In a recent article in Exeunt magazine, three theatre critics engage in a long, and poignant discussion about the nature and role of criticality in the theatre and the world at large. I won’t expound upon it, but it is distinctly worth reading here. Instead, I would like to focus on expanding on one point in particular, brought up by Mark Fisher, as he cites Irving Wardle: “Criticism begins with the word because.”
Because of the internet and listicles, I am going to begin by offering some practical steps called “How to Criticism” prompted by this idea, and then explore the theoretical implications of it.
How to Criticism:
1) Recognize that “art” meets “life” continually.
2) Participate in a cultural activity called “art.”
3) Pay attention to your reactions while participating in art; delve deeply into what prompted them both inside the art, and inside yourself. Think about them.
4) Practice articulating these reactions in a descriptive manner. Do not evaluate their goodness or badness.
5) Participate in a dialogue focused on these descriptions with people around you: artists, audience, strangers.
6) Discuss your opinions about art after discussing the things that prompted their creation.
Now that we have a nice concise list, I will expand on these thoughts. To begin, we need to think about the implications of the idea that “criticism begins with the word because.”
Take a moment to think about it. Seriously.
Criticism Begins with the Word Because
If this assertion is true, then every utterance “I don’t like that,” is not criticism. “That’s garbage,” is not criticism. “This was amazing,” is not criticism. “This changed my life,” is not criticism. “They all wore red,” is not criticism. This assertion enables us to catalogue all of these utterances in the place they truly belong: the bottomless box labeled Opinion. This is so liberating!
The speaker becomes free to have “unfavourable” opinions without guilt; the artist is free from the personal anguish of these opinions affecting themselves as individuals, and becomes able to focus on the merit of their art; and most importantly, we are all free to move beyond these statements to focus on the reasoning and interpretation behind them. After all, art isn’t made of opinion, it’s made of the interpretation of a complex interaction of elements speaking across time and space. It really doesn’t matter whether you like it or not; it matters why you feel and think the things you do.
This draws attention to an interestingly ironic falsehood. We often conflate criticism with judgment. But here, it turns out that our verdict (whether or not we like something) is not actually criticism at all. Rather criticism turns out to be a precondition of judgment; an accurate description of the thoughts and feelings prompted by something outside of us must come before any decision about it. If we extend this idea further, it becomes clear that criticism is always self-criticism, because it can only describe the thoughts and feelings we have inside of ourselves as a result of our experience of art. If we don’t have some thought or feeling the artist meant us to have, this is a simple fact. It is then up to the artist to decide if that is acceptable, or if they ought to change their piece to encourage certain thoughts more clearly.
So that’s criticism after “because.” Now, let’s take a closer look at “How to Criticism” in this light. This might be a bit dense, which is why I’ve tucked it in at the end.
tl;dr: If you took in the stuff above here, then I am confident you will be able to criticism well. If theoretical discussion of these suggestions doesn’t interest you, skip down past the numbered section. If you want to understand more about my reasoning, please keep reading.
- The distinction between art and life is contextual. I contend that a life lived in a deliberate fashion with the intention to inspire certain thoughts and feelings in others, or challenge the status quo of their worldview, is art. The fact that we go to the theatre to see theatre does not preclude theatre from taking place around us constantly. See the idea of performing gender or sexuality or blackness in the literature. If we extend this idea, we see that all art has political implications, and that all our decisions (conscious or not) in life are, in effect, performance decisions designed from a particular context with a particular end in mind.
- The cultural activity called “art” is the theatre that happens in the theatre, the art that hangs in a gallery or is painted on a public wall or is performed from a stage or streamed on the internet. This is the sort of art that people deliberately claim as art. Because no matter how deliberate we are in our life choices, and we do have an obligation to be deliberate here, we often make choices that fall short of our ideal life. We drive to the market because we’re in a rush and it’s cold, despite our commitment to reduce our carbon footprint. Art as a cultural activity consists of particular moments and decisions to which people commit to a degree that goes well beyond the way they get food. They devote an inordinate amount of time and thought to design all the facets of an experience for an acknowledged viewer with a particular goal in mind. We need to look at this so that we can understand more about the parts of our art-lives of which we are unconscious.
- The harder you think about and look at your art-experience, the greater an understanding you will be able to develop of yourself, the piece, the artist, and the larger context in which you all live. As a function of our common humanity, the more closely and specifically you look inwards, the more universal the descriptions you are able to offer.
- This honest interior description is what people mean when they talk about “being objective,” whereas clearly this is the deepest kind of subjectivity. The part that is called “being objective” is the part that accomplishes this without judgment. Let me reiterate: being impartial in these descriptions means not evaluating the goodness or desirability of the things you are describing. Evaluate isn’t until later. Describe the thoughts and feelings that you experience during art, and trace the linkages back to the piece, the artist, and the larger context as you perceive it. This all comes from an understanding of yourself (hence its deep subjectivity), because we can ultimately only talk about the truth as we see it. Practicing the articulation of the truth as you see it works as a positive feedback loop; the more you do it, the better you understand things. It is also necessary to articulate your thoughts and feelings precisely because entering dialogue about them is pretty difficult if you haven’t figured out how to express them to yourself. Evaluation happens later and as a result of clear articulation; when you have understood the facts, you can then make decisions about them.
- Vacuums do not allow for life. Because art lives in our experience of it, and we are alive in our experience of life, it is important to touch base with the worlds that live inside of other people once in awhile. This expands and deepens our understanding of what we have just seen, and the context of our own lives. It also allows us to work actively to make art and the world better, by expanding and deepening the understanding of others.
- Once you have described your experience, it becomes more useful to evaluate that experience. In science, the observations of the experiment always come before the interpretation of those results. The same principle holds true in art. Furthermore, if the value “goodness” is separate from the facts of your feeling, then your opinions are able to change following from increased understanding of other facts. You aren’t tied to the evaluation as a matter of your unique experience of the event. You learned something new that changed your opinion. Let me stress that these evaluative statement are incredibly important, because they are what point society and art in what we perceive to be desirable directions. But it seems to me that we are better able to express and evaluate our evaluations when they aren’t equated one-to-one with the facts of our perception. Ultimately, we can only change which facts other people perceive in the world, not their evaluations of them; every individual is responsible for their own value judgments.
It might seem obtuse or naive of me to suggest that art meets life continually. To that I say only: try looking at it this way, and see what happens. I acknowledge it is a more difficult way to live, because it raises the stakes on a lot of the decisions we make, but I think it is an important fact of life. Our decisions are, ultimately, what shapes the world. So try to turn the world into art. Because it’s more beautiful, or allows space for alternative voices, or makes things different from how they are and have been. Get woke. Make art. Talk about it.