Confession time: I am writing a play. I hope you come see it at the Fringe this summer.
Now that that’s out of the way, I want to address a common misconception about theatre critics and criticism. Namely, that critics speak objectively about the art they critique. Wrapped up with this idea are all sorts of elaborate mental/logical gymnastics, all bent on ensuring the critic’s separation from the art they speak about. This article by Jessica Goldman argues that critics shouldn’t even socialize with artists at opening parties.
In the pursuit of ‘objectivity’ in criticism, all sorts of opportunities are lost. The critic forfeits not merely social engagements, but also moments of shared humanity, which might be considered one of the primary functions of art. Further, the art community and art itself suffers from this separation.
The crux of the matter is that treating theatre as an art object, rather than an art experience that is shared between performer and audience, enacts a sort of dehumanizing violence. Any time we treat living things as objects, we perpetrate violence against them, because we forget that on a fundamental level they are like us.
Objective criticism is not the same thing as rational argument. Rational argument is important to theatre criticism in the sense that logical reasoning forms a key way of understanding the world. Problems arise when we separate this rational understanding from other aspects of reality and prioritize it over them. We need to apply reasoning to art to make it better, but if we rely on reasoning alone, we lose the part of art that is outside of logic.
Objective criticism believes in a vertical separation of the critic from art; it elevates the critic and asks them to pass judgment. This is highly problematic in art and art criticism because separation is fundamentally opposed to what art does. Art addresses everyone from the same level; it cannot change what it does for each member of the audience. The distinct individuals who see art art give it its multitude of meanings, and collectively determine its relevance.
It seems to me that, fundamentally, all art is a horizontal act of communication between artist and audience, with the medium of the art itself carrying the substance of this communication. If the critic attempts to separate themselves from the art act, this wrenching violence destroys their purpose. The artist doesn’t get treated as an equal, the art becomes some lifeless object, and the critic has sacrificed their opportunity to be changed by the act of communication.
Standing on the platform of their training, which is just one kind of experience, the objective critic claims authority to which they have no inherent right. If the artist must demonstrate their merit at every turn, so too must the critic. The reason the critic’s opinion matters is because they demonstrate a keen understanding of the theatrical milieu, including its emotional realm, and have honed their skills at expressing that understanding, not solely because they have seen more plays than anyone else. What you have learned and seen in the past may help you, but is of little consequence if you cannot now employ it to increase our understanding of the present.
Moreover, I think there is a fundamental flaw in the idea that a human can be objective at all. In every moment that we observe something, we are bound up with it. Just as the meaning of a word depends on both the speaker and the listener, both the artist and audience are integral to the act of art. How can a critic be truly objective, when they are themselves a part of the performance? From the perspective of the critic, they are the subject, and they observe art, the object of their criticism. But from the perspective of the artist, they speak to the audience with their art. Both are true, but we need to look beyond this dichotomy.
The inherent link between subject and object is felt in the very structure of our language, which only forms complete sentences in the presence of a subject, an object, and a verb. In other words, every sentence is made of two entities tied together by some action. It is only by interacting with the world outside of ourselves that we exist in any meaningful sense, and vice versa. There is a balance in grammar. The viewer cannot view without something outside of them to reflect the light toward their eye. The critic cannot criticize without art. The artist may talk, but cannot communicate without an audience.
What ought to be clear at this point is the fundamental reliance that the artist and critic (who is, firstly, a viewer) have on one another. This quest to make objective criticism sucks the life out of everyone. But beyond these external manifestations, which form a powerful argument against objectivity in criticism, there are even more powerful arguments in favour of a self-aware critical subjectivity that come from a holistic view of the artistic process.
When the critic acknowledges their part in the art-making community, rather fighting to remain apart from it, everyone wins. Let’s not forget that the critic also chooses which of the infinite details of each performance are commented on in their review. They are forfeiting objectivity as soon as they don’t talk about every single design choice in the entire production. This is not humanly possible, and besides, who would read it?
Sure, the critic needs to be vigilant to identify personal biases and prevent them from affecting their criticism, but this was always true. One of the reasons that critics are so maligned historically is they are perceived to harbour vendettas against particular performers, playwrights, or companies. Acknowledging their shared participation in this community makes those personal relationships more apparent in the critic’s mind from the outset, and doesn’t allow them to unconsciously hide their biases behind a critical framework. The critic and the artist then become collaborators and friends in the creation and improvement of art.
When the critic and artist are friends, they trust each other to be doing their best for the sake of good art, and to express themselves with human kindness. We are also more willing to listen to hard truths when we know they come from true friends. In an adversarial approach to criticism, the artist feels belittled to bolster the critic’s ego and never digests the criticism, and the critic has to live with the guilt of their egotism, and also suffer through the same unpleasant experience again the next time they see that artist’s work.
Now, the reason I dare to use a touchy-feely word like friends in a theoretical piece about the nature of criticism and objectivity, is because I am faced with a quandary. How do I reconcile my role as a critic with the fact that I am writing a play? Am I breaking the rules? Jessica Goldman probably thinks so. Will any of my peers (read: friends) at the NOC be ethically able to review my show when it runs? Will I be ethically able to review shows created by my artist peers (read: friends) and still be welcome as a member of the community of artists?
This is exactly the same problem that arises, though perhaps to a lesser extent, each time a critic tries to separate themselves from their community in the pursuit of objectivity. Because not only are both artists and audience necessary for art, but no one is always or only an artist or a member of the audience. We are each all things, distinct only in degree and time.
There are lots of examples of this, including Ottawa-local Kevin Reid, who has largely given up writing reviews because of a perceived conflict of interest (not to mention time), as he has begun pursuing a career in performance. The NOC has said goodbye to numerous contributors who felt that they couldn’t write criticism and perform in the same community.
This all stems from a sort of unspoken convention among some artists to the effect that they won’t talk publicly about the merit of other artists’ work. Like many conventions, this seems both wrong-headed and based in fear. If we are to improve our craft, we need to talk about what works and what doesn’t work from as many angles as possible. Can you imagine if Brecht had left off writing criticism when he began writing plays? His whole creative project was an elaborate critique of theatrical conventions! George Bernard Shaw never stopped writing criticism while he produced a massive oeuvre of theatrical work.
Making art (criticism included) is a process of uncovering, of working through towards understanding, which depends on the existence and investment of other people. It is a communicative act. Each voice lost on either side of this perceived conflict of interest is one fewer voice contributing to the ongoing creation of the theatrical milieu. Everyone needs to be encouraged to think (and speak) constructively for themselves about art, and not accept the critic’s (or anyone else’s) word as gospel. Art and criticism exist for their mutual advantage. A community benefits from a multiplicity of voices in concert, not cacophony.
At NOC, we are committed to fostering a dialogue about art: creating criticism through conversation. That means we consider ourselves an integral part of the ongoing communicative act that is theatre creation, but we also consider you an integral part of our community. We want to help you practice constructive articulation of what art does for you by providing ways into the analysis of the theatre you see and a platform for discussion.
I’m sure that writing this play, and performing it, will deepen my understanding as a critic, and I know that my criticism informs my artistic creation. The two are in symbiosis. I plan to write reviews this summer. I plan to perform a play this summer. I am a critic. I am an artist. I promise to do my best for art in both capacities, and that’s all I can do.