What kind of theatre criticism do we need?

In my informal research on critical thinking on theatre criticism, I have come across an open discussion about theatre criticism held in 2009 in Zagreb, Croatia. Here are a couple of interesting quotes from this discussion, translated into English by yours truly (with the Croatian original, transcribed by yours truly as well).

This is a lateral reaction to the (ongoingly unconstructive) discussion about the critical ethics of Alison Croggon on Cameron Woodhead’s blog. I am not interested in participating in flame wars, but the question of theatre ethics is an interesting, and important one: in particular the questions of the legitimacy of a critic and a criticism; of bias resulting from personal and professional connections (and resulting mutual obligations, however unconscious); and of criticism as an ethical act.

As a preamble, the most interesting quote (for me, personally) about the ethics of theatre criticism in Australia is almost a side remark that John Bailey made in the introduction to his blog, A CAPITAL IDEA – which perhaps says something about the state of the critical debate in Australia:

Disclaimer: This site will be riddled with conflicts of interest which will only sometimes be mentioned. This is because I have PERSONALLY MET and even spoken with hundreds of the many thousands of artists working in Australia today. Just yesterday one came into my shop and bought some rainbow coloured kneepads. A few hours later another came in and bought a nice red jumper. Also, I was once walking home when a really good director pulled up next to me and gave me a lift. It turns out that I used to play SPORTS with his girlfriend, who was driving. I also went to uni with a lot of very talented artists who are now achieving the national and sometimes international recognition they deserve. About a year ago I saw Barry Dickins in the street and said hello and he invited me in for a cup of tea and a crumpet. I had an unexpected dance-off with a FAIRLY FAMOUS WRITER ages ago which ended when she threatened me with a pot of water from the stove. And so forth. Such conflicts of interest can be understood by another name – “HAVING ANY INVOLVEMENT WITH THE ARTS IN MELBOURNE” – and are quite unavoidable. But I like to believe that a certain amount of professionalism and even-handednes will also be on display here.

The following quotes come from Nataša Govedić, possibly the most prominent contemporary theatre critic in Croatia. Govedić writes long-form criticism for Novi list, a highly regarded newspaper published from Rijeka, but increasingly distributed nationally. She is also a theatre scholar, and one of the editors (and one of the theatre critics) of Zarez, the most prominent cultural magazine in Croatia.

I have a lot of professional and personal respect for Nataša Govedić, whose scholarly work has focused on ethics, in performance and performance-making, as well as in theatre writing, writing on theatre, and scholarly writing. I have interviewed her for my thesis, own a book of her essays on performance ethics, and have met her in person – all to my great delight.

Govedić opened the conversation with two statements that I will certainly return to in the future: first quoting Oscar Wilde “It is Criticism, again, that, by concentration, makes culture possible”; and then by stating “Theatre criticism is an art that will exist if it creates the conditions for its own existence.”

I think that the critic is a performer. In other words, the critic performs a few times a week in the daily newspaper, and performs in front of the wide audience of such a newspaper. S/he performs in front of actors, in front of directors. The manner of this performance is very important. So, in terms of performativity, values, argumentation, the encounter between the critic and the creative teams is much more frequent than my personal encounter, as a critic, with individual performers of state theatres. Certain actors may perform four times a year, or even less, and I perform three times a week. And if I am on the public stage three times a week, then people will get to know me. And, in that sense, the critic is undoubtedly NOT outside the process of performance/performativity. And thus s/he is absolutely not PR – I would thus never call myself PR, quite the opposite. The longer I am implicated in this process of performance/performativity, the less it seems to me that my role is to inform the public about what was technically going on [on stage, in the theatre].

If we talk about what criticism might be, it could be, in different senses of the term, a cooperation, centred around this joint, co-creating work. Because the most interesting artsts are themselves terribly self-critical, demolishingly self-critical. They cannot form a single sentence about themselves that isn’t self-denial. Just like critics are certainly to some extent people who create. I therefore don’t see at all why we should insist on such a strong division.

The other thing – I don’t see why we would limit the responsibility of critics to the newspapers, or only to ourselves. There are professional organisations alright, e.g. the Croatian Journalist Association or the Croatian Association of Critics and Theatre Scholars, who do nothing – who meet twice a year, only formally, and I don’t see them contribute to the public dialogue, to the creation of a public, to the creation of context, I haven’t seen them accept the position of a performer. I think that the performer’s position is the most humble, and the most radical, and don’t know why critics should shy away from it. On the contrary, I think s/he should be conscious of it. I think that the critic-as-a-simple-observer has never existed. The critic is always biased, has always held values to some extent, has held an ideology, if you prefer – not just the ideology of the newspaper s/he works for – and there doesn’t exist, nor has ever existed, a neutral critic. Therefore, it is then only fair to honestly admit which values we uphold, and why we believe in certain processes, and why we participate in them. Of course, this doesn’t mean to propagate them.

[The question was: “What kind of criticism, or what kind of critic, do we need? What gives legitimacy to a critic?” The journalist offered a personal view: “For me, it must come from the critic’s work.”]

There is an entire category of scientific evaluation called peer review. When experts evaluate the works of other experts. This often escalates into full-blown wars: there are often deep disagreements about one and the same text, work – and it is often completely impossible to reach a consensus, on any level, on what should be fixed or changed in a text. So clearly, the point of criticism is not in all of us agreeing on how a staged work could be improved. The idea of criticism implies the cultivation of difference among critics, and those critics then having a certain credibility – or not, as the case may be. But they have a certain predictability, that definitely. And it makes them serve as a kind of orientation point, and of course such orientation points should be as many, and as diverse, as possible.

In these discussions about whether criticism should be written by people who clearly have no argument to make, who opt for impressionist reviews – impressionist in the sense of writing down [only] their impressions – I also think that kind of criticism does a lot of damage. But I don’t think it should be censored, because there is a place for such criticism, too. I think what qualifies a critic is first the professional qualification – in the sense that the person needs to know and understand the artform [‘poznavati profesiju’ in original: my translation is arguable]. On the other hand, there is the qualification of seeing… The very fact of sitting in a theatre, day after day, and watching shows is a form of labour, labour which definitely leaves a mark. A critic that gets that kind of education, seriously and with dedication, and then stays to talk to people after the show…

It took me a long time to even accept this idea, that it’s important to talk a lot with people. Now I think it’s as important as to write about theatre. When I started to write criticism, 10 years ago, I was strongly convinced that I have to write, and that I must not talk with the artists, that that’s taboo – because the moment we talk someone is already trying to persuade me. Now I think exactly the opposite, I think one must hear all the arguments and only then have a think about it all. Not so that I can be manipulated, but to reduce to minimum my own manipulation with that visit, that single visit, which was surely not enough to encompass the entire production. It’s rude to claim that one attendance of a show could possibly encompass the extreme complexity of its process. Theatre performances really are different from one night to the other, and the more often we can return to a production, the more ethical we are in that sense.

The entire discussion (for that lone 8-or-so million people who speak Croatian) can be viewed here.

Original text (my transcript, with some simplifications, in order to make the spoken word easier to read):

“Mislim da je kritičar izvođač. Dakle, kritičar nastupa nekoliko puta tjedno u dnevnim novinama, i nastupa pred širokom publikom tih dnevnih novina. Nastupa pred glumcima, pred redateljicama i redateljima. Vrlo je važno kako nastupa. Dakle, izvođački, vrijednosno, argumentacijski, puno je češći susret kritičara i autorskih timova nego recimo moj susret kao kritičarka s pojedinim glumcima HNK i Gavelle. Pojedini glumci igraju 4 puta godišnje, ili nitoliko, a ja igram triput tjedno. I ako sam triput tjedno na javnoj pozornici, onda me imaju prilike ljudi upoznati. I mislim da u tom smislu nema nikakvih iluzija oko toga da je kritičar netko izvan izvedbenog procesa. A samim time nipošto nije PR, dakle sama za sebe nikad ne bih rekla da sam PR, ni u kom slučaju, dapače. Što sam više u tom izvedbenom procesu, to mi se čini da je manje moja uloga da informiram javnost o tome što se tehnički događalo.

Ako govorimo o tome što bi kritika mogla biti, ona bi mogla biti u različitim smislovima riječi suradnja oko tog zajedničkog, sustvaralačkog posla. Jer i najzanimljiviji umjetnici su užasno samokritični, razorno samokritični. Ne mogu o sebi reći jednu rečenicu koja nije samoporicanje. Kao što su i kritičari u nekoj mjeri sigurno stvaralačke osobe. Dakle uopće ne vidim zašto bi se tu morala raditi tako jaka granica.

I, druga stvar, ne vidim zašto bi se govorilo o tome da je odgovornost kritičara prema javnosti samo na novinama, ili samo na nama. Pa postoje strukovne organizacije, kao npr Hrvatsko novinarsko društvo ili Hrvatsko društvo kritičara i teatrologa koje ne postoje, koje ništa ne rade – koje se sastaju dvaput godišnje, formalno, i ja ne vidim da one doprinose javnom dijalogu, stvaranju javnosti, stvaranju konteksta, da su pristali na tu poziciju izvođača. Ja mislim da je pozicija izvođača najponiznija, i najradikalnija pozicija, i ne znam zašto bi se kritičar trebao ustručavati te pozicije, dapače, mislim da je treba biti svjestan. Mislim da ovaj kritičar, koji je samo promatrač, nikad nije postojao. On je uvijek bio pristran, uvijek je u nekoj mjeri imao svoje vrijednosti, svoju ideologiju, ako hoćete – ne samo ideologiju novina u kojim radi – i ne postoji, niti je ikad postojao, neutralan kritičar. Dakle, onda je samo pošteno priznati koje onda vrijednosti zastupamo, i zašto vjerujemo u određene procese i zašto u njima sudjelujemo. Naravno, ne na način da ih propagiramo.”

“Moje je pitanje vama, kakva nam kritika treba, odnosno kakvi nam kritičari, što kritičara legitimira kao kritičara?”
“Što Vi mislite?”
“Meni bi to trebao biti nekakav rad njegov. Kao ovaj tip o kojem ste pričali, koji je promatrao sve procese predstave.”
“Kritičara legitimira podjednak broj koji ga vole i koji ga ne vole.” –
“Postoji cijela jedna kategorija znanstvenog evaluiranja koja se zove peer review. Kada ljudi koji su stručnjaci ocjenjuju radove drugih stručnjaka i tu vrlo često dolazi do pravih ratova, dakle, o istom tekstu, djelu, dolazi do dubokog neslaganja, i ne može se uopće doći do nikakve razine konzensusa oko toga što bi, npr, trebalo izmijeniti. Dakle, očito je da svrha kritike nije u tome da se svi mi složimo oko toga što u nekom scenskom dijelu treba unaprijediti, nego ideja kritike podrazumijeva njegovanje različitih kritičara, i da ti kritičari onda imaju određeni kredibilitet – ili ga nemaju. Ali imaju određenu predvidljivost, to u svakom slučaju. I onda oni služe poput neka vrsta orijentira, i naravno da tih orijentira treba biti što više, i oni trebaju biti različiti.

I u ovim raspravama, recimo, da li kritiku trebaju pisati ljudi koji evidentno nemaju argumente, koji idu dan-danas na impresionističku kritiku u smislu dojma, i tu isto tako mislim da takva vrsta kritike stvara veliku štetu, ali mislim da je se ne smije cenzurirati, jer i takva vrsta kritike ima svoje mjesto. Ja mislim da su kvalifikacije za kritičara prvo strukovne, dakle da čovjek, osoba mora poznavati tu struku, a s druge strane su tu kvalifikacije gledanja. … Sama činjenica da sjediš u kazalištu iz dana u dan i gledaš predstave je jedna vrsta rada, koja svakako ostavlja trag. Kritičar koji tu školu prođe, ozbiljno, posvećemo, i još tome mu je stalo ostati nakon predstave, s ljudima razgovarati – mislim da mi je trebalo jako dugo vremena da uopće pristanem na tu ideju da treba jako puno s ljudima razgovarati. Sad mislim da je to jednako važno kao i pisati o kazalištu, a kad sam počela pisati kritike, prije 10 godina, onda sam bila čvrsto uvjerena da moram pisati, i da ne smijem razgovarati s autorima, i da je to tabu, jer me već tada time netko pokušava uvjeriti u svoju stvar. Sad mislim upravo suprotno, mislim da treba saslušati argumente i tek onda razmisliti o svemu. Ne zato da se podvrgnem manipulaciji, nego da što manje ja manipuliram onim posjetom, jednokratnim posjetom, kojim sigurno nisam stigla oduhvatiti cijelu predstavu. Nepristojno je tvrditi da bi jedan posjet predstavi mogao obuhvatiti zaista užasno kompleksni proces. Kazališne predstave se zaista razlikuju od večeri do večeri, i što češće se možemo vraćati predstavi, to smo pošteniji u tom smislu.

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12 thoughts on “What kind of theatre criticism do we need?

  1. Hi Jana – interesting discussion. Also LOVE John’s disclaimer, which I hadn’t seen before! The accusation of “unconscious bias” is a bit of a derailment in any discussion of ethics, first because it is the kind of thing that remains speculative on the part of those mounting the criticism (how can anyone presume to know another’s subconscious?) and secondly, because anyone accused of it has no way of answering. But it occurs to me that one might as well accuse a critic of having an individual taste.

    Any critic worth his or her salt will have preferences and make discriminations; their only ethical responsibility is to ensure that it’s clear on which grounds they are making their judgments. This is obviously easier in longform criticism than it is in the brief reviews in newspapers; perhaps the most opaque reviews of all are those that appear in the daily press.

    The artist/critic is probably more common in literature than it is in the performing arts; in literature, it’s fairly standard. There are a few in theatre, but it’s must less standard. Robert Brustein was actually the role model for my approach on TN. He occasionally reviewed shows in which he had some artistic involvement; he made no apology for this, but was very clear about his disclosures of interest. It was up to the reader to determine what, if anything, that did to the criticism; in Brustein’s case, because he is a very fine critic, it meant he was able to speak about work with the insight of a practitioner. I have always believed in the value of responses that are informed by practice. Most of my favourite critics, from Coleridge to Frank O’Hara, are artists too. And even if I totally disagree with them, they tend to be those I trust most.

    • Jana says:

      Hello, Alison.

      I spoke about this with a London-based critic around 2008, who said that she would never personally meet an artist, to preserve her critical independence. I really liked John’s disclaimer, and all of Nataša’s writing on critical ethics, because I think there are very few places in the world large enough for critics and artists not to cross paths for their whole lives, and still remain actively involved, both of them, in an artform. Theatre is a communal artform by definition, increasingly so nowadays because it’s more niche and specialised than when it was mass entertainment, most places are smaller than London, and it seems to me that the position of categorical distance is simply untenable in most cases, in most places and at most times. The discussion of ethics of theatre criticism MUST deal with personal proximity, not simply veto it.

      I think Govedić’s analogy with peer review is spot on because it deals with the same situation of a limited circle of people, all experts, and all bound to personally know each other. I have done a tiny bit of peer review myself, and already these were people whose work I had read and cited, whom I knew personally, who I had or could potentially work with. She has repeatedly advocated an ethics of disclosure and careful subjectivity, of owning one’s own prejudices ethically – rather than pretending to an objectivity which one cannot possess.

      There is more of an artist/critic overlap in the more specialised performing arts, I think: dance, music and live art. This because they require a specialised knowledge that not any journalist can easily pick up, I think; and also because the bulk of the criticism happens outside the mainstream media. RealTime has many examples of such writing. Jordan Vincent writes about it very cogently. As does John Bailey, who has long been my most trusted critic in Australia. I think there is something incredibly ethically sound about his disclaimer, and his criticism in general. How could he possibly avoid conflict of interest anyway, consider that his partner runs large theatre festivals? Should we therefore have less of his criticism? I hope not.

      And anyway – Nataša Govedić has many interesting critical practices, including dramaturging, attending rehearsals, seeing work multiple times, ongoing collaborations with artists. These are all forms of critical engagement that have been historically present in the Croatian theatre throughout the 19th-20th century, and they are absolutely legitimate, inasmuch a critic is a practitioner.

      For example, the discussion brought up a 20th c. critic, now deceased, who would follow the entire rehearsal process of a production, and have the review ready before the opening night – and then perhaps make minor corrections just before publication. The audience member who asks “what gives legitimacy to the critic? I think his work” brought that up again, saying, roughly, “That guy you said, going to all rehearsals, that’s great, that should happen more…”

      I think, unfortunately, the idea of critic as impassionate reporter, as a kind of journalist, has really taken hold in our critical culture, and I think it creates more problems than it solves. Because the critic might not know the artist personally, but is now at the mercy of the politics of his paper: the advertising revenue, the word limits, the choice of shows to see. None of these are innocent.

  2. I think the question is whether one thinks a critic is a kind of quality controller – the man in the sheeprace, sorting out the goats – or whether criticism is more about pursuing and extending ideas that occur in art, to stimulate more general cultural conversation. The newspaper review has declined almost exclusively to a consumer guide and publicity sheet, and exists around those values, with the work of criticism conflated with the work of the arts journalist, although they are actually quite different activities. But I have always believed there are more generous ways to imagine what it might be.

    I think you’re right to point out the domination of journalistic imperatives in English-speaking theatre reviewing. Critics are not properly speaking journalists at all: they are doing something essentially different from reporting, even if it is in the context of a newspaper. That whole very US journalism school thing of “objectivity” in reporting is actually fairly recent: most of the most famous correspondents – Ryzsard Kapuschinski, Martha Gellhorn. Michael Herr – never pretended to objectivity at all. It doesn’t make them unethical journalists, but it does making their journalism exciting, impassioned and engaged. In arts criticism, the pretence of objectivity is always a furphy. It has often puzzled me, too, in Australian criticism that expertise in a field can be seen as a disqualification; nobody objects to footballers becoming sports commentators, but in the theatre it’s considered dubious to be a practitioner. Weird. It’s possible to think of a criticism in which the ethics are drawn from an artist-centric tradition of criticism – the critical essays of Mandelstam, the visual arts notices of John Ashbery or Baudelaire, the literary criticism of Roman Jakobson (etc etc) – that orients its ethics towards the contemplation and imperatives of art itself, rather than to those of the market or the academy. The ethics will be consciously unobjective, engaged, perhaps (often) combative; they unfold their aesthetic necessities and political beliefs; they are interested, above all, in how art connects to other art, to its traditions, and to the societies in which it’s made, what it is (materially, morally, aesthetically, historically), and so on. Artists have always written and worked in communities of other artists – just look at the voluminous writings of the New York School, or the relationship of Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht – influencing each other, stimulating each other, disagreeing. The deepest interest and pleasure is in the play of thinking. In such a milieu, the question of personal proximity is not only essential: it is the condition of this kind of conversation being able to occur at all. Of course, it requires good faith: the deeply held belief that art is more than something that one gestures towards, but something that matters in itself.

    • Jana says:

      I wouldn’t call Walter Benjamin an artist; your sentence makes it sound like you do, although I’m sure you know Benjamin well… And Roman Jakobson is very much a scholar (although I really don’t know his criticism). I am maybe less interested in binding criticism to art this way. Yes, a critic is a practitioner, like an artist. I think that’s clear. But, maybe because of the distance of Germany, I can feel the hair on the back of my hair stand up from this idea of ‘the play of thinking’. Thinking is serious, culture is serious. Art is a part of culture as much as is scholarly thought. Art contains scholarly thinking, and critical thinking about art can also contain scholarly thinking, can also talk of economics, politics, psychoanalysis, and so on, without being anything but faithful to the artwork itself. I would advocate a responsible criticism, just like a responsible art. Play… Considering this ongoing return to the notion of the ‘thin topsoil of culture’, I am very torn between liking the temperament you advocate and bring yourself to criticism, and being tired of this repetitive call to enjoy art, to enjoy art, to not be afraid of art, to not be afraid of critical thinking…

      I feel sometimes like I want to stop having the conversation in which we advocate not being afraid of all of this, and actually do critical thinking. I think, to the extent to which I will continue to write criticism in 2013, I will be trying to talk more about what I think is important, and spend less time on the above. And, most of all, I have become SO tired of the tone of most of the arts debate in Australia, which so often seems to be the rehearsed leisurely tone of young lords of the 1920s England, debating art from a purely aesthetic perspective, as if there is nothing else in the world, because they are stupid from their oblivious privilege. I don’t think most people in this country are living that situation, I think they have just absorbed the rules of the discourse.

      I want to talk about rude and impolite things. Like, how much critics get paid. Like, the laws regulating art. Like social class. Like the politics of it. Not because art doesn’t matter, but because art is a part of the things that do matter.

      Sorry for being so terribly personal. It has been a long year, and a long debate.

  3. metaboleus says:

    Interesting discussion. And of course any discussion of ethics is
    fraught with difficulties and confusions. So it is best to start at the beginning. What is the root of the word ethics? From a Greek word ethos (there are two variations of this word, one that starts with eta – long E; and one that starts with epsilon – short E.) Slight difference in the two words, but not enough to worry us here. Both words have as their base the idea of custom, of the haunts and habits of a person.

    In the Iliad (6.511) God like Paris is described as ‘…his knees
    nimbly bear him to the haunts and pastures of mares.’ (meta t’ ethea kai noman ippon) With haunts being a reasonable translation of the word ethos (ethea). So to me the first thing that ethics describes is our customs, our day to day life, what we habitually do.

    Our day to day life is a creation of the forces of production of daily life, that is the historical, political and economic situation that we are ‘thrown’ into. Or in a more Marxist way of describing things ‘The ruling ideas of the age are the ideas of the ruling class.’ This ruling ideas are what we can, in the context of this discussion, call the customs and habits of our age, the ethics of our age.

    As we live in an age of growing crisis, as we are in the midst of an extinction event of grave import, as we keep finding new and better ways of killing ourselves and others, we have to ask what is the role of the critic in this period of death loving? To me the role of the artist is NOT to flatter the national vanity, it is the role of the artist, and even more importantly the critic, to break these habits, to force the audience to look at what they are doing and why they are doing these things.

    So to me I would prefer my critics to be pointing to the new future, a future without scarcity and without the binding constraints of our current habits, a future where energy can be gathered almost for free from the sun and the wind around us, a new world were each is allowed to develop, a world in which work becomes play. This is a world we can build if we want to change our ways, a world we must build if we wish to survive as a species.

    I would rate higher a flawed amateur production of something new,
    interesting and challenging than a technically brilliant yet empty
    professional version of (for example) ‘Importance of Being Earnest.’

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-12-20/scientists-sound-alarm-bells-over-northern-mammals/4437160

    • Jana says:

      Hello Metaboleus.

      I am, together, with Andrew Fuhrmann, slightly exhausted from idealist discussions about criticism. We have, among ourselves, discussed this a good 3,000 times in the past five or so years. So, I am interested in your thoughts, but can you please add the answer to the following question into them: dear Metaboleus, how would you like your critic to earn their income?

      • metaboleus says:

        Sorry I was not able to reply earlier, came home to sick little children. Up most of the night cleaning vomit and washing sheets and etc.

        So a bit bleary and queasy I will try to address how to pay critics.

        I am not by any means a professional critic, if such a thing even exists, but I came up with some ideas, between the bouts of baby vomit.

        No artist or critic of good spirit would write for the OZ or any similar hateful propaganda machine, so there goes a good source of cash.

        Of course there is nothing more important than making one’s on way and in coming together with people of similar outlooks. Critics may be able to use a personal blog to raise money via donation and or advertising. This as well could be problematic, but would allow a critic to work without the fear of being corrupted by a steady income and the self censorship that such a situation can bring about.

        So the idea that I came up with, and it is just an idea which is not fleshed out with detail. Set up some sort of a fund (a slush fund for lack of better word). The various theatre companies, art galleries and etc can contribute to this fund, with possible top up from one of the various government art grants floating around. People can join up and get reimbursed for any sort of critiques they come up with. In a short cut think about the punk ethos of 77 and DIY.

        Living as I do in rural Tasmania, I on occasion write some bits and pieces for various bobtails and rag tags around my local area. I am only too happy to be paid in free tickets to events and the occasional
        whiskey and soda. For I am going to write on most days, regardless of any payment or even an audience, just cause it is something I have to do; but things are obviously different on the big island and in the
        big smoke.

        • Jana says:

          I’m sorry, I replied to you before realising you had a pending comment. I have now disabled comment moderation entirely. Let’s see if it works the way I intend it, and make it possible for you to post without me having to moderate it.

        • Jana says:

          The slush fund is an interesting idea. As I said, I am looking at how Culturebot goes with their campaign. If it works, it will be an interesting precedent.

          Also, I wonder if anyone is keeping statistics on how theatre projects are doing with achieving crowdfunding goals. In a cash-strapped sector, it seems a little cruel sometimes.

          The problem is, and this is not untrivial: critics work solo, and fundraising here would become a full-time position in its own right. If not two full-time positions. And the problem here becomes that, as long as the critic is seen as the enemy of the art, s/he cannot count on support from a ‘community’, however you might want to define it.

          But what did the punks do?

  4. Hi Jana – I wouldn’t exactly say that Benjamin wasn’t an artist either, when you consider works like One Way Street. But that’s by the bye: of course I was really pointing to an extremely close, illuminating and mutually influential relationship between an artist and a critic. The intellectual world would be much poorer without that dialogue; but in the very narrow and timid horizons that seem to hem theatre criticism, it would not be possible for the dialogue to exist. That is my sole point.

    Of course things like payment matter. Nobody is saying that it doesn’t. But questions – like the one Andrew raised about the questions of style and form in criticism – strike me as equally important.

    I have to say that your dismissal of “play” (and indeed pleasure) is rather desolating. Neither are in the least incompatible with seriousness. In fact, I think that reverse: that one can only take things seriously if one can also take them lightly. And does the sensuous, material aspect of art not matter at all? Art indeed can be scholarly, but it is not scholarship. Asking for play is by no means the same as claiming everything is just a game, with nothing at stake.

    I’m totally with Metaboleus here: as I’ve said on several occasions, this is a time of too many urgencies to waste time with pettiness.

  5. Jana says:

    All true, and I apologise for my impatience.

    The clearest point of connection between my work as a theatre critic and my work as, say, commentator of urban policy (highly connected to all Australian social ills) that I can make is the ethics of pointing out, with argument: what works and what doesn’t; the underlying values (politics); who profits and who is penalised (both of these are class questions); and how others have done it better and why. All from my own, subjective but non-imposing position.

    A person who, in my view, most clearly embodies the possibilities of a critical voice within culture, within all of the national public discourse, is Ben Eltham, who critically discusses cultural policy, policy, and the national media discourse. Ben Eltham has also written theatre reviews for Spark Online. What makes Ben Eltham absolutely unique in our media landscape (or at least one among very few) is that he doesn’t obfuscate. He analyses, and evaluates, and brings out the deeper implications, in very simple language. He does what every good critic does.

    Another one is Feminist Frequency, in the US. Then there is Culturebot, opening up a whole series of important conversations about the performing arts in the US. We have good models everywhere around us.

  6. Jana says:

    The question of form, of how a critic writes and what s/he does other than writing, is there both in Fuhrmann and in Govedić. The question I want to add to it is simple: how do we FUND all these new forms? How can we best supports critics to experiment with form? The problem is not that there isn’t great, new, formally interesting criticism in Australia. The problem is that basically none of it has been written for money. The best, and formally most interesting, critical work I ever commissioned was written by Thomas Henning, a theatre artist, who then gave notice because his criticism was hurting his artistic work. This is the reality of criticism in theatre in Australia today.

    The ‘play’ bit is not a problem – I am writing this in my free time right now. But the ‘serious’ really needs to be brought in, I feel. I am not dismissing lightness, or simplicity, or pleasure, not at all. I just don’t see how we can preserve the place of lightness, pleasure and play in theatre criticism if we don’t start talking about how we are actually supporting it. The same way in which we discuss supporting live music venues with proper legislation, and funding arts, and seriously preserving the laws allowing art (or music) to be rude, serious, disruptive, etc. I think it takes a lot of work to preserve play.

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