This first appeared in Dancehouse Diary, Issue 8: Dance and Ethics.
Listen. This is the hardest part: we, the artists, spend weeks, months or years creating something, crafting it as carefully as we know how. We offer it to the audience and we are proud. Then a critic comes in. They spend an hour with our work and become the authority.
This never stops being difficult but it is also incredibly beautiful. To me, this transfer of power, this ultimate act of vulnerability and generosity, is what live performance is all about. It says that we are willing to start a conversation rather than end it. It says that we do not make art for ourselves but for those who step into our space for one night only. In that moment, as we offer up our art to strangers, the work becomes live.
The ethics of criticism are complicated by the notoriously fraught relationship between artists and critics. I believe this stems from the mortality of our work. Live art is defined by its demise yet artists continually seek tangible proof of the impact of their work. A visual artist can return to their collection a year after their reviewers and, with time, perspective and a sleep cycle that has returned to normal, be able to form their own objective assessment of both their work and the dialogue that surrounded it. When all that remains is a critic’s condemnation, it can be difficult to hold onto your own understanding of your art. Making art makes us vulnerable and that is fine, we have the right to feel wronged. But do we have the right to demand silence? Do we have the right to request that a critic respond in a particular way?
The ethics of criticism is a two-way exchange between artists and critics that must take into account the rights of the audience to know what they are paying for.
What we expect from our critics depends very much on what we believe the role of the critic to be. If we believe it to be ‘pull quotes in exchange for free tickets’, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and truncating a potentially valuable cultural exchange. If instead we look to a critic to continue a conversation that the artist began – to provide historical documentation of the work – to meet our art with the same intellectual rigour with which we created it – to provide a point of communication between artists and audience, we will be empowered to engage in a critical dialogue. We will also hold our critics up to a higher standard.
Personally, I want a lack of bias and writing that does not come from a place of anger. I want them to avoid cruelty. I want them to be in touch with the artistic landscape and I want them to love art, specifically the genre they are reviewing. I expect them to think hard and intellectually examine their emotive response at every turn. I do not want them to apologise for their opinions and I do want them to hold me to as high a standard as I hold them. I want us both to acknowledge that no single voice can declare a work a ‘success’ or ‘failure’ for to attempt to categorise performance in such a way undermines the fundamental purpose of art as a nuanced, emotive, response to and provoke for the world it issues from.
Yet writing such a list of requirements makes me feel like the Banks children in Mary Poppins singing what they want in a nanny with all the earnestness and naivety of youth. I write this knowing that I will, throughout my career, have my work critiqued by many, many people who will not live up to these expectations. I have been reviewed by people who consider themselves gatekeepers, surveyors of quality or purveyor of witty, sniping jokes at the artist’s expense. I have also been reviewed by a real estate writer who notoriously (but accurately) wrote of one of my plays that “the actor relies on her face and voice to express emotion.” (The Advertiser, 2013) Of course this is frustrating but I accept these reviews as part of the cultural noise surrounding art. Frequently such reviews can provide a starting point for further dialogue with my audience and the more conversations I can have, the better.
So if the ethical responsibility of the critic is to meet the artwork with all the nuance and self-interrogation that their ability and word count allows, what is the responsibility of the artist? Well, to let it happen. To encourage it and engage with it if we can. To look after ourselves and our collaborators. It can be easy to feel disempowered by the process of criticism but engaging with it as an equal, an an intelligent maker with their own voice outside of the stage, can help restore a balance and bring a sense of humanity back into a process that can feel de-humanising. But this is hard. Always.
In January the artistic director of Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini, culled dissenting critics from the company’s invite list. This is not a new strategy. Many critics have told me of writing a negative review of a company and then “not being invited back until the leadership changed”. What is newsworthy is not Terracini’s actions but his position as a cultural leader, for as head of the most subsidised performing arts company in the country, he surely bears that title. What does it say about the state of our culture if the message coming down from such a leader is that questioning his artistic decisions is not allowed?
I do not believe that we have the right to silence our critics but, more importantly, I do not know why we would want to have such a right. ‘Culture’ is not art; it is an artistically engaged community and arts writing, dissent and argument are crucial components in this. A critic is a part of your audience and attempting to silence them is symptomatic of disengagement with and disinterest in your audience’s voice. I fear the long-term impact that such disengagement would have on Australia’s cultural landscape.
Note: I have a secret, slowly growing collection of unsent letters written to critics by various, often prominent Australian artists. These remind me that experience does not make it hurt less. If anyone has one of these letters tucked away on their computer, I am always grateful for the opportunity to read them and always incredibly careful to keep them secret. It helps me think about what people most want and are most hurt by in criticism. As someone who writes and speaks on criticism regularly I truly appreciate the privilege of being let into those moments and emotions. If anyone wishes to send me such letters or tell me what their criticism wish list, my email is fleurskilpatrick @ gmail.com.
Thank you to Angela Conquet for requesting I write this for Dancehouse Dairy. It brought me much delight. Thank you also to Sarah Walker for her beautiful photos.