Critical dialogue about critical voices.

by Jane

“Everyone’s A Critic” has been that ever non-specific and slightly annoying phrase on my mind lately, as May 10 I will be on a panel to discuss just that. You should join Alison Croggon (from the mother of all Australian theatre blogs, Theatre Notes), Marc Fennell (Triple J and self-titled blog), Samela Harris (The Advertiser) and me, with our host Fenella Kernebone at the Adelaide Festival Centre. Tickets are FREE (like this blog, hey! And who says there is no such thing as a free lunch?) and can be booked here.

Mostly, I think the actual conversation surrounding “everyone’s a critic” is a bit tired and done. Yes, everyone now has the platform to talk about art. We know this. It is a good thing. The internet has opened this up in a wonderful way which is still revolutionising the way artists, administrators, marketers and audiences interact as all parties learn and refine “social media strategies.” Much of the best arts coverage in Australia comes from online platforms where writers can respond with speed to news, with time to review, and without (too) restrictive word counts. Some of the finest work I read are long-form responses from individual blogs. For recent examples, take Jana Perkovic‘s essay on The Wild Duck (however much I disagree; I was blown away by the production), or Alison’s review of The Histrionic.

If anything, I think we’re still at a stage where not enough people are engaging in these platforms – theatre artists are all too reluctant to offer thoughts on art unless it is absolutely positive (and when it’s not, the silence can be deafening).

But the questions we need to ask are: a world where “everyone’s a critic” where do we find the support platforms for people who want to be more than the tweeters, or more than the volunteers writing consumer guides? In what ways can we expand the role of the “serious” arts writer or critic? How do we make robust critical discussion a vital part of the culture and community? Is it possible for the main-stream media to be place where we are going to get this? How do we make online platforms viable?

In short: how do we make today’s writers, today’s publications, today’s dialogue better?

I think the first thing we need to do is remove the thoughts that critics are somehow outside the rest of the culture. London theatre critic Andrew Haydon published an excellent blog last week about the idea of the “embedded critic.” Andrew, like me and many other writers, particularly in the blogosphere, are increasingly interested in tearing down the false separations between the “artist” and the “critic”: the critic coming in closer to the artists work, and creating better dialogue around it.

“Emeddeness” comes in many forms. Andrew spent every night at Forest Fringe at the Gate, a two week London residency of Edinburgh Fringe Festival institution, the Forest Fringe. Jake Orr (of A Younger Theatre) documented the rehearsal process for a new work by performance group Dirty Market. Being asked to blog through the Australian Theatre Forum was an opportunity for me to be embedded in an environment with some of Australia’s best theatre makers and administrators. Living and writing and working in Adelaide makes sure I’m always at least somewhat embedded in the local theatrical culture. While I don’t know everyone, the city is small enough that I’m not far off: I place myself in an active role in the forums, the panels, the foyers; I interview artists; all of a sudden I found myself production managing a fringe show.  I feel like I’m fighting for something here, and I have to go into that battle with the artists themselves.

Beyond Adelaide, I am currently one of six emerging arts writers (with Melissa Deerson, Naomi Gall, Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Anabelle Lacroix and Sam William- West) involved in Text Camp through Next Wave and the Emerging Writers Festival. Not only am I endlessly excited that I get to spend all nine days at Next Wave (The festival program is everything I want from art one festival. I may have teared up when Emily Sexton read out her launch speech.), but I am so exhilarated that this structure exists within a festival. We have been invited by the festival to be a part of the festival. We get to learn about and practice and stretch our own craft, but we get to do this as a recognised part of a sprawling beast of artistsresidentsadministrators and so on and so forth.

But even better, Next Wave’s commitment to arts writing extends beyond people in my role. Rather than releasing a program – short blurb, time, date, location – Next Wave released a magazine, filled with essays, snatches of writing, or photographs about and from the work and the artists. Communication surrounding the art is presented as an integral first step to connecting with, understanding, and finding the work.

We’ve created the very first Next Wave Magazine. With the guidance of Editor Alice Gage, we created a publication that introduces a new collection of people. That doesn’t try to sell you something. That doesn’t assume that you should know these artists – of course you don’t, they’re the next wave! Our magazine has our artists explain why they make art, how they’re coming to understand generosity, why what they have been making feels urgent.

-Emily Sexton, Change not yet able to be articulated, or, art

Particularly being from Adelaide, but even being from Australia, I feel a need (and want) to cover work in detail, to analyse it, to expose it, to illuminate it. We’re a small city in a small country, and to have a long-form record out there in the world that says this is what is happening in my city, this is what is happening in my country is crucially important. Isn’t this going to be more illuminating if I’m part of it?

The oft asked question is then but what about your objectivity? To which I say there is no such thing. This question, of course, comes from an assumption that consumer guide judgements are even interesting, let alone necessary: a notion I disagree with strongly.

As Andrew wrote on his blog:

Another aspect of “embeddedness” that I think worth addressing is whether, if a critic gets “embedded” in some way or other, it will make them view the work more favourably.

Well, here’s a thing. I reckon a critic’s actual *opinion* of a piece is frequently the least important part of a review. Yes, some people treat reviews as some kind of consumer guide. I suspect many of them might be the same sort of people who grumble if they suspect a critic isn’t “being objective”. They’re the people who prize the star-rating. And, having taken into account what I’ve said only a couple of paragraphs earlier about respecting the humanity of others, I still think those people are the wreckers of civilisation.

Ok, it is useful to know if something is good or not. But unless you’re actually the person who’s reviewed the show – or you have the magical good fortune to have a critic with whose taste yours corresponds exactly – the good/not-good question just boils down to that most mysterious of things; one’s taste.

The internet opens so many amazing opportunities for writing about art: everyone’s a critic. Not only in the idea that you don’t need permission or validation to comment any more, but also in the fact that you can do new things with the form. You can take a month to sort out your thoughts, you can draw crazy parallels, you can hyperlink everything you possibly can to make a point about how you can hyperlink, you can publish a telepathic interview, you can you can you can.

Why then in Adelaide do we see so much of the traditional same old same old? The 250 word (if that) consumer guide: thumbs up / thumbs down, make sure you buy a ticket / give this one a miss.

The recent Humana Festival of New American Plays hosted a panel called Critiquing Criticism: (re)imagining the future, and it is a brilliant discussion on criticism from artists, administrators, and writers well worth the hour listen. One of my favourite comments on the panel was a very succinct point from playwright Deborah Stein:

The consumer report question implies that there is a consumer, and we’re all in agreement with who that is, and I find that more and more to not be true.

Later, Sasha Anawalt, the director of the Arts Journalism course at USC Annenberg, pitched in:

Critics and arts journalists have audiences, too. And we serve our audience, and we’re figuring out who our audience is. Because you guys all want critics, you want to hear – that feeling that you had of being understood and you cried? – that’s the kind of criticism that I HOPE to create, and help others create. We just went through a dark period, where the critic had to be “objective” and held outside, and now we can come in. And everything is individual. Those individual critics in Boston and Austin and New York are DIFFERENT. And your relationship to them is individual and it’s different. So it really comes down to that one by one by one thing. And it’s very personal.

So in this world where everyone’s a critic, can we invite the critic in? Can we invite them into work, into conversations, into festivals, into support systems? Is there some way we can find an environment where critical dialogue surrounding art is seen as so crucial that it needs to be supported just as art is?

99% of the time writing about theatre is an act of failure. It’s never good enough. There is no way I can capture everything on – or behind – a stage. There is always more to be said. I think “embedding” myself further into the culture can only possibly be for the better.

As UK theatre maker Daniel Bye wrote in his response to Andrew’s blog:

The only way we can save criticism as an institution from the idiocy imposed on it by the marketplace and the broader culture is by giving it space, access and generosity. Criticism is in trouble as a serious form, and keeping it at a respectful distance from its subject isn’t going to help.

As I write this today, I’m coming up with much more questions than answers. Maybe if we discuss it we can start to flip that ratio? I’d love to know your thoughts, and I’d love to see you Thursday week fortnight.

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