This week I am going to talk about a rather insidious process I am calling ‘approval creep.’ We’ve touched on something like this before, in a discussion about star ratings, but this part of the conversation is a more constructive (rather than deconstructive) look at the way our particular brand of criticism works (and doesn’t work).
First, let’s begin with a definition. Approval creep is the phenomenon of heaping praise on top of an ever-increasing amount of praise in an endless loop to make the present thing stand out from what has come before.
This is a pressure that critics feel. When we see something good, we feel a need to compel and convince people to go see it. I think it also happens because we want to encourage people to keep working. To keep making art.
So. Let’s play an imagination game. We go see a play. It makes some interesting choices, it has some good ideas, it shows a lot of good work and promise from the creators and performers. That said, it’s not virtuosic; while the ideas are good, they aren’t refined or new, some of the imagery is a bit muddled, there is clear work the actor could do on their craft to enhance the work, and the take away isn’t as punchy as it could be. Approval creep happens when we play up the good things from this performance, put the focus on them, and largely exclude the areas we think the play fell short of its potential. Now, let’s imagine that we also saw a different play last week (or yesterday). That play was good in different ways, but as a whole, was not as strong as the one we just watched. We encouraged people to go see it by talking about how good it was. With this perspective on things, approval creep starts to accumulate: because we approved strongly of the last play, and this new play is stronger than that old play, we feel a need to approve even more strongly of its strengths than we otherwise might have.
If something is truly spectacular, I’m perfectly willing to explore all the ways I find it amazing. I will unpack and explore all the ways a thing delights me, just as I will pick apart the ways that it leaves me wanting more. The problem arises when something is good; we still want to support the artist with encouragement, and steer audiences in their direction, but the piece is not spectacular. As critics, we have an anxiety about the power (and associated responsibility) we have to determine the financial success of a show. Not to mention an anxiety about honouring the work and encouraging further work on the part of the artist. We want more people to see more art and make more and better art. I believe it’s not only “great” things that deserve our attention; every experience, particularly when it comes to art, stands to teach us something if we are curious and interested enough. I also believe that audiences are discerning enough to learn from their theatrical experience regardless of the skill, development, and cohesion of the piece they see.
Speaking as an artist, this sort of praise is pleasant, but not particularly useful. I know that there is more work to be done on every single thing that I make. Sometimes I encounter an interesting focus of what they liked that I hadn’t considered, and that leads me in new directions. Generally I find blanket praise dissatisfying as feedback. It makes me feel like people haven’t really engaged with my work. This fact is interesting because it makes me think that my work has failed to engage them on a deep level, which is always a goal, but the content of positive feedback doesn’t give me eyes on where I need to direct the focus of my work. I imagine other artists have similar experiences of this.
So when feeling the pressure of approval creep as a critic, I try my best to be honest and frank about a performance. I try not to let this pressure from outside the art to ‘creep’ in and influence the way I talk about my experience during the art act. I make it my goal to find the strong aspects of every performance that I see, and also be uncompromising in my exploration of things I find less effective. I trust my audience to read my work as part of their curiosity about the art itself, and I encourage them to see things and engage with the art regardless of what I’ve said about it. I hope they will engage with my work and discover ways they disagree with me. I hope we’ll have a chance to talk about those disagreements.
As we move forward together on this road to a new way of doing criticism, I would invite you to think of criticism not as a measure of how good or bad something is, or how worth your time it is. Instead I’d ask us to think of criticism as a discussion about the process of making and engaging with art as a community project. Ask yourself what would happen if we encouraged people to go see theatre as an exercise in curiosity and learning; an exploration of themselves and the world? If we stopped thinking about art primarily as a means of entertaining ourselves? If we all invest in the development of the theatre community, if we all care about it as a shared project that we all support and enrich with our particular skills and interests?
I think if we do this, the “goodness” of a piece no longer matters. Instead the process of creation, of expanding perspective, of changing ourselves and the world around us, becomes the point. I think it already is the point, if we choose to look at it that way. I’m always looking at the process of engaging with art for a take away. All experience provides perspective for all future experience, which is a never ending process. I consider the take-away from a performance as a new perspective to bring out into the larger process of living. An identifiable point on a curve as we move through it. Not certainty, or a definitive statement, but a new hypothesis for consideration as we work out how to be alive today.
And some more concrete take-always I’d like you to consider: just because I don’t rave about a piece doesn’t mean I don’t think you can learn something from engaging with it; when I do say good things, I really mean them; I would love to talk to you about your experience of art, whether it’s the first play you’ve ever seen, or you’ve just come off stage from the 500th performance of your show.