In the last little while, I have had occasion to think about criticism. It was a zeigeisty thing – suddenly everything seemed relevant to it, and there were resources at my fingertips, literally coming into my living room through emails, being spoken about in front of me, in the lectures I went to, in casual conversations.
My friend Jane was talking yesterday about the fact that artists seem to call everyone artists, and she asked us to interrogate that desire in ourselves. I take up that challenge, but I do it with particular focus on critics; why is it that we want to claim the “good ones” as One Of Us, and the “bad ones” as enemies?
I have thought about it only briefly, and I have to say that it is one of those things that I am somewhat ashamed of not even nearing an understanding about until now. I don’t know whether I thought of criticism as reviewing, as commentary, as documentary – perhaps some kind of hybrid of them all. This is, of course, in spite of my actual experience with excellent criticism, which did something else. It gave me a key. And I know that other people much more intelligent than I have talked about this, about the significance of providing context (political, theatrical, sociological), providing insight, providing an educated and thought through response to a theatrical experience. But I think what I have understood through Jane’s question, and through my subsequent readings and thinkings, is that artists claim critics who do provide this key to understanding as artists themselves, because we think of ourselves (perhaps) as people who do that too.
I also recognise the fact that scientists do this, and mathematicians, and sociologists, and journalists, and many other people who do not often get called artists. Perhaps it is simply proximity and a kind of blurry recognition – critics are doing something alongside of artists, communicating more about the ideas in the pieces we make, allowing people to get further in (for good or ill with respect to the work itself). I think that artists, particularly theatre artists, call themselves artists because of that thing they do – opening something up, providing a key of sorts, an experience, which can reveal something that was otherwise hidden.
Or at least, that’s the goal.
So then, when Jane was talking about artists hiring critics, I thought; “Of course.” And then also; “Oh dear.” Because it made me worry that we were the only ones who cared about that discourse, who cared about people knowing more than they currently do about art and culture and how it fits into society.
And then I thought; “Well, of course.” And I thought it this time because I thought that we have, in Australia, lost all sense of art and culture being something that you should know something about before you engage with it. Artistic works that aren’t pre-digested are seen as wanky and elitist. And maybe we’re ashamed of being seen that way. And maybe we’ve been burnt, either by direct contact or by atmospheric heat, by reviewers who perpetuate that idea.
So then what better thing to do than take control of that dialogue and work alongside critics, rather than against one another? After all, we are surely trying to do the same thing, ultimately, just in different modes. We are trying to communicate with people. We are trying to help them to think. We are inviting them somewhere, and equipping them with tools to manage in that place, and letting them keep those tools afterwards. Any help with that should be welcomed.
I was asked to review something this year by a publication that I value very highly. I turned down the opportunity because I felt that it would negatively effect my artistic practice. That sucked. Because they’re the same thing, really. And one day I hope that people like me will understand that. I hope that I will understand it strongly enough to act upon it.
Take this as a small step in that direction.