What’s a Critic Doing in a War Zone?

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A news organization needs all sorts of professionals and professionals to cover a war zone effectively: reporters and photographers who can gather information, local representatives and interpreters to gain access to sources, security experts and to help everyone stay safe. One person you almost never need is a critic.

Yet I spent several weeks this July in Ukraine, leaving behind my usual bailiwick of art galleries and biennials to look head-on at military conflict and humanitarian crisis. As one of The New York Times’s critics at large, my job is to help readers understand culture against wider backdrops of history, politics, cities and climate. And this era-defining war is, at its core, a culture war: an imperial incursion buttressed by misrepresentations of history, language and religion.

So I headed to Kyiv — one of the most artistically vibrant cities in Europe, its avenues now punctuated by military checkpoints — to survey its museums and monasteries, to interview its artists and archivists, and to check on the capital’s fabled nightclubs. I also traveled to several mangled towns north of Kyiv, carefully navigating the ruins of blasted heritage sites, and reported from Lviv, the handsome Hapsburg city in the west of Ukraine, where of the country’s cultural preservation initiatives have been masterminded.

My trip to Ukraine came about through an alliance of the paper’s Culture and International desks. I started to get serious about going in late April, after the Ukrainians repelled Russia’s attempted siege of the capital. And after discussing it with my colleagues in Culture, I learned that Michael Slackman, The Times’s assistant managing editor for International, was also eager to scrutinize the cultural dimensions of this conflict.

Before I could go, I had to undertake security training, where I learned how to stay calm if you’re kidnapped, or what to do if a grenade is lobbed your way. (Scream “Grenade!” and drop to the ground, feet facing the blast.) I crossed the border with a combat helmet and Kevlar vest a Venice Biennale tote alongside bag.

At first, I thought I’d gotten more than I’d bargained for; As I arrived, Russia was bombarding numerous civilian sites far from the front line. I lived through five air alerts in 48 hours. But one privilege of being a Times critic is that I can rely on colleagues with skills and experience I never picked up while mooning over pretty pictures on palace walls.

Valerie Hopkins and Megan Specia, two of our intrepid international correspondents, had essential practical advice for a novice war reporter. (And kept my blood pressure down when the sirens wailed.) Oleksandr Chubko, our news assistant in Kyiv, introduced me to many of the city’s designers and DJs Michael Cooper, Culture’s deputy editor for news, has edited my stories from Ukraine with a reporter’s acumen and an aesthete’s trained eye.

It all might seem very far from the usual domains of a critic: the screening room, the opera house. But The Times has a rich vein of what you might call criticism with boots on the ground. Michael Kimmelman, now our architecture critic, has previously reported on endangered cultural institutions in Iraq and Syria. Holland Cotter, our co-chief art critic, has reported on painting and photography in Mali, Senegal and Ivory Coast; Alessandra Stanley, a former television critic here, went to Haiti to watch soap operas and Saudi Arabia to watch game shows.

Criticism, as I understand it, has never been a matter of delivering a straight positive or negative judgment; even if it were, this era’s five-star aggregators have made that kind of TripAdvisor reviewing obsolete. The critic’s job is to put forms and ideas into motion, so that we can discover their inner workings and come to grips with human art and human life. To be a critic in Ukraine is to see how artists, writers and musicians defend what we have taken for granted, and to rediscover a seriousness of purpose we have almost let burn away. In peacetime or otherwise, I’ve got every intention of going back.

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