By Hazel Rickard
The idea of critique conjures up images of various experts: professional reviewers of theatre, art, comedy etc. But what is the role of the critic? One answer offered in the discussion held at Fresh Oysters was that critics can mediate between artists and their audiences in useful ways by giving background or information to help interpret an art piece. This however, does not describe the experiences of most artists in the room at Fresh Oysters: Most remember harsh reviews and the frustration, as Adrienne Truscott expressed, that reviewers of her work rarely gave her the benefit of the doubt that she knew what she is doing in a performance. Critics can be the guardians of culture in the worst possible way by condemning artists without trying to understand them. And still, Truscott explained that it was necessary for her to see all of her reviews, both good and bad, as useful information. She chose to take critique as feedback that is true on some level, even if at first it may seem false or unfair.
While I was listening to this conversation between theatre and performance artists, filmmakers and writers, I was filled with questions: Who has the right to give feedback to whom? How much should we take the opinions of individuals to be representative of a wider community or culture? Why does it seem easier to critique people who we do not know personally? Why is it more useful to receive a critique from someone we do know personally?
A critique is an expression of a relationship. There are consequences for the things we make and say, and sometimes a critique can show us our blind spots. We are talking about wildly different things when we consider a New York Times reviewer and a friend who offers feedback on a personal level, and yet there is a similarity. We have a choice about how to receive it, and whether or not we let it into our creative process. It comes down to how much we open ourselves to the reflections of others, how outwardly motivated we are, and why we make art or wake up in the morning. For theater and performance artists in particular, critique can be incredibly useful because we make art for an audience.
That being said, there is always danger in being critiqued when we are too young, too vulnerable or when critique is given too soon in a creative process. Unsolicited critiques in particular can derail us from a productive path or alienate us from ourselves. As many artists have experienced, critique can make or break us
I see Truscott’s view on critique as incredibly generous to others and this perspective seems to make her performance work critically engaged with the world she inhabits. I can’t help but wonder, however, what it does to us when we receive all critique as truth. Sometimes people’s opinions of us are motivated by their own insecurities or issues. Sometimes people lie, mislead or say things they don’t really mean. Should we try to anticipate our critics when we make work, or does it split us into a million pieces when we do so?
I have been a touring musician for years and an amateur artist in many different forms, and while I do not have experience like Truscott as a professional and respected performance artist, I do know how it feels to be given feedback by a range of different individuals. After shows for example, people will often come up to me and tell me what they think of my music. I rarely remember the compliments paid to me, but I always remember, word for word, the critiques: “You sing too quietly,” “You’re awful at talking with the audience,” etc. The types of critiques paid to musicians are certainly different than theatre reviews, but they share something: one person finds it their responsibility to influence another. Sometimes its useful, but sometimes its horribly redundant (I can’t believe how many times people have told me to sing louder) or if I’m already having a bad day or feeling vulnerable, it can trigger a deep emotional low that can be hard to recover from.
I think that critique must be taken with a grain of salt. What one person sees or feels is completely true for them, but it is not true for everyone. Hence the problem with the critic: What gives them the right to speak with authority over an artistic form or to say that something is good or bad? The problem arises when a specific relationship (between the reviewer and the performer for example) masquerades as something bigger. The critic has the position of power in critiquing performers who make themselves vulnerable in front of audiences. Sensitivity and empathy are necessary for critique, and yet sometimes people forget the power they hold. Critics can do emotional damage to people who don’t feel like they have the right to talk back. Like Truscott does in her piece “Wild Bore,” we can talk back to our critics because critique should be a conversation rather than a one-sided judgment.
Everyone and no one is an expert on what it means to be human. If critique is humble, if it arises out of a desire to understand, then it can motivate discussion and growth. This is perhaps the way that critically engaged thinkers and artists can be the guardians of culture in a positive sense. We can protect and hold each other responsible in the same gesture if we speak from our own situated bodies and histories to others, to say things like: “I see you like this in this moment” rather than “You are this” or “I would do it differently.” I see critique as an ongoing conversation that we must all have with our own selves. It is important to include the perspectives of others as we move through the world, but we must proceed with kindness to ourselves above all else.
Hazel Rickard is a PhD student in Theatre Historiography at the University of Minnesota. She is a musician and artist whose research interests include puppetry, magic and the performance of the dead.