On Petra von Kant and disgruntled bitching

A particularly mean review of Gary Abrahams’ production of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant by Byron Bache for Herald Sun inspired a response from Daniel Clarke, of Theatre Works, to the Sun, followed by a response from the Herald sun arts editor, Sally Bennett.

Clarke:

I just felt there was a lack of respect for the artists and independent theatre as a whole. Sensationalist remarks undermine the value of the review. You can be critical of something but you’ve also got to be accurate and respectful. There is another way of talking about someone’s emotional range without comparing them to a Hills hoist. There are other ways of talking about people without reducing them to an object.

Bennett:

I am not required to get it. You are required to explain it to me, to connect with me, so that I do get it and, hopefully, have the kind of experience that makes me seek you out again.

Somewhere down the rabbit hole of Facebook, a discussion happened, and I wrote something that I will soon lose if I don’t file it here, on these pages. So here it is, my two cents:

I think reviews such as the one above are important to have, but not for reasons stated by Bache. They are important for a few reasons.

1) Theatre criticism is emotional labour. We all try to remain objective, and should be mostly objective, but experiencing art involves emotions, and every so often one is swayed by great ecstasy or dismay, and sometimes this emotion outweighs the objective judgement enough to fill the whole review. What these reviews then lose in information, they gain in emotional, erm, information. Of course, no critic should write only from emotion. But to sanction a critic from having the occasional emotional outburst is both to tell them to rein in their emotional openness to the art – openness to both profound insight and irritation – and to deny that, if art has the power to provoke deep emotions, we must accept that deep annoyance is on that spectrum.

2) Criticism is not in-house feedback, and not just audience guidelines, but forms part of that dialogue we call culture. As such, it has the responsibilities of being both truthful, non-deceptive, non-navel-gazing and engaging. For criticism to do its purpose, it really must be interesting, on top of being non-incorrect. The number of comments here, the follow-up article in The Herald Sun, and the fact that multiple people have forwarded me this review, all signal to me that this review has succeeded in being interesting. Since a few people forwarded it to me because they felt their experience of the production validated by this review means it is not entirely untruthful or deceptive. And if we get proof of non-theatre-goers reading it and enjoying it, then it is non-navel-gazing, is bringing theatre to the attention of the wider audience, and is ultimately good for us all.

3) The reason why these reviews are so popular to read is because their emotional momentum propels the reader through (I think), and the purity of the emotion gives them a unifying focus that reviews otherwise often lack.

4) Ultimately, as in everything, we can only objectively engage with the content, not the tone of the review. If the review is lying/incorrect, that is what discredits it. The emotional content makes it a good read. It also gives us information as to how at least one person felt the experience. But to debate with this review must start with debating the accusations/critique, otherwise we are not debating, we are silencing.

If I were to engage with the tone of this review, which I would in good faith describe as disgruntled bitching, I think the most interesting thing to note would be how one deals with the ongoing emotional toil of going to the theatre and having to have deep affective responses for money. It’s a question worth asking, because a critic – a good critic – is neither an unfaltering cheerleader nor a merciless marker of essays and assigner of points. A critic, like a teacher, a psychotherapist, or a dramaturg, comes to their work invested, prepared to give to the work, to the experience, but with the added difficulty of then having to turn their emotional response into constructive, coherent, articulated feedback – to other audience members and to the artists. This is hard work. It requires both emotional openness and a preparedness to then dissect one’s own emotional response. Imagine if prostitutes gave a feedback session afterwards, because it is a little bit like that. And not the other way around, because critics come into the theatre building without an agenda, without a plan.

Emotional labour is labour that cannot be done with a closed heart, that requires an empathetic – or at least sympathetic – response, and this emotional component to the work is not only unpaid, it often marks the whole job as unworthy of being paid much, because our culture sees emotions as a mark of femininity, thus lesser in value. (Typical forms of emotional labour are caring jobs (aged care, nursing, child care, teaching) and hospitality and other service jobs.) The disgruntled bitching is an interesting response to a work of art, because it’s both authentic, and stronger than forgetting about the unpleasant experience, but is also, to some extent, self-defensive. The same way in which hospitality workers tell jokes about awful customers, secretaries share stories of bosses who harass them, the way my co-workers, when I worked in a restaurant with a terrible boss prone to fits of rage, made cruel jokes about the man who paid us. It is self-defensive because how else does one process an unpleasant experience? By despairing? By quitting the work? By walking out? I sometimes wonder how theatre practitioners – plenty of whom I have witnessed bitching disparagingly about artworks – understand critics. As full human beings? Or merely as vessels of other people’s humanity?

Of course there are critics who don’t get it. Even worse, there are critics who don’t try to get it, critics happy enough to dismiss entire genres, aesthetic families and art forms because it’s not their thing, critics who don’t read up on the work and then complain of its opaqueness, and I think they don’t do their work properly and are poor critics. But this is a sin of another kind: it is lack of interest in, and openness to, work. To be upset and disgruntled at the end of a theatre show is something else entirely: it is openness that backfired, openness that felt unpleasant.

And I challenge theatre-makers everywhere: would you like a racist to see a work that condemns racism? How do you expect the racist person to react? How do you imagine this encounter? Am I the only one, seriously the only one, who sees disgruntlement as fundamental to one’s encounter with art?

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8 thoughts on “On Petra von Kant and disgruntled bitching

  1. Lovely provocative post, Jana. And in answer to your last question: no. But it’s not the whole of it, either.

  2. Jana says:

    No, of course not. But I believe it is legitimate, and we tread in very murky waters when we try to cut it off as illegitimate.

  3. Hmm. These stoushes always end up being about “legitimacy” and whether the critic has the “right” to say X Y or Z, when we all know free speech allows critics to say anything they like (within the bounds of the law of defamation, of course). I reckon it should be about a critic’s responsibilities, personally.

    It’s an interesting point you make about emotional labour, although I’m not sure it’s why criticism is so undervalued here – or not the whole reason, anyway.

    I have to say Byron must be exceptionally naive if he didn’t realise that writing such an intemperate review would cause another big stink where everyone was talking about him, rather than the show. That view of his behaviour is, however, perhaps preferable to an alternative (i.e. he did realise and is revelling in the attention).

    Reviews where the dominant chord is “Look at moi” are a dereliction of duty to the art, and there are ways of writing them just as savagely as Byron has done which keep the art firmly in the centre of the frame. In our narcissistic age, it seems more important than ever that critics do this.

  4. Adam Gardnir says:

    Byron has such a distinguished history in the field of attention seeking critique that he is overwhelmingly useless. This can be proven by his move to the Herald Sun.

  5. The bounds of defamation insist on accuracy as a legal defence of fair comment, as that recent Coco Roco case showed very expensively. (And also Andrew Bolt, fwiw). Thinking of criticism in legal terms is a problem, I think, but we have to do it. Every negative review is technically defamatory. And there is no legal protection of free speech in Australia. For my part, I think there is an unresolvable tension between the idea of a review as consumer service (the star rating system) and review as cultural dialogue and a means of understanding. They basically run side by side in the generality of reviewing, but they’re two very different activities.

  6. Jana says:

    I have to apologise for comments that show up late – I have to approve all comments, otherwise my blog would choke in spam, but I’m not always next to my computer when a comment arrives.

    I am starting from the assumption/premise that
    1) Byron Bache wrote a feather-ruffling review intentionally, not by accident.
    2) Legitimacy of negative criticism in Australia is not a well established fact, as can be demonstrated by Daniel Clarke’s letter to Herald Sun, past treatment of Alison Croggon by certain theatres, and threats of defamation charges that we are all aware of, for a reason.
    3) There is a great tendency in discussions of this sort to immediately focus on the person of the feather-ruffler, or their tone, not on what they are saying – and I believe it is THIS that derails the conversation, not the critic’s actual person or tone.

    And I am intent on defending the right of Byron Bache, or anyone else, to ruffle feathers with a harsh review, for reasons outlined above, and to treat a review like that as critical opinion, not as a situation, or a problem or an issue.

    In particular, here is the bit that resonated with me, that I think is the crucial part of that review, and something that has not been said elsewhere about Petra von Kant:

    “‘You don’t seem accustomed to the idea that some women think,’ Petra says to Sidonie, though she could be talking to Fassbinder or Abrahams. These are caricatures; the interior lives of women as men see them. But they’re not the nuanced grotesqueries of Pedro Almodovar or the vulnerable connivers of Jean Genet. The film, which focuses on the co-dependent, sadomasochistic relationship between Petra and Marlene, is a camp idiot’s conception of lesbianism; all furs at midday and cognac at 10am.”

  7. Hi Jana – the exception I took with Byron’s review was that he implicitly characterised the show as an adaptation of a film (a la Persona) rather than a production of Fassbinder’s play (to be fair he mentioned the work had been a play right at the end, but in the body of the review said they were staging the film script). He also grouped it with the devised work he objects to, which strengthened that impression. The review was corrected wlater, with another couple of details that I forget. That is a question of accuracy: the review was misleading about the genesis of the work, and I thought totally glossed over Fassbinder as a theatre artist, which I thought was a problem.

    I don’t agree with Byron’s assessment of the show, but it’s an assessment he has every right to make. I thought the production addressed Fassbinder’s misogyny, which is a uncomfortable part of the play, in an interesting way: instead of going for cool, which would have been a way out, it took those passions head on. The performances were riveting. For my part, I really enjoyed seeing women being unashamedly lustful, passionate, selfish, horrible, ugly, powerful. It felt truthful to me, not melodramatic (insofar as reality is often a lot more melodramatic than people like to think). And I think a lot of people were discomforted by that.

    • Jana says:

      I don’t think any other review, however, made much of an analysis of Fassbinder’s theatre work, or theatre OR film aesthetics. Again, I am getting the impression that Byron Bache’s review is being condemned mainly for its negative content and harsh tone, and the criteria of accuracy is being selectively applied.

      Meanwhile, a good question is being sidelined, which is that of the portrayal of women and female relationships as, I am sorry but I do have to say this, men in drag. Gay men in drag, possibly, but men in drag. Fassbinder and other gay artists are not the only ones who do it – Williamson did it in Scarlett O’Hara at the Crimson Parrot. It is common. And I am completely and utterly baffled by your constatation that the sexuality of the women portrayed was unashamedly passionate, and in any way truthful. I have no idea how to even mount an argument that the portrayal of female sexuality in it was melodramatic, infantile, and a caricature. I do not know how to even argue, and I don’t know how you could argue the opposite, with what argument. The best I can think of is to say that I have never acted out feelings to love or desire in such a way, I have never seen a woman act out feelings of love or desire in such a way (except on TV or in theatre or in books), and no woman has ever acted out feelings of love or desire towards me in such a way. If the empiricism of this observation does not count for anything, then I don’t know how else I may make this case.

      But, in my opinion – and this is what Bache argues in his review – Petra von Kant, at least in this production, does not even begin to say anything about female desire or relationships. And perhaps Fassbinder wrote about something else, maybe his interest lay elsewhere. But if this work does not, in any way, address female desire or relationships, what else is it possibly doing?

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