audiences, criticism, Theatre

on arts commentary, binary thinking, complexity and using teeth (with guest jane howard)

Not all artists differentiate ‘arts commentary’ from ‘reviews’. I didn’t either until I started writing both (one passionately and one with the deep reluctance of someone too poor to pay for tickets). For many artists, arts writing is a necessary evil; an aspect of our world that we only think about when it comes time to collate reviews but, beyond the need for promotion or validation, it is vitally important.

Although the line between reviews and arts commentary is blurred, I separate them this way: a review is an aspect of arts writing which usually has a fast turn around, an often tiny word limit and, most crucially, they demand of the writer that they reach a decision about the quality of the work. Arts commentary is more complex and multifaceted. The form is fluid, taking in many different types of critical response. The word limits and turn around are very variable (you may see a work returned to a year later). Crucially, arts commentary need not necessarily reach a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It can be an expansive discourse as complicated as the art itself. Of course the other key difference is the money. Outside of a university setting, few publications will pay for in-depth, long-form commentary on the arts.

Reviews are vitally important. They are a link to our audiences but they are also for our audiences, who have every right to decide how to spend their money. They are an immediate, almost reflexive knee-jerk response. This can be immensely helpful both for artists and historians alike: whilst even some of the reviewers who first slammed Sarah Kane have since admitted that they were wrong, those initial reviews are a fascinating insight into that immediate recoil that audiences experienced before they came to understand the new era of theatre they were entering into.

Jack Tinker's now infamous review and headline

Jack Tinker’s now infamous review and headline

But arts commentary is important precisely because it doesn’t have to be this. I believe that the arts writing we read affects how we respond to work. Complex commentary demands more of us than a simple review. A writer like Alison Croggon asks that we think beyond the binaries of ‘I liked it’ or ‘I didn’t like it’. She demands that we lift our intellectual game. That we take time.

I’ve set myself the goal of not talking about a show until I’ve left the auditorium. This is a piss poor goal, don’t pass judgment for the nine meters from your seat to the foyer, but it can be hard; sometimes the person next to me turns and asks “so what did you think?” the instant the lights go up. That instantaneous response is, to me, the verbal equivalent of the 150-word-plus-star-rating review. It saps complexity and yet, even artists will do it. Good arts writing demands of us our own intellectually rigorous response but it also reminds us of the longevity of performance: whilst a short, sharp review is all about ‘should I see this tomorrow night’, it is vital that we remember an artwork lasts as long as its impact. Good arts commentary doesn’t just recommend or warn against; it says “this made an impact. I will carry the scar of this with me as I walk through the world.” 

One of the many works to scar me last year, 'Savages' by Patricia Cornelius, photographed by Sarah Walker

One of the many works to scar me last year, ‘Savages’ by Patricia Cornelius, photographed by Sarah Walker

So what can we as artists do? We can remove the question ‘did you like it?’ from our immediate responses to shows. We can meet art with the intellectual and empathic complexity it deserves. We can give ourselves time. Don’t be the tight turnaround, 9am deadline; be the monthly or quarterly issue. We can attempt to response in a way that circumnavigates ‘yes’ and ‘no’. We can remember how we want others to meet our work and try and respond accordingly. We all know what it feels like to read a review that has resorted to finger pointing and buzz words without ever trying to tackle the soul and drive of our work. Exceed this. Use you teeth. Chew the work for all the nourishment it will give your soul. Never leave it at a star rating.

But perhaps we can also start asking where the support for arts writing is coming from. Remember that it is for our audience and for us as artists. Remember what depth of analysis gives us and ask who is going to keep it coming. In the decline of print media, perhaps the arts industry itself needs to begin to see the value of commentary and support it accordingly. If arts funding bodies and theatre companies don’t come to the table, we may lose this resource altogether. 

Elbow Room's amazing 'Now more than ever', photographed by Sarah Walker

Elbow Room’s amazing ‘Now more than ever’, photographed by Sarah Walker

Now because I’m writing about criticism and commentary, I thought I would give one of my favourite critic/commentators the right of reply. Here is Jane Howard on deadlines, failure, complexity and conversation:

I don’t mind the morning deadlines. The pressure of a deadline can be a wonderful thing to force your brain into gear. I never see the world with more clarity than at 6:30am, madly typing away. Most of my working hours for reviews are late at night and early in the morning when the world feels somewhat still. There’s a thrill in being able to process something intensely in the quiet.

There is always a fear you’ll get it wrong, you’ll say something stupid, you’ll regret your thoughts in a day or a week or a year. When seeing a brand new work – new story, new words, new movements – this fear is amplified. I’ll file before anything else on this work is published; I have to be one of the first. I have to be comfortable with this possibility of failure or I’d fall apart.

There are always things that are missed in those hours and those six-hundred words. Ideas that don’t make it into the word count; ideas that don’t formulate in that brief period of time; ideas that will click all of a sudden one day or one week or one year later: one day or one week or one year too late. This is when I crave for thousands of words and weeks and months to formulate words. This is when I crave those little conversations that you have over time in foyers and bars and cafes and twitter; with friends and with artists and with editors, that slowly, slowly ease out new thoughts. This is when I crave for it to be 2034 so I have another twenty-years of theatrical knowledge to lean on: surely right now I’m just too young?

If it’s long and takes weeks, or short and takes hours, though, there is just one thing I really want: a conversation. I never want to be a full stop. I’d rather be a comma or a semi-colon or a footnote in something much, much bigger than I could ever create alone.

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