Critics and critiquing
By Aleksandra Myslek
Photography by @fart_lyfe
I am a part of an extremely imaginative and creative generation. I doubt there are many among us who do not enjoy some form of art, or engage in it. Dance, music, painting, theatre, all types of street performance are a natural form of expression and the favourite pastime for the many, no matter the upbringing or financial status. I feel though, in an intuitive way, that not many of us are occupied or interested in art criticism. Looking around, I don’t see many talkers, but very many doers. It is as if we got fed up with the analytical, with the scholarly, garrulous, and bumptious; we scream for freedom of expression.
I am a music graduate from an institution that specialises in performance. Naturally, all types of performance are fascinating to me. There is an empowering feeling in knowing the form of strength that comes to you when some hundreds of pairs of eyes and hundreds of souls reflect what you do on stage, deflecting it, and returning it to you. The performance imprints something on your audience and its resonance imprints something on you.
I once thought talking about such a magical phenomenon in form of criticism was something of a profane activity, but I have changed my mind. Being a bit of a devil’s advocate, I am a little drawn to the ones who don’t do art but talk about it - the critics. They have been around for a long time but now, with more aspiring artists than ever, critics will never have to be afraid of shortage of material to write about; they seem entirely untouchable.
Out of what you can call boredom of a hard worker, I signed up to be one of them. A critic. I love writing, and having found an advert looking for volunteers who would be willing to commit to some theatre reviews, I jumped in, drunk with excitement. Being a young classically trained musician, I thought it would be a fascinating thing to do and I boldly reminded myself of all my qualities that were intensified by my artistic upbringing: my sensitivity to human emotion, fierce curiosity, sharp eyes and open ears.
I felt the burden of responsibility, I won’t deny it, but from the start I was semi-subconsciously hoping not to actually be asked to criticize… I intended to write, as colourfully as possible, about the ideas, traditions, systems, trains of thoughts, reasons and motives for their own sake. It didn’t come to me that this is not the kind of criticism that might be required.
The plays that my new employer was sending me to watch featured mostly newly emerging actors, sometimes amateurs. All of this was an object of great excitement to me: being able to offer some exposure to those ambitious people, having a chance to start a substantive but kind discussion on their work and ideas. I could see my future being affected as well, for I would be growing as a musician and an artist with all the new knowledge and challenges that were awaiting me.
Of course, reality checks on you in one way or another. Having reassured my anonymous editor that I was content with his editing (surely he must have a lot of experience on the matter), I set off to work. I realised rather quickly that I am not a poet, my texts seemed dull enough when I was reading them again the next day. Do not fear, I thought to myself, you will overcome the challenges, your progress will soon become apparent and the profundity of your message will surface. With enough effort, you will learn how to do justice to the great human endeavour which is theatre.
It came to me like a blow when I was made to realise that whatever the flaws of my writing or thinking may be, they almost didn’t matter because what was expected and required from me was a simple descriptive account of what I had seen, perhaps enhanced here and there with a not too sophisticated adjective signifying my opinion like “bad”, “good”, disappointing”, engaging”. After my ego recovered from seeing all my work edited and cut mercilessly, I thought or rather screamed to myself- who on earth cares to read such nonsense? Would artists give a damn about it, would audiences look at anything more than a number of stars meant for a poster? Did I just experience being part of the laziest branch of journalism in the world, which is the “I saw so and so, felt so and so about it” branch? I of course realised that I wasn’t a part of the most sophisticated online platform but having checked some popular magazines and newspapers, I couldn’t get rid of the sense of unease and disappointment. Even if the language was captivating and the content beautifully and clearly structured, I couldn’t help myself thinking, do we really need this? Can we, artists and audiences, benefit anything at all from reading the criticism as it functions now? Do the ones who secretly hold power over us really deserve their status?