The Malice of Politesse: On the Critical Condition of Cultural Criticism in Armenia

In June 2022, EVN Report published an extensive essay by U.S.-based writer Karen Karslyan that analyzed, in minute and painful detail, a 2019 scandal around an art performance piece, which had rocked the otherwise placid (or stale) waters of the Armenian cultural establishment for a few weeks, until it was relegated to the amnesia bin – just like most tremors that the country ignores, so it can go on with its day-to-day existence. As noted by Karslyan, the provocations that arose around the HuZank u Zang performance “exposed many issues and antagonisms within Armenian society, which demand detailed anthropological and culturological research.” And yet, it took more than three years before anyone—in this case Karslyan—had the “temerity” to reflect and discuss those issues in an unflinchingly direct and thorough manner. 

This instance, unfortunately, is not an anomaly – it is symptomatic of a rooted condition that has been plaguing the Armenian cultural ecosystem for decades. It is evident that the overwhelming majority of cultural events, or broader problematics which define the relationship between the creative sector and society, remain beyond the pale of critical reflection of any kind. One might describe this situation as the custom of politely ignoring the elephant in the (very small) room. Perhaps this is due to Armenia’s unfortunate burden of having to deal with one too many elephants at any given time. Or, more probably, it is an outcome of long-entrenched social practices that applies the principle of silent complementarism to most aspects of public, political and cultural life as a conflict-evasion strategy. 

In general, criticality and critical questioning is not a facet, let alone skill, encouraged in Armenia, where schoolchildren are not taught to analyze and reflect upon cultural and historical narratives, but are instead given a hit-list of “milestonic” texts, dates and facts to regurgitate as a sacred codex of their collective identity. Referring to the work of Dutch social theoretician Geert Hofstede, Karlsyan argues that this tradition of didacticism and rejection of individualist attitudes forms the essence of Armenian “collectivist” social relations. Indeed, self-questioning and a dialectical view of the world are not, ostensibly, a prominent fixture of our cultural DNA. 

How does this circumstance define our response to the unavoidable onslaught of upending challenges that are unraveling the world and humanity at its core? Can we as a nation in any way be certain of our culture’s resilience and health, if we do not bother to put it through a critical diagnosis? Ever since the European Renaissance, the task of such analysis was carried out by widely-informed intellectuals who gradually came to be known as social and cultural critics in the 19th century, until the proliferation of mass media and television in the 20th century matriculated this rather loose occupation into a bona-fide profession with numerous branches – art, film, theater, literary and music criticism being some of the more prominent ones. The lack of these vocations in Armenia’s media and social landscape, as evidenced by the dearth of specialized periodicals or even opinion and review columns in the Armenian-language press, has engendered a strange atmosphere of triviality around our culture. To be blunt, culture appears to be a mere decorative, at best “honorific”, appendage in our context, with little or no power to impact the wider socio-economic processes shaping Armenian lives. 


Putting the Matter to Test

The effect of these issues and the general state of criticism in Armenia was the main topic of conversation during the Cultural Narratives Panel at the recently held EVN Media Festival. Coming from different backgrounds in the creative, academic and media sectors, the four participating panelists had diverging opinions on the matter. Tigran Amiryan, a literary theorist and director of Cultural & Social Narratives Lab in Yerevan, stressed that it is imperative not to mistake the “opinion industry” spawned by social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter for the intellectually-rigorous analytical work carried out by professional writers and critics. The problem is that existing critical writing in Armenia is too sporadic, disconnected and unsupported by institutionalized platforms that could provide the necessary financial and social mechanisms for facilitating the production of such content, and direct it toward its intended audiences. Nevertheless, as noted by another speaker, art critic Nune Hakhverdyan, cultural criticism is closely tied to market demands, and it appears in places where “there are most people”. Therefore, side-stepping social networking sites will not resolve the issue, but simply accentuate the ineffectuality of niche or specialized platforms. 

So how to galvanize the quality, scale and impact of cultural criticism in these times of mass media autocracy and the advent of “content” industry where the lines between producer/consumer/commentator have progressively been blurred? As argued by panelist Shoghokat Mlke-Galstyan, an arts manager with extensive experience in independent theater, the professional critic has been sidelined in the creative industries by contemporary marketing and promotional mechanisms that can generate seemingly infinite and immediate reach without the need for any critical mediators. Hence, the traditional and practical role of the critic as a “gatekeeper” of culture is called into question in today’s world of influencers, trend-setters and algorithm-curated selections on Amazon and Netflix. 

Ironically, it is precisely these circumstances that make the mediating capacity of the critic even more necessary as a means to interpret, filter and make sense of our content-saturated glocal environments. 


An Educational Revolution?

One point that all the panelists agreed upon, was the vital need to instill critical thinking training in Armenian society from the earliest stages of education. This is essential if we are to move away from collectivist, “herd-based” approaches to more individualist, questioning engagements with cultural phenomena in Armenia. In essence, this means a move towards politicization of culture – something that panel speaker Nazeli Ohanyan, the host of the popular radio program “Vernatun”, emphasized as a key priority in the country’s post-revolutionary, post-war reality. Indeed, unlike Western societies, the majority of Armenians deem culture as a domain divorced from political processes and passionately uphold the creative sphere either as a site for permanently consecrated values, or as an opportunity for “escape” from the pressures of realpolitik. 

This attitude may explain, in part, why there’s been so little direct and weighty artistic reflection on the disastrous after-effects of the 2020 Artsakh War in the Armenian art scene, as evidenced by a host of recent large-scale group exhibitions. And few people, other than EVN Report’s film critic Sona Karapoghosyan, seemed to question why meditations on the effects of war in our cinema remain as trite and manipulative, as in the 2022 film “Garun a”. 

Mlke-Galstyan argued that the demand for radical and immediate transformations in this state of affairs is irrational and can’t really happen in a conservative culture like that of Armenia. The overhaul in these wider social habits can occur incrementally, through small-scale, regular initiatives supported by independent, non-governmental projects, such as the new KATAPULT AGBU Creative Accelerator Program. Ohanyan, meanwhile, countered that the critical production and the infrastructures of criticism are a matter of cultural policy, and must be supported by the State. 


The State, the Arts and the Critic

In Hakhverdyan’s opinion, however, the less the State is involved in arts and culture, the better for the latter. The State’s role should at best stop at financially enabling the critic in their job rather than act in the guise of a “patron” or an overseer of the critical establishment as befits the ruleset of the free press. 

While the press in Armenia is generally considered to be free, or at least, beyond direct government censorship, the critic will often resort to self-censorship and silence due to the powerful governing factor of social bonds and customs of politesse. There are few rewards for voicing unfavorable or unpopular critical opinions—monetary or otherwise—while the backlash from creators and the public, or ostracization from closed professional circles can be considerable. Hakhverdyan argued that for her, as a critic, silence is in itself a form of criticism and is read so by her peers. Nevertheless, the silence of the lone critic may not amount to much in the overall atmosphere of general permissiveness, rudimentary acclaim and culture of insincere flattery. Furthermore, the lack of critical feedback and analyses has a direct and detrimental impact on the culture economy, which, in the words of Mlke-Galstyan bestows merit upon products on the basis of popularity and consumer demand (a situation not limited to Armenia, of course). 

Alleviating this issue requires a revaluation of the critic’s work as constructive and socially-indispensable, rather than as destructive and self-serving. To facilitate this shift in perceptions, the critic needs to be in a relatively protected environment in order to freely express their viewpoints without the fear of repercussions, according to Tigran Amiryan. That “safe space” is usually accorded by institutional structures (publishers, media networks, academies and the like), which, in Armenia, are primarily oriented toward reproducing hagiographical models of cultural dissemination. Providing a buffer and an incentive to produce critically sharper and diverse viewpoints is imperative if we are to ameliorate the quality and vitality of our cultural ecosystem.


Deepening the Diagnosis

Reaching the aforementioned goal, however, requires us to go beyond practical solutions to the problem. The issue here is not simply in inadequate educational systems or the nepotism of contemporary Armenian society that puts the narrow interests of private groups above the imperatives of the bigger collective. It is in the received psychology of Armenian culture itself, which, for centuries, has operated from defensive positions and under constant fear of existential eradication. In all fairness, it is incredibly difficult to demand any degree of self-criticality towards one’s own culture, when the latter is permanently under siege. But that work must be done if we are to escape the traps preempted by the vicious cycle of fear and suspicion of the external world.

Interestingly, Nazeli Ohanyan suggested that the field of Armenian cultural criticism is evolving in an expected manner, and there is no crisis as such, since the discipline is new to the scene and in the process of formation. Citing the example of nomenclature-style writing of the Soviet-era journal “Khorhrdayin Arvest” (Soviet Art)—the preeminent Armenian art periodical between the 1930s-1990s—Ohanyan claimed that there is no pre-existing tradition of criticism to build on. While true to an extent, the absence of such tradition is not so much due to the lack of valuable and important precedents (the flagrantly vociferous culture of criticism in the late-19th century Armenian press, and the legacy of critics such as Archag Tchobanian come to mind), but the non-existence of critical histories around the subject. 

By digging back to historical origins of Armenian cultural criticism, we will find powerful models of staunch intellectual reflection that saw critical expression as a crucial tool for drawing Armenian society out of the swamps of ignorance, apathy and degradation. Appearing in grave and desperate times not unlike ours, the often self-disparaging writing of thinkers such as Mikael Nalbandyan, Stepanos Nazaryants, Raffi, Vardges Surenyants, Yeghishe Charents, Garegin Levonyan and numerous others, unabashedly exposed the shortcomings of our historical or contemporary intellectual and artistic efforts. The instigation of such critical processes played an instrumental role in transforming the Armenians from a colonized, parochial ethno-religious minority into a modern culture with an indefatigable aspiration for its own national statehood. And it is difficult to imagine where we would be without such processes…

This task of self-reflection—especially in the realm of culture—remains as relevant today as it was for those earlier luminaries. Only in nurturing the growth and sustenance of critical thinking, can we come close to strengthening the positions of our cultural identity and its continuing relevance within the increasingly chaotic geopolitical and technological tides of the 21st century.

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ԵՎ այլն․ մշակութային խոսույթ

21-րդ դարում զանգվածային լրատվության մշակութային անդրադարձերի պակասն անհերքելի փաստ է։ Ի՞նչ ազդեցություն ունի այս ժանրի լրագրության պակասն արագորեն փոփոխվող հասարակական հարաբերությունների և կառուցվածքների վրա։ Ինչպե՞ս ենք դիտարկում մշակութային քննադատության վտանգված արդիականությունը և վերաորակավորելու նրա գործառույթները՝ լուծելու մեր ժամանակի քաղաքակրթական խորը խզումները:

Մոդերատոր․ Վիգեն Գալստյան, EVN Report
Տիգրան Ամիրյան, գրաքննադատ
Նազելի Օհանյան, «Վերնատուն», Հայաստանի հանրային ռադիո
Նունե Հախվերդյան, արվեստի քննադատ,
Շողակաթ Մլքէ-Գալստեան, AGBU Creative Accelerator Program

* The panel is in Armenian with no subtitles.

Շնորհակալություն «Հետք մեդիա գործարան»ին պանելային քննարկումները նկարահանելու և մոնտաժելու համար:

Magazine Issue N19

On May 27-29, 2022, EVN Report hosted the first-ever Media Festival that brought together local and international media professionals in Yerevan to highlight the pivotal role journalists play in the recording of collective experience and memory. The overarching goal was to help the journalistic community in Armenia return to its foundational mission of informing, educating and inspiring, thereby increasing public trust in quality media.
This month’s issue of EVN Report’s magazine entitled “Media” presents a wrap-up of some of the panel discussions with international and local journalists and thought leaders who discussed challenges facing the media industry today. These include the Editor’s Panel, War Reporting, Disruptive Culture: Beyond Tech, and Et Cetera: Cultural Narratives.
The Editors

The Editors

During EVN Report’s Media Festival, a group of editors from different media outlets were invited to discuss the challenges and opportunities in working in an ever-changing, fluid and unstable environment.

Read more