The State of Criticism in the Nation’s Capital
by Wes Babcock
Mr. Portman, so that there is no doubt, and because of your evident tendency towards premature departure and ill-informed opinions, I am writing this in response to your smug – and I hesitate to use this word – review of Damaged Goods at the Ottawa Fringe Festival posted on the Capital Critics’ Circle (CCC) website on June 22, 2015.
I presume that Mr. Portman has now formed his opinion of my article’s contents and merits and left the auditorium; I’ll be looking forward to his review in a few days’ time. The rest of this is for the artists, critics, and theatre patrons whose abilities and efforts Mr. Portman gives so little respect.
What’s happened? Why am I being so snide? Here is the précis: Mr. Portman attended a performance, and wrote a sarcastic, dismissive review of it. It was a dance show, and he called its choreography “dull,” the performers’ movements “dutiful.” Actually, there’s nothing objectionable about that. What should incite your ire and frustration is the fact that he openly acknowledges that he formed this opinion and walked out of the show within its first ten minutes. As someone who purports to be one of Canada’s “finest theatre critics” Mr. Portman ought to know better. He ought to have recognized that this sort of behaviour casts theatre criticism in an extremely poor light: as an ignorant, intolerant, impatient and petty establishment. Let me explain.
A critic’s job, according to the Canadian Theatre Critics Association (CTCA) code of ethics, is to be “as objective as possible to achieve a balanced review,” where “the production seen should be the production reviewed.” It seems obvious to me that one can best approach objectivity by looking at something through as wide a lens as possible. A good start to this is an understanding of the genres and disciplines with which the piece engages, and training to address and dissect these themes with intelligence and aplomb. But there is something even more fundamental to “objective” criticism: actually seeing the thing you’re talking about.
This is actually the easiest part. You just sit there. You watch and you listen and you think about what is going on around you. What the artists are communicating through their chosen medium. You don’t need years of education or experience to do this; you don’t need fancy words or national respect. You just need to watch the show. Every audience member does this, and it is why they are so appreciated by the artists, because art exists principally in the minds of those who see it.
Without engaging your mind, sitting quietly through the show is the absolute minimum of respect that you can give to an artist and still claim to have an opinion about their work. Sure, the CTCA gives critics a way out of shows if they have a (publication) deadline to meet. But this clause can’t possibly condone Mr. Portman’s early departure to prepare for his urgent appointment with the end of integrity.
Let me be clear: Mr. Portman is perfectly free to leave any show he likes whenever he sees fit. He is also free to hate whatever he wants for any reason whatsoever. He is even free to explain his considered negative opinion in a critical review, provided that it “presume[s] respect for the contributors’ efforts.” But he cannot depart a show in its first ten minutes, use his clout to dismiss it thoroughly and publicly, and still expect to retain a shred of dignity among theatre practitioners. These actions respect no one, and in fact constitute an insult to every stakeholder within the theatre community.
Artists and patrons both should be outraged, but the people this decision does the most to undermine are other critics. Their art already occupies a tenuous status outside of their immediate associations with academia and the close-knit community of other theatre critics. For so long has behaviour like that of Mr. Portman gone on, that artists are surprised when they get a review that goes beyond praise or condemnation to actually consider and discuss the ways in which their art struggles and strives to accomplish its ends.
Critics occupy a unique position from which they have the power to steer the conversation and course of art and its practice. There is no place for kindness or spite in their roles; that is their approach toward objectivity. They have a duty to consider the efforts, successes, shortcomings, and problems sparked by their active engagement with every piece of art about which they express their public opinion; that is their respect for the artists. The critic must speak their truth, just as any artist must do, and this truth must form an integral part of the conversation surrounding the art.
Mr. Portman has done none of this. Mr. Portman: why bother?