Friday, February 10, 2006

Critical Mass

There's a wonderful discussion brewing about the role of the critic in the art world. Sure, we come back to this subject again and again, but now we've got some immediate examples to anchor the theorizing. First stop: Chicago.
  1. An Angry White Guy in Chicago, Don Hall writes a post "Critique the Critique" where he criticizes Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic Hedy Weiss's review of A Child's History of Bombing. With me so far? I know that was a mangled string of refernces, but hyperlinks are replacing prepositions one-by-one these days and I'm not sure I ever learned how to use either of them. In short: Don takes issue with Hedy's emphasis on the subject of the play and maintains that her role as a critic is to appraise the sundry craftworks on display, not to contend with the ideas/themes/statements therein. As it happens, this play is about War, The Atomic Bomb, WWII, and Vietnam. Hedy thinks the Neo-Futurists have chosen the wrong war to advance an anti-war premise and Don thinks that makes her an Op-Ed columnist, not a theatre critic. Warp to North Carolina, where ...
  2. Theatre Ideas blogger Scott Walters has been trying to articulate his frustration with In-Yer-Face-Theatre and the legions of glib devil-children it seems to spawn. So his reaction to Don's reaction to Hedy's reaction to A Child's History of Bombing is something along the lines of: "Well, what did you expect?" He states:
    "Artists can hand out the assaults, but scream like babies when they are assaulted themselves."
    I appreciate Scott's willingness to deflate Don's indignation, even if he's generalizing a bit in the larger analysis. Cue Allison Croggon of Melbourne, Australia ...
  3. Theatre Notes and Critic Watch -- two blogs maintained by Allison. They don't feature any posts about the current deabte, but they're wonderful to read in their own right. Allison comments regularly on both Scott Walter's and George Hunka's blog and she brings the expertise of a professional critic. She adds this dimension:
    If you think an audience is part of the theatre, then a theatre critic - as a member of the audience, albeit a privileged one - is also part of the theatre. I have never had much time for the idea of the "objective" critic who hands out elephant stamps or black crosses and a mark out of ten - this is a fiction usually translated by media outlets into a consumer guide and by critics into an excuse for ignorance. And I know, first hand, how ignorant journalists can be. Personally, I'm all for theatre artists arguing back, even to me; most don't in fact because they fear being seen as whining complainers.

    A true sense of commitment to theatre in an abstract sense sharpens the critical faculties. Of course critique should always be honest, or it's worthless: and it should also be informed. I don't always agree with things I consider fine criticism; that isn't the point. The point is the quality of response and expression, its ability to spark further thinking. It's probably worth remembering that the best critics, without exception, from Kenneth Tynan to Jann Kott, have always been advocates.
  4. Now, I wish to hone in on Allison's deeper point about general advocacy as a way to introduce what I consider to be a shameful little episode here in DC. Trey Graham of the Washington City Paper maintains the blog Theaterboy, which features the story of a fourth-string critic for The Washington Post: Tricia Oszlewski. Tricia writes for both publications; movie reviews for City Paper and theatre reviews for the Post. To judge by a recent mini-bio she wrote on her own personal blog MovieBabe, she would rather be writing for movies than theatre. She calls the DC theatre scene "pretentious" and makes a plea for deliverance from her blog audience so she can go back to reviewing just film. Trey judiciously outlines the whole story here -- followed by a growing list of comments from every corner of the DC theatre scene.
Some people have written that Tricia's personal blog shouldn't be used as evidence against her professional writing. Others have taken this episode to vindicate/validate the critical treatment they've received from her. Still others have launched into the larger argument about a critic's role in the art world -- which brings us back to our colleagues in Chicago, NYC, North Carolina, and Melbourne.

To me, it sounds like everyone's getting their bitter little wish -- but no one's wiser or happier for it. It's just sad that it came down to a throwaway joke on a personal blog when the real problem was the lack of "a true sense of commitment to theatre in the abstract." It doesn't take an accidental slip on a personal blog to discover this, nor should we go on our own hunches. Tricia's been with the Post for three years and apparently no one ever asked her if she enjoyed the work she was doing, nor did she have the time, resources, or inclination to expand her understanding of the craft or the circuit.

So now Tricia doesn't have to review pretentious theatre anymore and hopefully she'll continue to watch the companies she enjoyed. Smaller companies won't have to endure her reviews anymore, if that's really what upsets them. And until the Post introduces someone to fill her place, we'll get to chew on the mechanics of big-paper distribution and criticism ... all the while ignoring one scrumptious irony: the blog world, which provided evidence for Tricia's dismissal, also lets us parse our indignation while rendering that indignation moot.

More on this later -- I just wanted to offer everyone a chance to compare notes with different examples. If the T.O. story has DC bloggers reaching for some deeper articulation of the critic's place in the community -- check out Allison's blogs and her comments on Scott's recent post. If Scott, Allison, and Don are looking for another case-study in the critic-artist relationship, I'd invite you to weigh in on our most recent tiff.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Long Ago

I'm sure you've noticed that peculiar mid-life slump in most blogs -- someone puts out enough interesting stuff to keep you casually hooked out of a) fraternal loyalty b) the promise of an occasional flame war c) genuine intrigue d) they have the most comprehensive buffet of hyperlinks you've found, which is handy because in this day and age I need someone else to do my mindless web-surfing e) they're pitching wholesale Snark by the "creative" "insertion" "of" "mocking" "quotation" ... "marks." Whatever. But suddenly ... it goes dark for a day. Then a week. Then a fiscal quarter. The life-support hyperlinks from virile blogs next door begin to vanish one by one. And finally, you see some hastily-assembled epitaph by the author -- always crafted with a flavor that's one part gratitude ("for my 'humble' readership of 18 pageloads a month") and ever twenty parts righteous abdication: "I'd love to continue feeding you digital tripe, but I now have far more important things to do."

Well, I'm not writing one of those right now. No, I have a lovely list of half-assed excuses which, combined, will yield perhaps 1.5 asses -- more than enough to explain the absence for anyone who cares. Everyone else may skip down a couple paragraphs for something resembling original content.
  1. Shortly after my vistit to NYC last November, my laptop started acting up on me. It would stay up late playing Woody Allen DVDs, ostensibly for its own amusement. It would catcall the sleek iBooks resting prone on the lap of some lovely coffeehouse misanthrope down the table from me at Tryst. It would audibly sneer at whatever I wrote and lacquer my words with protective air-quotes.* All without my permission! I can only blame those ten days in the Village. Adrift in the ample and infected wi-fi traffic of Manhatten, I fear, my poor laptop whored its country-mouse hard drive. I was told that my $300 protection policy didn't apply to software corruption. Luckily, a computer store was willing to charge me $300 to fix what was really wrong with my machine! How perfect is that? I sprung her from the ICU three weeks ago, only to experience the same meltdown. So after exchanging some angry words with the enterprising, cyber-snake-oil salesman who misdiagnosed it the first time, I passively surrendered my laptop to another repair shop for who-knows-how-long.
  2. I'm up to my third-eye in Hamlet homework. I would love to tell you all about it, but I think that would only discourage you from seeing it and prevent me from doing a decent job when it goes up. My girlfriend will ask me what I did today. I've said the same thing for the past two months:
    Darling. I could tell you about this pesky semicolon that seems to betray the entire axis of the story and then whip out arguments from Johnson, Kitteridge, Bloom, and Wilson to explain why this wayward typo took 6 hours to resolve ... or I could just say "I worked on Hamlet some more."
    My pre-rehearsal work on this play involves two equally-unbloggable adventures: text/punctuation analysis and some very basic (nay: remedial) body/voice reprogramming. I cherish my liberal arts education and I enjoy picking up vast swaths of expurgated literature piecemeal -- through five invigorating years' work "in the field" rather than three expensive years' work in grad school. But this is different. I'm less concerned with thematic or conceptual flourish (the sort of material that makes for dashing, incendiary blog entries) this time round. I'm more concerned with basic proficiency. Today, I fear the conceptual for its seductive Sith-like shortcuts; more often, these proprietary filters (He's Gay! He's God! He's Oedipus! He's a Locquacious Brat!) destroy more than they amplify. So it upsets me when the first question out of most people's mouth is: "Will you be wearing a codpiece? Or is it, like, you know, postmodern?" Yeah. I guess those are the only options.
  3. Pure Intimidation. I found this lively cohort of theatre bloggers -- all of which can be accessed on the well-pruned blogroll at Superfluities. I've started about three different posts in an attempt to join their debates at one point or another. They're all in the draft drawer now because the minute I come close to finishing a satisfactory post/comment/rebuttal, they're off to another topic. At this stage in my life, I'm too susceptible to idealism of any stripe -- whether it's George Hunka's passionately ascetic thanatophilia or Scott Walters's beauty = truth = beauty manifesto. I'm trying to be less trigger-happy in my posting and that means less posting, period. In-Yer-Face Theatre is the subject of the most recent discussion. If George, Allison, Scott, and Matthew Freeman are still on this topic by Wednesday, I might be able to interject before I vanish into rehearsals next week.
*Air-quotes. I've complained about incessant quotey-quote usage before. Here's a prediction. Remember when Microsoft Word had, at best, a shitty spell-check tool? Now the program purports to fix our grammer at the click of a button, right? Well, if the grammar check tool instantly elevates your prose to the veneer of Buckley-Chomsky ... don't you think there'll soon be a button labeled simply "Irony" or "pomo"**? Guess what THAT one would do!

**For the record, I use this term as an abbreviation first, not as some catchall invective for "postmodernism." I understand the term also refers to the native people of Northern California, so my apologies if there was some misunderstanding. Yes, I find the postmodern school to be insufferably self-absorbed and therefore it pains me to shed extra calories at the keyboard by typing the whole damn redundant, useless, inflated, hollow phrase again and again.