Saturday, February 04, 2006

Everyone's a Critic

Our text-based project is looming. Each of four companies gets a writer, the goal being that said writer will show up to the first rehearsal with script in hand. The challenge? Source the new work from a stimulus. And that stimulus, after hours of half-hearted searching, is the oeuvre of one Dave Eggers (namely the short short stories).

I've never had so much fun doing my production protocol!

I read so much crap theory all day long that it becomes a welcome burst of reality when practitioners and theoreticians can admit that a lot of what they do is filler, fluff, or plain speculation. There comes a point where you have to stop talking about making art AND JUST MAKE ART.

I'm sick of audiences passing judgment without rational thought and experience behind it. I don't want to be a drama critic, because quite frankly, who am I to tell you what is good or bad, right or wrong? Especially in regard to art and expression...

Kathy Acker said:

"I've never been sure about the need for literary criticism. If a work is immediate enough, alive enough, the proper response isn't to be academic, to write about it, but to use it, to go on. By using each other's texts, we keep on living, imagining, making, fucking, and we fight this society of death."

Eggers has his own comments, from a 2000
  • interview
  • with the Harvard Advocate:

    "I think criticism, more often than not, completely misses the point, yes. The critical impulse, demonstrated by the tone of many of your own questions, is to suspect, doubt, tear at, and to take something apart to see how it works. Which of course is completely the wrong thing to do to art. I used to tear books apart, and tear art exhibits apart - I was an art and book critic for a few years in San Francisco - but my urge to do that was born of bitterness and confusion and anger, not out of any real need to help or edify. When we pick at and tear into artistic output of whatever kind, we really have to examine our motives for doing so. What is it about art that can make us so angry? Is it healthy to rip to shreds something created by an artist? I would posit, if I may, that that's not really a healthy impulse. Now, as far as I know, out of maybe 100 or so reviews that I've been made aware of, my own book has received only one negative example. That's pretty lucky, especially when you consider that Wallace, for example, has gotten pretty abused by some people, people who for the most part don't have the patience his work requires. But criticism, for the most part, comes from the opposite place that book-enjoying should come from. To enjoy art one needs time, patience, and a generous heart, and criticism is done, by and large, by impatient people who have axes to grind. The worst sort of critics are (analogy coming) butterfly collectors - they chase something, ostensibly out of their search for beauty, then, once they get close, they catch that beautiful something, they kill it, they stick a pin through its abdomen, dissect it and label it. The whole process, I find, is not a happy or healthy one. Someone with his or her own shit figured out, without any emotional problems or bitterness or envy, instead of killing that which he loves, will simply let the goddamn butterfly fly, and instead of capturing and killing it and sticking it in a box, will simply point to it - "Hey everyone, look at that beautiful thing" - hoping everyone else will see the beautiful thing he has seen. Just as no one wants to grow up to be an IRS agent, no one should want to grow up to maliciously dissect books. Are there fair and helpful book critics? Yes, of course. But by and large, the only book reviews that should be trusted are by those who have themselves written books. And the more successful and honored the writer, the less likely that writer is to demolish another writer. Which is further proof that criticism comes from a dark and dank place. What kind of person seeks to bring down another? Doesn't a normal person, with his own life and goals and work to do, simply let others live? Yes. We all know that to be true."

    (It's a great interview. Click the link and continue down for a spectacular rant on the idea of selling out.)

    And so I am hopeful. If you need me, I'll be in the corner reading some pretentious assertion or another. But I'll be doing it with a smile on my face, and a better understanding of myself in relation to it.


    Blogger Judy said...

    In a totally unrelated comment, Dixie Forbes is the offending bitch.

    2:48 PM  
    Blogger Justin Kownacki said...

    If anyone else has trouble opening the Eggers link, try deleting the last / in the URL. It seems to be the difference between seeing the interview and seeing an Error page. Great interview, though.

    Critics are aspiring artists. Some people need to criticize in an effort to understand how something might work before they try to do something; most others simply like to dismantle art from a distance. As a former music critic and eternal film critic, I admit the whole venture is self-serving and rarely results in anything of true merit to the audience or the artist. If the world would take the entirety of effort it puts into analysis and instead redirect it into creation, we'd be a lot farther along, and many fewer people would be worrying about whether or not their ideas were "original" or "cool" enough to speak about in public [or, God forbid, actually complete].

    5:32 PM  
    Blogger Scott Walters said...

    Justin Kownacki writes: "Critics are aspiring artists."

    This is a statement that is as popular, and as inaccurate, as the line "Those who can, do; those who can't do, teach." Criticism, like teaching, involves an entirely different mindset and set of skills from the creative artist.

    Nobody likes to have their work criticized (although I haven't noticed much complaining from artists when they get a positive review). But until theatre artists begin to forge actual personal relationships with their spectators, rather than seeing themselves as selling a "product," critics will serve as a go-between for spectators with lots of choices as to where to spend their entertainment dollars.

    Kathy Acker, and all the other artists who somehow think that it is out of line for anyone to comment negatively about what they do, need to grow up. You are asking people to spend time and money, both of which are in short supply, and we all want to know that our time won't be wasted.

    2:12 PM  
    Blogger Annie said...


    I'm glad you bring up the "Those who can, do; those who can't do, teach" line. And thank you for defending the place of the critic. I'm steadily trying to work out exactly what my role is as a theatre practitioner, and when I wrote this, I was (obviously) very frustrated with some of the things I was expected to do in critiques. Personally, I just don't feel that I know enough quite yet to start advising on what is and isn't "good". And yet I do, even in this blog. It's a challenge I'm attempting to handle.

    Value judgments are much different from, as you alluded, the valuable practice of establishing a line of communication from a piece to its potential audience. I should have specified.

    It's funny, though, having been on both the giving and receiving sides, I have garned an appreciation for accepting and volunteering *constructive* criticism. Each can be done well, but often neither are.

    I would never advocate that we keep our negative feedback to ourselves. I just wish that the defining line between intimidating outside critic and helpful interior critic were blurred.

    3:12 PM  
    Blogger Justin Kownacki said...

    Hmm. I notice it's the critic who's defending the place of criticism and the teacher who's defending the place of teaching, while the artist considers the flaws in both. Seems apt.

    I believe criticism serves a purpose to the critic in terms of clarifying his / her reaction to the subject, and can serve as a guiding voice for the underprepared public when it must decide among various options of "what to see / do / listen to," etc.

    I also believe that criticism can be a shallow attempt to glorify one's own opinion or shape the public's tastes at the expense of the actual subject, whose quality may or may not ever truly be brought to light.

    Most damning of all is when a critique of a work gives a potential audience member an excuse to ignore the work altogether without giving that work its just due -- which, by and large, is what criticism is used for at a time when mankind has more stimuli available than ever before. In that case, the reading of criticism replaces the experiencing of art for the bulk of the public, who content themselves that they must know X about Y because they read Z's review of it. Enabling by disabling hardly seems proactive. Let's not give criticism any more due than it's worth.

    As for "Those who can, do," I've known dozens of wonderful instructors in my life, and I wouldn't imagine any of them are capable of producing work that would stand among the greats in their field. They understood the subject and were blessed with a gift for clarifying it to their students but, for whatever reason, didn't possess either the passion or the voice to move from understanding to creating on a magnified scale. Had they been able to broach that chasm, I doubt I ever would have had the pleasure of their instruction.

    3:38 PM  
    Blogger Annie said...

    Hmm, I'll counter by saying that I've had a number of incredibly talentless teachers--actors who are washed-up and relegated to a small town, designers who aren't getting work--but I've also had a few teachers who do bridge that chasm (Ana Sanchez-Colberg, Shirley Tannenbaum, Kyle Brenton, to name a few). So I am unconvinced.

    3:57 PM  

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