I’m somewhat reluctant to contribute to the neverending story of the wellbeing of performance criticism, as talking about talking about live performance seems a peculiarly niche thing to do at any time, least of all when we’re about to start bombing the same country for the third time in my lifetime. But a few days ago a good friend of mine said that criticism is all terrible these days, and then some other people disagreed and then someone else wrote very articulately about how they were both right, with reference to the structural problems with the conventional reviewing formula, particularly in the broadsheet media. All of which got me thinking a bit about the responsibility artists might have for the quality of the critical landscape they make their work in.
Yes, we can blame particular reviewers for their lack of quality or perhaps their lack of empathy. And we can blame newspapers for ransoming off the space to think about art and culture in their last deckchair-rearranging attempts at keeping their sinking business models afloat. And we can blame capitalism for the insidious power it has to denature the way we think about and interact with beautiful things. But should we as artists bear some responsibility for acquiescing too easily to these forces? Is a helplessness that leads too often to petulance really the best we can contribute to the attempts by some brilliant writers to transform the critical culture in this country? Are we sometimes at fault for slagging off the worst conventions of theatre criticism with one hand, whilst continuing to participate in the reproduction of those exact same conventions when it suits us? I am asking myself these questions as much as I am asking anyone who has bothered to read this far down the page.
For example, perhaps one simple thing we could all do, is to stop printing uncontextualised star-ratings on the front of flyers and posters. Star ratings are the very worst – nuance’s kryptonite – tiny nuggets of sadness harvested in the darkest heart of consumer capitalism and sent to cling grimly to the surface of art like old shopping bags floating down a river. Yet there they are, whole constellations of them scattered across the front of every piece of publicity – each one a quiet concession to a version of our work, and a relationship to an audience, that I think most people I know would barely recognise. But equally I know the reason they’re there is because we want people to come and see our stuff, we perhaps even need them to come, and its hard enough to get people to give up an evening and money they barely have to come and see some art they know little about without sacrificing one of the best means you have of gaining their curiosity. In doing so however we’re helping to perpetuate a thinness to the way in which people can engage with our work, and the means they have of navigating their way through it. To an extent, the very stars that we use to attract people are actually perhaps limiting the number of people who will engage with our work and the ways that they have of engaging with it. It’s a vicious circle, but the point is, we are part of that circle, not simply it’s victims.
The other immediate thing that artists could do to help change the critical culture in this country is to actually actively contribute to that critical culture, by which I mean artists could and should be writing more about each other’s work. There is no more imaginative, more positive and more practical contribution that artists could be making to changing the way we think about criticism. Some of the most exciting, thoughtful responses to work I’ve seen in the last few years have been by artists. People redefining the nature of the relationship between event and response or artist and critic, such as in Harun Morrison’s articulate and unselfconscious responses to the work in his own festival, or artists finding compelling new vocabularies for writing about performance, such as James Stenhouse’s pseudonymous review of Laura Dannequin’s Hardy Animal. I want to challenge artists to find their own way of writing about live performance, ways that challenge who we think has a right to speak and how and when. We could learn a lot from brilliant writers like Megan Vaughan about how unlike a review a review can look. We should see their work as a thrilling challenge to find our own different, more appropriate ways of saying what we want to say, and the less it looks like a review perhaps the better, the more so to contribute to a burgeoning, widening, polyphony of critical voices that are helping redefine the ways we have to think about the work we see and the work we make.
There are plenty of reasons to feel frustrated with criticism in this country, and certainly we should celebrate the great voices like Lyn Gardner who do so much within a difficult system, as well as championing writers like Megan and Maddy Costa and Catherine Love who are contributing so much to finding alternatives to that system. But I want to believe that artists themselves can play a larger part in that re-organising process, both by making our own imaginative critical contributions and being more diligent at refusing to participate in the shittiest parts of the current orthodoxy.