Critics are positioned in a middle ground between the artist and audience, each of whom perceive the critic (in their ideal form) to be in uniquely service to their interests.
From the perspective of theatre creators, the critic is part of their publicity machine. We write reviews principally for the purpose of steering audiences towards or away from their production. This is why such bitterness persists against the star rating system. Regardless of the words the critic writes, only this number exists in the practical discourse around the show.
The audience sees the critic as a sort of advance scout that allows them to make the most of their valuable time and money by only seeing things that are “good.” Clearly these two ideas create a self-fulfilling feedback loop. Which one comes first is irrelevantly chicken-and-egg; eggs make more chickens, and chickens make more eggs.
Leaving aside the obvious faulty logic and laziness behind the idea that anyone (under the guise of objectivity, no less) ought to preemptively determine for you what is good, this attitude is focused on a mere side effect of the critic’s actual job. Not only that, by focusing so heavily on this side effect, people, critics included, are distracted from their true purpose.
To be fair, the focus on publicity and getting audiences in seats is a thoroughly understandable distraction, and for a long time it has actually been the principal occupation of critics. Critics have long been rewarded by somewhat comfy resident positions in regional papers and other forums by catering to a populist agenda. This era is over.
As readership declines at news outlets, critics’ jobs are among the first to be cut, and their voices in those broadsheets have less impact as it is; fewer readers means fewer people stumbling upon the arts section and deciding to head out to the “charming” Sunday matinee. Moreover, individuals no longer need critics to point them in the direction of things they will enjoy, because computer algorithms have made a science of combining confirmation bias with the popularity contest. They can just head over to facebook and like a few local arts organizations to find out what people enjoy. If they even bother, that is; connecting with new audience members has become one of the most difficult tasks for the theatre promoter or company because of these ideological bubbles that continually reflect our own interests back at us, while remaining incredibly poor at expanding the horizons of our thoughts.
So, if critics have ceased to be relevant as populist shepherds of taste, what the heck do they exist for?
Critics exist to make art better. Exactly what that means is up to us. We choose to do it through a process of articulating our thoughts and feelings so that artists have an honest perspective from outside. Because we believe that this process will make their art better, if only by broadening their understanding of human perspectives. We choose to do it by pointing out and unpacking problematic contributions to (and erasures from) the discourse of equality and equity in our culture. Because art is a place where these things are put in the spotlight, and we all need to work to reduce discrimination and marginalization, particularly those of us with the privilege of an education and a platform. Art doesn’t have to think it’s political to be political. Art is life is politics.
I am going to leave you with a poem from an incredibly famous writer* that sums up my point perfectly.
If you recall, art meets life continually. Let me take this opportunity to expand on that: criticism is art too. Oh, and art is criticism too. It’s really quite confusing to try and separate all these things, and to my mind, doesn’t actually do any service to anyone. So, if art meets life continually, and criticism is art and art, criticism, where does that leave us? It leaves us in a place of profound power and responsibility for the way the future looks; the interim between now and the end of the world.
I believe poems can stand on their own. But I’ve given myself an opportunity to comment on this one, so I am going to take it and run.
The world of humans will end one day. The planet itself will also cease to be, though likely on a scale outside of human care. This is pretty inevitable, so we may as well embrace it.
We are all complicit, to greater or lesser degree, but we are all complicit. By acknowledging our shared and distinct complicities we can free ourselves from the paralysis of guilt. You know the feeling, “I am part of the problem, I can’t do anything to contribute to the solution.” That feeling.
In the interim, we have work to do. We need to try because that feeling of disempowerment is also part of the problem. Because everyone needs to participate in the ongoing practice of empowerment and equity and overcoming prejudice. Every choice in our day to day always contributes both to solving and perpetuating problematic relationships and power dynamics. The work is in skewing our activity towards genuinely attempting to explore the issues and moving towards a more inclusive and just society. That’s your job.
Let’s all work to make art and life a little better by articulating how it works and participating in it.
*The author of the above poem, Wes Babcock, is not actually incredibly famous. Wes Babcock is merely moderately famous. But he’s working on it.