russia and after the whole political order has shifted, I find myself swept along with his prose and anachronistic thought. Reading Orwell is always enormously satisfying even when I must, out of historical knowledge, disagree with him.
This picture, taken during the first mass air raid on London, September 7, 1940, describes more than words ever could, the scene in London’s dock area. Tower Bridge stands out against a background of smoke and fires. New York Times Paris Bureau Collection, U.S. Information Agency, ca. 1950-1950. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It is this quality of being agreeably disagreeable that is one of Orwell’s chief successes as a writer. Orwell’s ability to write opinionated, evaluative essays on everything from the labor laws to a proper cup of tea is impressive. Furthermore, Orwell was able to criticize without antagonizing his targets. Very few writers can simultaneously question the status quo and still remain squarely within it. It is this kind of balancing act between critical outsider and accepted insider that might be taken up productively by contemporary art criticism. Critics do not want to stand outside of their culture, nor do they want to be slavish to it. Arts criticism should have an interest in the general direction of the present culture, but also advocate how to change course. To accomplish this is no easy task, but a closer look at Orwell’s authorship will suggest that it can be done.
Aerial bombing of Barcelona in 1938 by the Italian air-force. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

All told, Orwell led a mostly quiet and bookish life. As a young man, however, he showed a certain compunction for excitement and action. He signed up for the British colonial police in Burma, joined the Spanish Civil War, and drifted amidst the homeless in France and England in the years between. These early-lived experiences dominate his non-fiction writing. When he criticizes colonialism in Burma it is from the perspective of someone who was active in the colonial government, while Orwell’s thoughts on fascism were forged in active battle against Franco. Although it’s hard to compare the gravity of civil war to viewing art galleries we can argue that both require a commitment to first-hand accounts of actual experience. The art critic must truthfully observe and experience art as it appears, not as one imagines it. A kind of rigorous empiricism is demanded in both.
What makes Orwell so successful is that, in addition to being a keen observer of external events, Orwell also offers a careful study of his own internal psychology. Some of Orwell’s most memorable passages are really confessions in which his personal beliefs conflict with his current circumstances. For example, in his book chronicling the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, Orwell notes the peculiar thrill of watching enemy artillery from a safe distance. He recalls feeling a strong desire to see the shells hit their target, even though he knew they were aiming for his friends and dinner back at his encampment. He simultaneously felt the unexpected amusement of seeing a shell reach its goal and the dread that it might kill his compatriots. Orwell dismisses neither his subjective delight nor the objective facts of the war. Instead he describes an experience that incorporated both, which ultimately surprised him.
To be able to write in this way, however, requires that one has a clear grasp of one’s own expectations. This simple fact is rarely respected by writers, especially critics. Few writers do the reflective work to know where they stand and what they bring to the text ahead of time. A clear understanding of one’s prior expectations and commitments provides a standard against which any experience, especially that of art, can register. Otherwise, subjective evaluation is muddled, because standards are adopted ad-hoc or cribbed from a ready stock of clichés and stereotypes. Orwell’s gift was to always be explicit about his commitments and allegiances, namely: British democracy, anti-fascism, and a belief that all things are political.
Orwell came to all his writing from this political viewpoint, including his more famous novels like 1984 and Animal Farm, but also in dozens of reviews of novels, theaters, and films written for British periodicals. Even in these reviews he never hid his political position. His review of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is as much a screed against fascism as it is an evaluation of the film itself. Without any reservation Orwell contends that all writing, even review writing, is politically partisan and we are deluding ourselves if we think otherwise. It is then the task of the writer to monitor how one position gives way to another in the face of unexpected experiences. While all art is partisan, all good art, like any powerful experience, allows for transformation and a deviation from a previously held belief.
The British Army in Burma, 1945, the British commander and Indian crew of a Sherman tank of the 9th Royal Deccan Horse, 255th Indian Tank Brigade, encounter a newly liberated elephant on the road to Meiktila, March 29, 1945. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As an example, consider one of my favorite essays “Shooting an Elephant.” In this work Orwell relates a story from his days as an officer in Burma. He is driven to shoot and kill an elephant so as to appear strong in front of a crowd of locals. He admits to having no desire to shoot the animal and gives a list of good reasons why not to shoot it, but still the need to perform an act of bravado in front of the colonized subjects overwhelmed him and he eventually kills the beast as it quietly stood in a field. This pressure to perform excessive violence, Orwell then argues, is symptomatic of the whole system of colonialism. In this essay Orwell is very clear about the conflict between his personal state of mind, that he had no intention to kill the elephant, and the external forces, which gradually compelled him to do the opposite. His writing in this essay both masterfully documents his subjective transformation from being resistant to complicit in the worst of colonialism, and communicates to contemporary readers the complicated disgust Orwell felt in this episode.
This mixing of the subjective and objective circumstances weighing on a particular event, as well as the dynamic shift from one political position to another, can be usefully taken up in arts criticism. There needs to be careful assessment of both the objective and subjective content of aesthetic experience. Attention should be paid to the personal transformations that occur when experiencing art. Orwell gives us nearly four decades of examples of this kind of writing.
In a pithy short essay called “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” Orwell admits that most books fail to inspire any distinct impression on the reader and do not cause any transformative experience. He suggests that in a given year only a small percentage of books are worthy of personal or critical attention. The same might be said of the visual arts. Not all art must be transformative but for art that does offer such an experience, Orwell would advocate that we should all be ready to write pithy, truthful criticism worthy of it. In the same essay Orwell argues that when it comes to reviews, “The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books [or art works] and to give very long reviews—1000 words is the bare minimum—to the few that seem to matter.” In Orwell’s days the limitations of publishing made this tricky, but with the internet the idea of selective long reviews is now easily realized.
The current terrain of web-based criticism seems well poised to take up Orwell’s writing style. Even though he was often wrong in his predictions, nevertheless his writing is still worthwhile. To read his essays and reviews is to feel the satisfaction of hearing an honest opinion—a quality that seems so simple yet evades almost all writers. Orwell’s commitment to truth telling and his willingness to revise and revisit his preconceptions are instrumental to his work. He remains a powerful and exemplary writer for the current generation of artists, critics, or anyone invested in our collective culture.
Alex Robins is a PhD student in philosophy at Emory University. His research examines the history of aesthetics with a focus on American theories of art.
Theory in Studio is a series dedicated to highlighting philosophic terms, trends, and figures and showing their relevance to contemporary art. By providing context, the series seeks to demystify theory and introduce ideas that might help inspire future studio practice.