Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Anyone can be a critic...

People often ask me, do I have any words of advice for young people...

Listen up sunshine, and I'll tell you what a real critic is. Of course, if you are a real critic, you'll be taking the words 'real' and 'is' with a pinch of salt, because the first quality a critic needs is suspicion. A quick glance at the history of 'real' reveals a weasel word, used to confuse and make it look like the speaker knows what they are talking about. As for the verb 'to be': I'll not be opening that can of existential mind-worms here. 

I think it was Hitler who said that he couldn't tell you what he wanted, but he could, sure as hell, tell you what he didn't want. I hate to go full Goodwin so early, but it's easier to say what a critic isn't. Let's go listicle...

A critic is not a consumer consultant
Don't read a review to decide whether a particular show is worth a punt. You could use them like this, as if the purchase of a theatre ticket is the same as buying a sex toy. Do the research, read several different reviews, weigh up the advantages, access each review's bias. But the opinions of one person are a poor guide to quality. Think about that sex toy. What might be one person's night of ecstasy might be another's trip to Accident and Emergency. 

I admit that it is unlikely that a trip down the Tron will lead to a visit to the doctor to get a foreign body removed, and a subsequent anecdote told by nurses about 'this bloke who came in claiming he happened to be doing the housework naked and he fell over, honest'. But a review does not provide any grounds for attending or not attending. You see that show that drove you bloody mad? That's the one you remember. 

However, you can totally trust my reviews.

A critic is not a funding application
The failure of Creative Scotland to employ me or Robert Dawson Scott as roaming critics ought to have made this clear: a lifetime of popular, public reviewing is no qualification for being part of the funding process. I've heard rumours that a two star review can damage the chances of a company getting the green from the state. But that more of an indictment of Creative Scotland, if it is true, than anything helpful.

Criticism is not usually written to encourage the state to splash the cash. It's a subjective, often quick-fire, response to an event. It isn't that the world wouldn't be a better place if Creative Scotland was run by critics - it would be, obviously. But, again, it's a subjective opinion, informed by knowledge, that does not close the door on other interpretations. That two star play might need some support to develop. 

A critic is not objective
Let me tell you about power. I edit the work of other critics. And if they use a phrase like 'one might think', they get edited hard. 

You see, a critic is not the queen of England, and 'one might think' is an affectation. It also assumes that there is a common body of opinion, that the critic speaks for many... 'one' replaces 'I', replaces subjectivity with objectivity. Regular offenders, I am ready to admit, get laughed at behind their backs by me and my mates. I do that thing where I put my hands under my chin and speak in a posh whine. 

'Ohhhh, one might think, might one?'

My obsession with this particular phrase is petty, but it reflects a
deeper problem: criticism that pretends to be the absolute truth. Critics pay lip-service to being subjective, but rarely recognise it in their writing. Even their knowledge of theatre is a subjectivity. I've seen Iona Kewney, and all dance that I review is seen within that context. That's one of my subjectivities. 

Hell, I don't mind being wrong. But if you don't have an art-crush on Kewney, you'll find my reviews come from a particular perspective that you might not share. 

Okay, if you got this far, I guess I owe you. 

A critic uses critical thinking
Interesting, huh? Soon as I get positive, I'm using definitions that are self-referential and I'm talking about behaviour, not essences. Dig? Critical thinking is anything that is more than an opinion: it's an argument. It can be historical, it can be dialectical, it can be Aristotlean. It is opinion formed by transparent engagement with the event.

This is bullshit is an opinion.

This is bullshit because is the start of criticism. 

A critic guides conversation
Think of the critic like the chair of a meeting, only with more opinions. They suggest an agenda, sketch out the context, comment wryly and let the ideas that the artist spent so much time exploring get out into the public sphere. 

Laters. I'm bored now.

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