Theatre Criticism

December 2, 2009

Critic as Artist

 Theatre criticism, indeed criticism of any kind, generates as many forms of debate as the works of art on which they are based.  What makes something a critique?  And what is its relation to the field of Art? are a few of the questions that have arisen from our class discussions.

 Oscar Wilde, in his dialogue The Artist as Critic, assesses the relevancy and the need of the critic: ‘…what is the use of art criticism?..Why should the artist be troubled by the shrill clamour of criticism?  Why should those who cannot create take upon themselves to estimate the value of creative work?’  Further inspection reveals that the two elements, art and criticism, are not as polar opposite as is originally considered, in fact they are interlinked: one cannot exist without the other.  The artist communicates their own subjective discernment of life in their work.  It is this evaluative instinct expressed and selective process undertaken by the individual that Wilde argues is a fundamental aspect of criticism.  Without this critical temperament, artistic creation is non-existent: ‘An age that has no criticism is either an age in which art is immobile, hieratic, and confined to the reproduction of formal types, or an age that possess no art at all.’  It is the critical force that is responsible for new artistic developments; without the expression of the self-conscious, culture would stagnate because each art form would be a copy of its predecessor.

 Following this argument, Wilde continues that as criticism is to art, art is to criticism.  In reviewing a work, the critic is not so much revealing the artist’s impression of life but his own consciousness.  As all artistic creation is wrought by an individual perspective of reality at one specific moment, so too is the evaluation of that work.  Once the art is complete, the meaning and beauty of it depends upon the perspective of the beholder.  The critic is as much of a creator of meaning as the original author, if not more so, for it is through the critic that the significance of the piece is expressed: ‘…it is rather the beholder who lends to the beautiful thing its myriad meanings, and makes it marvellous for us, and sets it in some new relation to the age, so that it becomes a vital portion of our lives…To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticises.’  This argument not only raises the issue of Authorship but also that of its relative – Authority.  If one is to agree with Wilde that criticism is as creative as the piece of art it explores then it logically follows that the Critic is as subjective as the Artist, which prompts the question: What makes the critic’s voice so definitive?  Also, since the established artist is a skilled labourer who has developed and perfected their craft over a period of time, what skills does one need to possess to become an established critic and how will they be recognised as such?        

Critic as God:

 It was at the turn of the nineteenth century, with Nietzsche’s influential statement ‘God is dead’ that criticism became prolific.  Because God was no longer viewed as the Authority, it was the duty of the experienced artist to take on the mantle and revolutionise the artistic and thus the critical world.  But in today’s consumer driven society – where theatre and other art forms are accessible to a mass demographic – along with the ascent of globalisation and mass communication, is the critical world as elitist as it once was and if so what makes this still the case?

 The increased interest in theatre blogs, which can be accessed and written by any theatre punter, would suggest that the voice of the paid, professional critic, who write for printed newspapers, is less influential than it was before the rise of the Internet. 

 The professional critic, however, can still boast a wider experience of theatre based on a wealth of knowledge acquired over several decades – Michael Billington has been a reviewer for close to forty years.  Although the longevity of a critical career does not automatically equal a definitive and objective authority, it does suggest a certain degree of credibility that would not be assumed to a critic who’s only been writing about theatre for a year, say.

 There is a flipside to the argument for the experienced critic, which is the suspicion of complacency and archaism.  Theatre, like all art forms is an expression of life, and since life is ephemeral and constantly evolving, artists have to re-evaluate the ways in which they respond to it, be this in the form of Naturalist theatre in the 1800s to ‘Immersive’ theatre now.  The question is, can the seasoned critics, who started their careers in the last century – and who therefore base their knowledge on their experience of theatre then – keep up?  As has already been established, criticism is another form of art, which means that this has to evolve as well, so does it follow that the critic has to re-evaluate their methods of response?  This could be one of the reasons that explain the popularity of the theatre blogger: so they aren’t paid but their relatively limited exposure into theatre could hint at a fresher and less blinkered approach.

 Also, the replacement of definite distinctions of elite art with mass culture, as expressed in Carl Wilson’s article Lets Talk About Love, along with a more democratic view that there is a place for all forms of art, be it superficial or educational, hints at the redundancy of the elite, professional critic.  It seems that criticism, along with art has ‘democratised’ (to quote Jay Rayner’s article Is it Curtains for Critics?).

 However, if what Wilde argues is true: that criticism is just as creative as the art work itself, then shouldn’t it be the case that the former is as much of a craft as the latter?  Therefore, like all crafts, it requires years of dedication and experience to perfect and like artistry itself, not everyone possesses the ability to form a critical opinion.

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October 18, 2009

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