Navel gazing ~ theatre notes

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Navel gazing

In the past week or so, the Age has been running a series of opinion pieces on criticism that amount to a mini-forum. Check out The changing role of the critic by Norman Lebrecht (recycling the usual guff about blogs being the end of cultured debate but making a couple of interesting points nonetheless); Peter Houghton on reviewing (can critics be friends? Only if you're a masochist); Stephanie Bunbury on spoilers; and Karl Quinn on star ratings (it's just snobby to say opera and ballet can't be reduced to three stars).

To the last, I don't like stars because it's reductive. But then, I don't want to write consumer guides. There's nothing wrong with consumer guides - well, maybe there is, but that means swinging in Adorno and his fulminations against the cultural machine and I've got things to do - but they're hardly the whole game. Or if they are, we're in trouble. (OK, we're in trouble).

Meanwhile, I often reflect on Robyn Archer's statement earlier this year at the Theatre Forum that she never takes any notice of her reviews. It struck me because I don't take any notice of my reviews either. Go figure.


Born Dancin' said...

Not paying attention to reviews is odd. Ignoring the thoughts of those you don't respect isn't bad practice, but to have a blanket policy applying this to all criticism seems self-destructive to me. How else do you grow as an artist if you don't engage with any audience but the one who loves your work? It's ok to say this critic - or punter - is on a different page, or doesn't 'get' me, but to discount them entirely seems like solipsism.

I guess it's an us vs them system - if you think the feedback is coming from an informed peer, you'll likely consider it. If it's some outsider giving you tips on how to do your job better, it's a bit more alienating. I think Houghton makes that point well.

Of course, there's something to be said for the misunderstood genius who sticks to their guns. But as Carl Sagan said, "the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

Anonymous said...

Yes, the danger is insularity- seeking only the opinions of the like-minded.
I'm troubled by Houghton's assertion that artists should be "strong and positive"; up to a point, but much comes out of leaning into vulnerabilities, pressing hard on areas of discomfort and weakness.
There are natural cycles of restoration and decline, absorption and secretion- the creative process involves disintegration and decay.
The insistence on shiny, high-gloss appearances, perpetual positivity, negates other facets of creative practice.
It's more important to be open, alert, prepared to rigorously examine what you're doing and why.

TimT said...

That Sagan sure had some cheek suggesting that Bozo the Clown wasn't a genius!

TimT said...

Or to put it another way: "Screw you clowns! I'm leaving you clowns to join all the other clowns in the clowning business!" - Homer Simpson

Alison Croggon said...

I didn't mean, actually, that one should ignore criticism. I think a self-critical practice is crucial.

But anybody who measures their worth and achievement through reviews needs to go get another job. Reviews most of the time simply assess how much you fit into a culture, not what you're actually aiming to do. I usually, quite honestly, forget them.

For my part, I treasure those critiques which have actually spotted my literary ambitions, influences, antecedents and desires, and have discussed my work, for better or worse, in those terms. Over two decades of publishing, I can count those reponses on one hand.

George Hunka said...

Indeed -- but without paying attention to the broader critical community, how do you find those most perceptive critics? Can one read criticism without noticing it, I wonder? And -- in this case -- the question about whom the critic is addressing answers itself: the readership, the audience, not the artist. In which case it's hard to see how the consumer guide won't win out in the end, and so much for the artist/critic partnership.

And naughty on you, Ms. C, for dissing Herr Adorno with a soft diss. For if he is right, at least in part and acknowledging his occasional penchant for hyperbole, and we are even just a little in trouble, should we go blithely on as we have been, nodding at his disapprobation along the way but plowing on as if we hadn't heard it? In that case, things are unlikely to improve. Quite the opposite, I would think.

David Mence said...

If enlightenment produces anti-enlightenment, and myth calcifies into new and ever more shadowy and opprobrious forms of myth, then trouble is hardly the word - hell perhaps?

I reckon this place might be resemble the Inferno just a little?

George Hunka said...

Just a little. Iced tea always helps.

Alison Croggon said...

I was so not dissing the Divine Herr, Mr Hunka! I was just rushing out to some meetings and so had no time to do more than send a friendly wave. To expand any of his ideas requires more than a hurried sentence. Anyway, yyou know how I feel about the commodification of culture.

As for criticism, I was speaking from a position of pure egocentricity, about those items that have pertained to my own work. Those I'm aware of I read. And 90 per cent of the time, forget. There are noble practitioners who have never heard (and never will hear) of my work whom I have read with great attention.

Yes, of course criticism is for an audience, although it seems foolish for the critic not to remember that the audience includes artists.

Anonymous said...

I never forgot the Sydney critic from a gay newspaper saying "I belonged in the local Criterion Hotel eating a feed of sausages and mash." Peter Houghton needs to be "strong and positive" for his work. I was always keen (never anxious) to read Helen Thomson's opinion. Respect, I think. I like critics. Sometimes ignorant, but nevertheless always welcome. Cliff Ellen.

Anonymous said...

Given that criticism is for an audience, I'd be interested to know who you think your audience is, who you wish your audience was, and who you're writing for when you pen a critique (if it's not too much to ask!).

Alison Croggon said...

Hi EP -

Interesting question. I guess I'm writing for anybody who might be interested.

The other stuff I write that I think of as "public", as directly addressing a readership, is genre novels (poetry is more complicated - of course it's written for a reader, but it's more what Celan called "a message in a bottle" that you hope shifts up on a friendly shore). In both cases - criticism and genre novels - I have no idea who might be reading. It could be anybody. How would I know who they are? So in the end, I write for myself. I think about what I would like to read, with the idea that I can't be the only person in the universe who wants to read it, and then I try to write it.