Fear of a Critical Planet: On Student Drama, Flacks, Hacks and Low Expectations

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The latest e-missive to The Seattle Star began typically. “Hi Mr. Willey, I’m a Seattle-based director,” et cetera. Another day, another press release.

Normally I am pretty charitable. I read everyone’s press releases even when they do not interest me personally. Some things are more important, after all, than my personal taste and every so often I will receive here a press release about something that is important enough to the community that I simply must respond.

This latest press release intended to publicize a group of young artists performing what I read to be an incredibly noble night of plays for a noble cause: plays about homelessness, teen drug use, urban crime, domestic violence. That the plays are written and performed by youth was even more noble and exactly what caught my eye.

Unfortunately it does not stop there. The press release continues and says, in summary, that the author does not want a “traditional review” for this project because of its “delicate nature.” Yet, it continues, I should really consider writing a piece about this fabulous night of theater, etc.

This is not an isolated instance–not even remotely. I have encountered this same attitude throughout the entire community, which I can quickly summarize: we want you to write about us, but we’re really, really sensitive and don’t want you to say anything bad about our incredibly holy work, so can you just show up and give us free publicity and something for ad copy when we apply for grants later on or better yet not show up and still write something?

Regrettably, I am not a shill and I am not a flack. I am a critic. Furthermore, I am not just a critic but a very particular critic with a very particular history and a very particular ethos. My ethics do not allow me to publish a magazine and write articles solely for the aggrandizement of self-labeled noble ventures. That is not journalism and it most certainly is not criticism.

Criticism’s greatest weakness in Seattle has always been its incredibly narrow scope and notions of what is worth covering. Writing for KCMU Radio I did my best to expand this scope to the ignored fringe productions. I also was the only person writing about student theater at the University of Washington, Cornish, Seattle Pacific and the community colleges. These were, to my mind, the people who represented a lively future for the performing arts.

Such a remarkable turn, then, that the fringe theaters and student communities I dedicated so much of my time to as a critic should now be the ones who most emphatically dismiss and patronize me and my ideas.

I have continued to write about the University of Washington’s productions. Why only them? Because only they allow me to. Cornish wrote me saying they expressly forbid critical reviews. Why?

Because of the conservatory nature of our BFA program, our productions are actually works-in-progress and are considered to be closer to a classroom project that ends in a performance, rather than a finished product. While the public are welcome and encouraged to attend our performances, we do not want our students’ work to be subject to outside review since it is up to their teachers to give them feedback.

Finely put. So let us give every theater that same excuse: “This is only a project, and not a performance.” Substitute “artist” for “student.” Translate “teachers” to “peers” and we have pretty much the standard belief of most people in the theater, which then reads thus:

While the public are welcome and encouraged to attend our performances, we do not want our artists’ work to be subject to outside review since it is up to their peers to give them feedback.

Now this sounds familiar. It is in fact exactly what sculptor David Smith said in his essay “Aesthetics, The Artist and The Audience.”

Nobody understands art but the artist. Affection for art is the sole property of the artist. The majority approach art with hostility. The artist deserves to be belligerent to the majority. The artist is a product of his time, and his belligerence is a defense and not a preference.

You will forgive me, I hope, if I believe that this is complete crap. That millions of people believe it does not make it any less crap. It is pure rationalization and if I were more of a Freudian I would say it is nothing but an ego defense.

One need not have too deep an interest in semiotics or schema theory to know that without a non-artist for its audience, a work of art has no real meaning. Audiences must negotiate meaning based on what the artist supplies them but this “understanding” is not and can never be the artist’s. And that is precisely the joy of art. It allows people to take a journey in someone else’s shoes yet retain their own experiences for comparison and value. This journey is the whole point of art and ostensibly its goal is to help human beings correct, define, transform their thoughts and presumably their behavior as well insofar as they behave thoughtfully.

Artists do not take this journey in their own work because the problems are technically quite different. They are busy clarifying their own possibilities of thought, not indulging themselves in someone else’s expertly arranged thoughts provided for public consideration. Living with Raskolnikov in one’s head for years and trying to compile or extract his real story in such a way that a layman would be interested in it and understand it is a much different chore from reading Crime and Punishment.

A shallow audience finds a shallow artist just as surely as a shallow artist desires a shallow audience. Is not also the converse true? Does it not take a certain level of reader with a certain level of experience to bring out the richness of a work of art? Consider Gulliver’s Travels. Of course it bears out a shallow reading as a simple science-fiction adventure with fantastic worlds. This explains its popularity among children. Yet this is not its full meaning by any limit. The book allows for all the meaning that the knowledge and experience each reader can bring to it. To know something about English science and especially the Royal Society, for instance, makes the “Voyage to Laputa” more than a fantastic story: it is what allows the reader to see the satire in the work. But in order to see this satire, the reader must first be, on some level, a critic.

Is this what artists fear? That someone will actually experience their work? I truly hope not. And yet this is surely the implication in statements like the following from another university’s policy:

We are not a conservatory, and some of our students are rank beginners. Having a “review” would be detrimental to their growth. (Emphasis mine.)

Rough translation: Students might receive bad press and quit to do something else, thus leaving our university without the $30,000 we wish to drain from them like vampires.

Perhaps that is a bit glib. The university may have no such pecuniary motive in mind. Goodness knows educators never think about money. Still, even at face value such statements assume that 1) all “reviews” are negative and 2) having anyone other than one of the high-holy-anointed teachers of the drama department would ruin the student because it might conflict with the departmental teaching. By this logic if the reviewer were Stella Adler, for instance, the student would inherently receive detrimental advice.

This view of students as apparently sacrosanct is actually extremely patronizing. To believe that outside input is detrimental to someone’s growth is to believe that a student cannot possibly make up her own mind about what is good advice and bad, and furthermore that she is so inherently fragile that her psyche will crack under the heretofore unknown reality that someone might not be completely, utterly, wholly enthralled by something she does. Unless of course it is a “teacher” who naturally seeks only the student’s benefit, because students never have teachers who give bad advice or who dislike them personally, you know. Everything is roses in the universities of America. But no: outside criticism by a member of the public is the problem. What, I wonder, do these same universities say about allowing parents to attend student productions? Surely parents give the worst reviews of all and their bad advice is much more likely to be detrimental to a student’s life than some anonymous reviewer.

Every member of the public who watches a show becomes a critic. Just because they do not write for a major newspaper does not strip them of critical faculties, opinions or prejudices. What matters is that the criticism be appropriate. Henry Holmes Smith wrote once that “Criticism must be an act of devotion to the work, the artist and the medium. Criticism must illuminate and invite attention to the work but not expose it to light too bright for it.”

That fear: that we will expose the work to “light too bright for it.” It is obvious to me that I intend no such thing. It is perhaps not obvious to others. And yet can they not tell? Have I not written enough on this subject? Do they even bother to read anything I have written? If not, why are they sending me press releases? Why do they care if I put their event on a calendar at all?

The fact I have not immediately named the authors of these press releases and statements ought to be a clue that I am not gauche. I do have restraint and I do respect a certain level of civic decency. That might come as a shock to some–but then the question is why? Why is that treated as some sort of rarity?

Because frankly the reviewers who write in Seattle suck at it. Seattle’s performing arts pages are filled to bursting with irrelevant impressionistic drivel, to be sure, but what makes this drivel so obnoxious is its complete lack of civility. Reviewers in Seattle seem to be unaware that some things need not be said not only because they are unimportant but because they are just simply petty, spiteful or vicious. One need not look too far in the pages of Seattle’s papers and websites to find reviewers: complaining about dancers and their body types; informing artists they have chosen the wrong vocation; telling actors what they should and should not wear; devoting paragraphs to someone’s erotic appeal or lack thereof; lamenting the presence of the color white; discussing the firmness of seats; hinting at what a hot date they brought with them–I could go on.

As a critic, one’s job is to illuminate the work, to be devoted to the work. These things have nothing to do with the work. They are personal fetish, which honestly belongs in someone’s personal diary rather than a public forum, because above all else criticism is not about the people who write it. It is about the art and when it ceases to be about the art it becomes exhibitionism and honestly I could not care less about someone else’s masturbatory notions. No one cares about another’s hobby horse. Nor should they.

And yet–and yet the reviewers who are most guilty of this are the reviewers that companies continue to invite to their shows. Not only do they invite them, they positively court them even when the result is the same each time: more critical jerkdom. Then they complain about their treatment in the press, but only among their peers in typically passive-aggressive (read: wimp) fashion.

You get the critics you deserve. I mean that most brutally. It is an artist’s duty to know her audience and certainly she should know her critics. If you invite a known jackass to review your dance or your play or your concert or your gallery show, you cannot complain when he acts like a jackass. It is his nature, just like the scorpion on the back of the frog. Shame on you for inviting him. But even more, shame on you for allowing his voice to be the only voice. Shame on you for not taking him to task publicly the way he takes others to task. Shame on you for not writing the author when he is not only factually incorrect but completely irrelevant with his statements. Shame on you for not writing to the editor and voicing your displeasure.

But above all, shame on you for not encouraging anything better. Your low expectations of how critics should act and what they should be have placed you squarely in this mire. If you do not set higher expectations, your low expectations will become the standard. If criticism is indeed a public dialogue as so many people claim, then you must participate. When someone writes well-thought, well-founded, well-argued criticism whether you agree with it or not, it is your duty at some point to tell her. If you do not, you disparage her voice. By failing to stand behind her and failing to encourage anything better, you encourage the hacks because as the saying goes shit floats to the top. It is everyone’s job to clean the tank.

That so many of Seattle’s artists consider themselves above reading criticism depresses me. That they consider themselves above writing criticism strikes me as one of the true absurdities of my life. Who better to write it? Shaw and Wilde and Coleridge and Dryden wrote criticism because they understood its importance. Contemporary artists seem loath to do so, laboring perhaps under that risible notion of David Smith’s–or, perhaps, purely because they believe in the inevitable division of the artistic process in some sort of classist fashion wherein artists cannot talk with critics and audiences because it soils them to do so. I truly hope no one holds this idea in any esteem, because it is absolute nonsense.

But, as I have seen, people in Seattle’s performing arts obviously believe a lot of absolute nonsense.

Categories Culture Media Performing Arts Visual Arts

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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