Monday, September 17, 2007

That series on theatre criticism with an overly long title - Part 3

People have been talking about reviews and criticism and the difference thereinbetween. Dan Bye cites Leo Benedictus in the Guardian: "A review is a practical tool designed to help people choose a show. Criticism is an attempt to describe the way a show works and analyse why it works well." (Dan, incidentally, deserves great credit for being the first person i've come accross to lay into someone for giving him a good review.) Ian Shuttleworth, in various comments around the blogs (which i now can't find half of - please feel free to point them out or to correct me if i've misrepresented you, Ian), tentatively puts forward an alternative view, which might be sumarised as "criticism places the work within a wider social/political/historical/cultural context." Similarly, Michael Billington states that "The critic has a duty to set any play or performance in its historical context" although he does so in a piece in which he seeks to draw a distinction between the blogger and the professional critic rather than criticism and reviewing.

i don't really buy any of these distinctions. Reviews simply don't interest me, but insofar as they are conceived as guides for the consumer, they are a) rubbish, and b) dumb (although i like the idea of nipping into WH Smiths to buy a copy of What Play? magazine so that you can be told which play to go to by experts who have tested all the major brands of plays to destruction). They are dumb because it is dumb to view a piece of culture solely as a commodity to be consumed by a consumer. Of course, once culture enters the market it becomes commodity, but becoming a commodity does not stop it from existing as other things as well. Other things like art, communication, expression, performance. Similarly, when you buy a ticket you become a consumer, but you're still an audience member as well, just as you're still a biological organism which can perform complex functions like breathing without having to consciously think about them. If you weren't, you'd die.

They are rubbish because any interpretive or analytical or evaluative account of a piece of art or entertainment which has a conception of art or entertainment as primarily as commodity implicit in its very raison d'etre is necessarily going to be a pretty poor account, because it will have missed the point of what entertainment or art is. Furthermore, audiences don't know what they want. This is True Fact. Even if they think they know what they want, they only know it in such a way as to make the vaguest of claims - "a show with nice songs in it", "some good physical theatre", "things that will make you laugh/cry/think". It's not quite like trying to decide whether you want a washing machine with an energy saving function, is it? When they know specifics - a show with a hollywood star in it, for example, there's no need for a reviewer to tell us that there's a hollywood star in it.

I also don't much care for the idea that criticism is distinct from reviewing because it tells you how and why things work. As a practitioner i am interested in how and why things work in the theatre. i do not go to critics to learn about that - i go to other practitioners and to teachers, who can teach me about how and why things work. As an audience member i see no reason why anyone should be any more interested in how a particular effect is achieved than they are in how the sparkplugs work in their car.

Shutters' distinction - that criticism places the work within a context (he said reductively)- is more satisfactory in that it conceives of the critic as someone who must necessarily have a sense of that wider context and so in some sense deserves their expert status. But i don't go all out for it because i believe that a piece can be great critical writing without ever placing the work in a wider context. What if the critic works inwards rather than outwards? What if they produce an account that is detailed, intelligent, passionate and witty, but fail to tick the broader context box? i still count that as criticism.

So, I'd like to propose an alternative distinction:

A review is someone saying what they think about something. It has a value of very close to nothing whatsoever on the persons unknown index of how important something is (PUIHISI). Unless the jokes are good. Someone saying what they think about something and asking you to believe it is relying soley on your perception of them as someone with expert status, someone with authority. Perhaps this is one the reasons that professional reviewers are so often keen to point out how many shows they see, as though, like someone training for the Tour de France, the more miles they have in their legs the better equiped they will be (although i'm not sure if there are any performance enhancing critical drugs on the market). The other end of the justification you often hear for this type of reviewing is that "a review is just one person's opinion." This is something that makes me angry, and there'll be a whole post on it at some point, but for now suffice to note that this is not a justification but an apology - it's effect is to reduce the value of the review as well as to disavow responsibility for it. It means it doesn't matter if what the writer writes is dumb, is biggotted, is illogical, is just plain wrong, because, after all, it's just one person's opinion. The question we might ask in response is "why on earth should anyone care about just one person's opinion? You fuck!"

Criticism, on the other hand, is writing in which an argument is constructed about (/around/through/with) its subject. Its value is not conferred by the supposed authority of the author, but is found in the way the writing itself engages the reader. Writing of this kind can be "critical" in all the meanings that cloud around that word (compare this to the simple second look implied by a re-view). It can also be rubbish - there is such a thing as bad criticism just as surely as there is such a thing as bad writing and bad theatre, but it is critical that writing of this kind exist, because this form of engagement with art is valuable in itself, and because it has utilitarian value - it enables to think about art in new ways. And because it's nice to have something to talk about.


Lake said...

Reviews are simply consumer guides. The reviewer says what it's like to experience the art work. Then the readers decide how trustworthy they think the reviewer is and make up their minds about whether or not to bother with the art. Sure enough, it's not a very reliable system. Lots of people don't use it. But it's better than nothing, especially when you consider how much art there is and what a giant waste of time the majority is.

Reviews also help people to give the impression that they have read, seen or heard something which they haven't. That's a very useful service which I think many people would miss were it to be withdrawn.

Serious criticism also helps in this respect, but that's the end of its usefulness: it serves no more worthwhile purpose. That's fine. It exists for itself, and is justified so long as it is interesting or enjoyable. Of course, it hardly ever is, which is why it doesn't sell well and very few people bother with it.

Actally, perhaps some artists find it useful - just to know that someone is there, paying close attention. It is useful to their vanity.

I think the key thing to keep in mind when trying to understand why reviews are valued is how amazingly boring and unpleasant most art is to most people.

Lake said...

Oh, and here are the special qualifications that every reviewer should be able to boast:

1) They need to have seen (heard, read, whatever) the art.
2) They need to have an idea about what kind of thing the art is and what people are typically assumed to like about that kind of thing.
3) They need to be fairly good at writing or speaking, as required.

That's it.

Statler said...

I really don't understand much of the hate I'm seeing for the idea of reviews as consumer guide. I'm fairly sure that's exactly how the wider non theatre practitioner member of the public would consider them. Yes, it's only one person's opinion but the beauty of the blogosphere is that you can fairly easily find someone who's personal taste will often coincide with your own. A one of review may be of little value, but the ability to read a number of reviews by a blogger of productions you have both seen is invaluable.

I fear there may also be a London/regions element to this discussion. A consumer guide review may not be as much of an issue in London where competition and costs should ensure that any production on a London stage should be of a respectable standard. In Glasgow, and in the wider world of smaller scale productions there is still the potential for a great deal of complete dross both poorly written and badly performed. If viewing a review as consumer guide avoids me stumbling into some of these I'm grateful.

Lake said...

I believe there's a fair amount of toss on the London stage too.

Slightly off-topic, did anyone see that VS Naipaul has called for the scrapping of university Eng Lit departments? Can't happen too soon, if you ask me.

Alison Croggon said...

Gracious. So art is just a product, and artists are only in it for their vanity? Phew, that pretty much sews up a couple of millennia of human culture. No need to think about anything, really.

Funny too how art just keeps on being there after all this time, being enjoyed by all those people, if it's all so boring and unpleasant. But hey, if that's what you think, that's what you think. Art isn't compulsory, and you have every right to hate it. Just as others have every right to love it.

I don't buy those distinctions (between blogger/professional, critic/reviewer) either. I'm the sort of person who like margins and indeterminate spaces. A moving target is harder to hit.

People can have their stars if they like, but I think there should be space to talk beyond that aggressively dominant consumerist capitalist matrix, to maybe examine about other things that perhaps matter more to human beings. One of the major human ways of working out meaning being art.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

I've been banging on about this at various other times and places, not least the past couple of days on the Guardian's theatre blog site, but can't resist one more bang for lake and statler:

To cut to the chase... How many readers of the average live-performance review will even be in a position to see the subject-event subsequently? Yes, that's sloppy wording, but you know what I mean. However, the "obviously none" point has significant force in the case of live music reviews, which are far more individual-performance-sensitive than theatre. So, with subjects whose reproducibility is variable, why does anyone write, print or read them? As far as I can see, the only answer that avoids special pleading for reviews of some art forms over others is that reviews consist of reportage and explanation, which the reader may interpret in an advisory way but which simply do not have their raison d'être in advice (however differently editors may think by affixing star ratings to them).

The subtext, I suppose, is: Art is news - it deserves... demands... reportage and analysis in the press as much as current events do. I don't consider for an instant that many editors sincerely believe that, even though they may pay devoted lip-service to it, but I think it's important that culture, in the sense of the ongoing reflexive discourse of the collective social consciousness (ha!), be preserved in or towards that view for as long as possible. There, shameless advocacy.

Lake said...

You misread me. Where I write "most", you see "all". I wish you wouldn't.

For the record, I rather like a lot of art. In fact, I review novels for a living. I wouldn't do this, and I wouldn't be any good at doing this, if I didn't quite frequently enjoy them.

All of my remarks (apart from the gratuitous stuff about Naipaul) concern the usefulness of reviews. I believe that, if they are anything, they are consumer guides. This doesn't mean I think art is "just" a product, or that I'm defending the "consumerist capitalist matrix", whatever you may mean by that. But you must have noticed that art is in fact bought and sold. You must see that there's an awful lot of it. You can't fail to have spotted how bad, or timewasting, or unrewarding much of it is. And if you haven't picked up on these points, well, you should get out more. Resist the commodification of art if you think it'll do any good. But don't just pretend there isn't a market in it.

By the way, I nowhere said that artists "are only in it for their vanity". I suggested that a certain kind of criticism might be useful to a certain kind of artist - one who wants to feel studied, closely and appreciatively, by a supposed mandarin. I think that impulse probably is a bit narcissistic, but then again, it sometimes results in good stuff.

Phew. That was a bit ranty. Apologies. Still, I hope we can all now agree that there’s no need to think about anything.

Lake said...

Oh, hello Shutters. Cross-post, I'm afraid. You well?

Lake said...

You're right though. I don't think many editors really believe that at all.

Of course, even reviews of totally one-off, never-to-be-repeated events serve an advisory function. They let readers know that such-and-such a performer does interesting things (assuming she does), and that she might be worth seeing in the future.

I suppose there's also a sense in which arts pages exist simply to lend weight to a newspaper - to make it look like it offers a panoramic view of the culture, etc. In that respect they might be likened to foreign news: not many people read them and they’re of zero interest to advertisers, but the paper that ditched them would risk looking pretty measly. Readers like pretending they care about all that stuff. For the most part they don’t, and it scarcely matters what the pages actually say.

Which isn’t to say it doesn’t matter at all. The handful of people personally involved in either arts or reviewing agonize about every word. I know I do, and I consider it my duty to do right by the few people who give a toss. (After all, they tend to resemble me.) But artists and journalists are forever confusing what’s in their own interest with what’s in the world’s. Art isn’t all that important. At its best it’s quite moving, or quite intriguing, to the right person.

Incidentally, what’s wrong with special pleading for reviews of some art forms over others? Why should every type of reviewing be justified in the same way?

alexf said...

thanks for your thoughts y'all

statler - i hope i've explained my objections to the idea of the review as consumer guide in the piece, and i'd also second everything that shutters said. i disagree that the "the wider non theatre practitioner member of the public" would consider reviews as a consumer guide. They probably wouldn't consider them at all. In fact they probably wouldn't even read them.

(And Lake is right, there's a great sea of toss out there on the London stage - i don't think it's a regional thing at all - people don't suddenly stop being rubbish just cos they hit the city where the streets are paved with gold).

lake - i'm interested in this index of importance. What things are important and how do they qualify to be so? Is there some kind of list kept somewhere, possibly a kind of importance star rating beside each thing?

(i agree that there's nothing wrong with a bit of special pleading - theatre criticism is obviously going to be different to reviewing fiction - for one thing, y'know, they're different things, for another there is a long established tradition of "serious" criticism of the novel in those nasty English Literature departments.)

Lake said...

Things are important if they are of great interest to at least a large minority, or if they determine the survival of a handful or more people. Isn't that how people usually use the word, when they aren't patently advancing their own narrow, sectional interests?

alexf said...

errr, not to put to fine a point on it, no. Normally people use the word to suggest that people ought to be paying attention to something, and in general they give a reason for it, which is how you decide whether you agree with them. On the other hand it might be quicker to dismiss what they're saying out of hand because you've already decided that they're simply patently advancing their own narrow, sectional interests. At least, that's what i told my mum when she tried to explain why it was important that i did my homework.

Incidentally, even if you do apply your survivalist/populist definition, you still get cases where art looks important. The theatre in Sarajevo, for example, remained open throughout the 3 year seige, which rather suggests that at least a significant minority of the population was sufficiently "interested" to brave the snipers and shelling and see the shows. Still, i don't suppose that that can compare with the amount of interest generated by Britney Spears going out without any knickers on, so perhaps its not very important after all.

alexf said...

i've just reread that, it's snarkier than i meant it. apologies.

Lake said...

That's okay.

Yes, you’re right. There’s another sense to the word. When your mum says it's important that you do your homework, what she means is that it's in your own long-term interest to do it. Some people claim that it is in the long-term interest of each person to develop a taste for art. I don't think there's any particular reason to believe that's so. Art fans of my acquaintance tend not to be any happier or better-adjusted than the wider population, so far as I can tell. On the contrary.

The other sense in which people tend to use "important" is to help point out some alleged moral imperative. In those cases, you don't appeal to the narrow self-interest of the person you're trying to persuade. You appeal to their sense of justice. And indeed, it is sometimes implied that justice has a special interest in art: that art is sacred, and that it ought therefore to be protected from ordinary commercial pressures. This too strikes me as nonsense. In fact, it strikes me as rather reprehensible nonsense: just one group employing a lot of hieratic mumbo jumbo to trick another into bankrolling its hobby.

By the bye, my formula for the correct use of the word “important” doesn’t amount to simple populism as it is usually understood. I specified that important things had to be of “great” interest to a large minority. Fleeting, casual interest won’t cut it. So by my reckoning, Britney Spears probably wouldn’t qualify but football probably would.

And I have no trouble accepting that art can play an important role on certain occasions (though your Sarajevo example doesn’t strike me as an obvious instance). Nevertheless, on the whole it doesn’t. Even on the rare occasions when it’s good.

Lake said...

Re. the Bosnia thing: isn't the point of that story that the Sarajevans were expressing defiance by maintaining a veneer of normality? If the theatre hadn't been available, mightn't they have done something else?

alexf said...

when your mum says it's important to do your homework she means whatever she says. If she says its important because it's in your long-term interest, then that's what she means. If she says it's important because if you don't your dad will be angry, then that's what she means. It's no less fallacious to extrapolate from that that some people think that art's important because if it isn't your dad will be angry than it is to attribute the other argument. You're finding ways to dismiss arguments before they've been made rather than dealing with any arguments themselves.

i thought football might come up. more people go to theatre in the uk than go to football. i'm not 100% certain but i seem to remember reading that more also visit galleries. perhaps their interest isn't "great" enough to qualify, although that seems to be a pretty slippery concept - is it just that they have to keep being interested for a long time? i had assumed that the greatness was just some kind of unusual intensity, in which case knickerless Britney would certainly qualify. Anyway, even the people who think that football is important (as opposed to the people who think that people thinking about football makes football important) don't justify it by it being popular. They justify it by it having some particular value or utility:

And no, the Sarajevo example doesn't talk about the important "role" art can play - roles are a new idea in this discussion of importance - but it does fulfill the criteria that you provided (which doesn't leave any room for roles, just interest).

alexf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
alexf said...


re sarajevo. absolutely not. the cinemas all shut.

And even if it were the signifier of life as normal then i don't think it would help your argument, since it would place the theatre pretty centrally within the realms of that life as normal.

Lake said...

I attributed the long-term interest argument rather than the angry-dad argument because either the angry-dad argument is a long-term interest argument, or it's a moral argument (which I touched on subsequently) or it's no argument at all. And yes, your mother may be arguing in an absurd fashion. But in that case, her position probably isn't worth addressing.

How loyal are football fans relative to theatre-goers? How much money do they spend per head, comparatively? Or, better, what fraction of their income do they spend? How much do they talk about it? How much do they think about it? How replaceable is it in their lives? I'm afraid I don't have completely worked-out mathematical criteria, but those are the sorts of things that would have to be taken into account.

The "role" point is just this: something which isn't usually important can sometimes become important under unusual conditions, during which it can also aquire a different sort of value to that which it usually possesses. Most of the time sheep's blood isn't very important. But it was vital during the Tenth Plague, or so we are told.

The cinemas shut? No wonder they went to the theatre. They must have been bored senseless. If only they had had something genuinely fun to do, the poor sods.

alexf said...

well, it's a long-term interest insofar as everything that isn't about RIGHT-THIS-INSTANT-RIGHT-NOW-ALREADY is a long-term interest. But when we have to stretch the meaning of things to be so vague that they incorporate almost everything ever then i don't think we're talking particularly usefully.

So your definition of important is something is of great interest (all those things which might signify that a football fan's interest is great - are you by any chance trying find a way to avoid saying that the measure is whether or not it's, y'know, important to them?) to a sizable minority or that it's to do with people dying. Or sometimes there are special times when something plays an important role because of special circumstances. But it's not normally important because people don't care very much about it normally.

And that's what everyone who's not trying to pull a fast one means when they say important?

i can honestly say, i've never before come across someone who uses the word important in that way.

look - art is important for a shedload of reasons. it's important to the economy if you want a really boring one. it's important because it's a forum in which people can an express themselves and consequently a forum in which people can respond to the way that other people express themselves and that's the kind of thing that matters if you want to live in a world with other people (there's a crass utilitarian reason for you). It's important becuase, as Alison said above, it's one of the major ways that people work out meaning (and if you don't think meaning's important then viola bingo bingo hatstand). it's important because it's something we share and as such it creates something for us to think and talk about and thinking and talking are nice and so's sharing. It's important because it can be beautiful in a way that things that aren't art can't be and beauty is desirable. It's important because it satisfies a vague urge for more than all the things that aren't art can provide (you must be aware of the fallacy of assuming that because the art fans you know aren't happier or better adjusted than other people you know they are less happy or well adjusted than they would be if they weren't fans of art). It's important because it gives us new experiences that we can't have anywhere else. It's important because it makes us aware of what it is to experience. i could go on, but i want to go home.

Now, you might not give a fuck about any of those things. And you can point to another 10 or 100 or 1000 people who don't give a fuck either, but that won't stop them being true, and it won't diminish their value. and you can say that i'm patently advancing my own narrow, sectional interests, but it still won't effect what i'm saying. And if tomorrow 90% of people just went off football and decided to spend their time going to galleries instead, it still wouldn't stop the things that make football important making football important.

Statler said...

And if tomorrow 90% of people just went off football and decided to spend their time going to galleries instead, it still wouldn't stop the things that make football important making football important.

Well it would in my book. What makes something important is that people feel it's important to them. If the number of people who view football as important to then shrunk by 90% overnight, the wider importance of football would shrink greatly and it would be as important as say... badminton.

Art is important only because a number of people value it.

And getting back to review as consumer guide or analysis discussion I thought it would be interesting to get a wider view on it so posted a thread on a DVD review site I frequent (where they do actually take their reviews seriously despite the nature of the Forum) It's also the website I'm most familiar with that has a wide cross-section of the 'general public'. Not sure how the results/comments will go and it certainly isn't scientific, but that doesn't mean it isn't an interesting snapshot.

Film/Book/Theatre Reviews - what is their *main* purpose?

Lake said...

Thanks Statler, that was very interesting. And, more importantly, convenient for my argument.

Alex, you're right that I stretched the meaning of "long-term interest". I should simply have said "self-interest". Is that better? That way, arguments aimed at getting you to do something need to appeal either to your self-interest or to your moral sense if they are to be intelligible. Perhaps that's still uselessly vague. Seems pretty clear to me, though.

Also, it’s a bit rum to complain, when I'm telling you the meaning of the word "important", that what I've said just means "important". Doesn't that suggest that I’ve achieved what I set out to do?

Re. art’s virtues: the qualities you list are undoubtedly in its favour (apart from the one about meaning, which trades on a semantic ambiguity. Art certainly isn't the way most people discover the meanings of the words in their language. It may, however, be how they try to understand their place in the world (more fool them)). But where do I deny that art is valuable to people? Good grief, it’s valuable to me. That doesn’t mean that people who don’t value it should start, or that they should help to pay for it. There's nothing wrong with philistinism, provided you don't spoil other people's fun gratuitously.

In conclusion, justice demands that the arts be surrendered utterly to the iron law of the market. Anyone who disagrees is a patrician swindler, hiding behind priestcraft and equivocation as usual. Fergo’s got “ancien regime” stitched into his silken draws. Croggon is an enemy of the citizens of Earth. That is all.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Just a quickie: purpose is not the same as utility. The fact that reviews may principally be used in a certain way does not mean that that is their principal reason for existing. Cf Teflon, The Simpsons, the Labour Party etc.

PS Is it just me being given advice in German "Leave your comment" screen? What's THAT about? (What is its function? etc. ad mauseam.)

Andrew Haydon said...

Ian, I get this:

"Sie können HTML-Tags verwenden, z. B.
Choose an identity"

Ian Shuttleworth said...

"mauseam"? MAUSEAM?

alexf said...

hmmm... the language settings are set to english... how very strange...

alexf said...

i think blogger's fucked. it's doing it on yours too, andrew

Lake said...

Re: purpose and utility.

Some things come into being to serve one purpose and are allowed to continue for other reasons. It isn't obvious which should count as their reason (singular) for existence. Especially where the original purpose is no longer served, or never made sense anyway...

wilko said...

This thing about Britney with no knickers. Are there pictures? If so, what is the angle like?

Alison Croggon said...

Croggon is an enemy of the citizens of Earth. That is all.

Bwahahahaha. Just stand there while I arrange the pond full of sulphuric acid and mutant sharks.

In between tormenting innocent souls with high art, I write novels for a living. I mean, novels that actually make me a living. I have a lively interest in market forces. I also think that they're an extremely unreliable indicator of "importance" (although of course I consider my novels extremely important). Yes, wank reviews are maybe just as unreliable, but the good ones have some interesting arguments in them, unlike the gleam in the eye of an accountant at Tescoes (or Coles).