Are online theatre critics, or digital content creators in general, artists? To answer this seemingly rhetorical question, let me begin with a story:
Not too long ago I found myself walking in a park in a quiet town in Germany and sat down by the edge of a pond, where I was greeted by an unexpectedly familiar sight: two Canada geese and their goslings. The inspiration for an Instagram post sprang into my head, fully formed: a photo of the one adult goose standing guard, staring into the camera, surrounded by its young, with the caption “Well hello there, stranger.” I pulled out my phone and positioned the shot, waited for the goose to move into just the right position, and… it was a terrible picture. It wasn’t that it wasn’t a good idea (you can be the judge of that one), but in the dim light of the setting sun, the photo (and the subsequent attempts) came out too fuzzy. If you’ve ever met a Canada goose, then you can probably guess why I was reluctant to try the flash. Inspiration had struck, but it wasn’t the right time, so I got to my feet and walked back to my hotel.
What if, however, I was living fifty (or even fifteen) years ago and had this exact same experience sitting by the pond and wanted to express myself through it in some way? I could have written down a brief description of my avian encounter if I was prescient enough to have pen and paper on me, but the main way of recording this experience would have been in my own memory. Years later I would reflect on the encounter, and with the wonderful mess of human cognition that gets in the way of remembering things the way they actually happened, some underlying theme to the experience would arise. Maybe I’d write a short story about it, or have a character in a play deliver a monologue inspired by it, or paint it (in this hypothetical situation, I possess artistic skill). I could write about it in a letter to a friend, or relegate it to an insipid anecdote for drunken conversation (no one wants to hear about your great ideas unless you actually do something with them). Maybe I’d forget it happened entirely, and whatever had inspired me would be gone forever, even for me.
The point is that whatever my thoughts were at the moment it happened, they are lost almost immediately and replaced with the memory of my thoughts, or a rough approximation of them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: after all, this process is how all art was created for most of human history. Every artist faces the struggle to express an idea that only they themselves could see in their mind’s eye, but until fairly recently all available art forms required a lengthy time commitment to reach the “finished” stage. Some have been lucky enough to have their art survive and be admired years after their deaths, though many more have not.
Modern technology seems to have changed the rules of the game somewhat. Now that anyone with a smartphone and even a modicum of wit (optional) can post their content almost as soon as they think of it, and in so doing win over more followers than Shakespeare could dream of, is there still a point to trying to express oneself in the “traditional” fashion? When the time elapsed between inspiration and completed expression thereof is shorter than ever before, is it still worth it to spend months or years working on your magnum opus?
Of course. No one is stopping you from writing novels or learning to sing opera, just the same way no one is stopping you from running a YouTube channel of accordion covers of Nirvana songs (I just came up with that, but now I sincerely hope that it actually exists) [Editor’s note: it sure does]. The existence of social media does not negate traditional art forms, it creates another avenue to artistic expression. Not everyone with a Snapchat account has thousands of followers, just as I am completely useless with a paintbrush (also Snapchat).
It may strike you as odd that I’m comparing social media prowess to “great art,” but keep in mind that social media as we know it in 2017 has existed for less than 15 years (Myspace has only been online since 2003, though internet chat rooms in general have been around for longer), so we’re still getting used to it. New formats for expressing yourself on a digital platform are being released constantly; some of them will stick and some of them will vanish along with the Vine and the man bun.
Media arts are expanding in a similar way, and even art forms based on physical materials (the traditional “fine arts” trio of theatre, music, and visual art, for example) continue to expand and evolve, though perhaps not at the same exponential pace that digital forms are currently enjoying. Let us also not forget the intersection between the virtual and physical: theatre artists in particular are using social media not just to promote their work, but also as inspiration and as material for the work itself. It’s a savvy move that acknowledges that it’s people and not new art forms that leave old art forms behind: eat or be eaten.
Succeeding in art has never been just about one’s natural talent anyway; it’s always entailed an exhausting amount of self-promotion to the right people. Even Beyoncé needed her dad to work full-time as her manager to get Destiny’s Child a record deal. Honing your skill is important but it is equally important to know how to convince the people who have the power to further your career to do so. The rise of the omnipresent online community represented through social media has made it easier than ever to reach out to potential fans/investors and to quantify those you already have.
When you can do your own market research for free, you have no excuse not to know exactly which demographics you appeal to most. You might learn that the community you were aiming for is either not interested or much smaller than you thought, and you have to change and adapt your approach if you ever want your passion to pay the bills. And when the day comes that you have the opportunity to secure a big grant or a contract with a major producer, being able to point to your numbers as a guarantee of return on investment is going to be a lot more effective than your well-worded answers or your firm handshake. There are plenty of people whose social media activity/online presence is minimal, either out of choice or due to unwillingness to adapt. They will be eaten. Art is a business too.
Any further disagreement likely links back to first principles, i.e. what we mean when we use the word ‘art’. If digital forms are forcing us to confront yet again what it means to make art, then the future of art, including the criticism that drives its evolution, can look forward to many more happy years.
Finally I come back to the main question: can someone who writes about theatre online be defined as an artist? Simply put, yes. It’s certainly a non-traditional platform, and the most common type of writing in this area, the review, is a response to a more traditional from of art, so I understand the argument that online critics aren’t artists, even though I don’t agree.
Theatre critics try to capture a fleeting experience by writing about it after just after it’s happened, where their resources aren’t the performance happening in front of them (taking notes in the dark is a pretty futile endeavour anyway) but rather their very fresh memories of that performance. A critic’s basic repertoire must include the poetic ability to evoke the spirit of the art in just a few words, and navigate the gap between reader and performer, but it must also include analytical skill and sound judgement of artistic quality. It’s very different from the traditional “artistic” forms that have been handed down to us through the ages, and accepting change takes a long time.
Even though anyone can sign up for a WordPress account and rant about how all the theatre they see is terrible, not everyone has the skills of analysis and journalistic ability to generate a following, to say nothing of a compelling critical product. Whether or not you’ve gone to school to learn how to do it is ultimately irrelevant (though it certainly helps); your success depends on whether your performance in the real world strikes enough of a chord with enough people to endow you with the status of “established artist.” There are other ways of defining it (“professional” is a label with a particularly fickle definition in the arts), but in the end, despite your best efforts and abilities, whether you “make it” is beyond your control. Theatre bloggers face this uncertainty just as classical musicians do, and in that sense we are all equal. The New Ottawa Critics seem to be doing well so far, but any success we can claim is measured not by what we do, but how those we reach react to what we do.
Are online theatre critics artists? Only time will tell.