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Cueing up the Critics

Cueing up the Critics

by Libby Allen, images by Liam Lynch / 12.07.2010

There is something uncomfortable about contributing thought in the public sphere when the thought is critical of others doing the same thing. In less flowery terms, writers bitching about other writers are asking for trouble. Then, for a moment, with an acknowledgement that I write as a participant in the festival and not with the edge of the too obnoxious blog-journo, indulge a concern.

The growth of the blogger has meant democratisation in the field of journalism. Many may call that democracy debasement. What used to be private ideas and personal debate can now assume widespread dissemination. The guise, or anonymity, of our online personas means too that we can flip our words like pennies in a fountain and deny accountability. We are all The Authority now. Of course, this is a wonderful thing. Obviously, we are all entitled. Obviously, we rejoice in the freedom of it all. But – and I suppose you’ve grown impatient because you see my paint-by-numbers logic – who’s to control The Authority of The Idiot? And if it’s all free and nothing’s black and white, who’s to define the idiot at all? In a time when anyone can judge anything and, by default of the human condition and our affinity for the herd, affect anything simply by being read, what is there to regulate the effect of the know-all blogger? The debate around critics is an old one. It emerges everywhere; this site is a prime example. It should be that we can all respond as we feel and express that response. That’s fair. But, at some point, when the response determines income, when an artist’s livelihood is subject to the blogger’s post, something’s go to give. Some avatars ought to face the artist firing squad and account for what seems like hubris.

To anyone who has attended the National Arts Festival, the morning yells of the Cue peddlers are as familiar as the cold. With an enormous booking kit only able to offer the press release for each production, gig or exhibit, Cue newspaper remains the audience bible. Cue is a predominantly student-penned publication. Often, interviews are conducted by the staff with what seem to be the guidelines of a journalism lecturer. That has its place. Perhaps, like the work which fills the festival, these are journalists who will grow through public feedback. Like the journey of a young production, the young critic takes a journey in learning how to criticise. But in this growth and journey toward mastering the skill of writing (a thing from which I am very far) there are a bunch of performers caught in the wake. It is not only a fault of Cue – whose effort is great and output sometimes impressive – but of many self-appointed online crits. The fault of audiences too, I suppose. Of the festival, maybe. We have nothing but general opinion and the daily listing – each a product of the other. We should all think further. We should be more open. We should be many things we are not.

This is not the whine of theatre-types with hurt feelings. Yet, as I watch another year’s festival close and join the march back home to the grind of making a buck, I cannot ignore the danger here. Brevity is not a fair companion to stakes of this height. Sometimes, some artists cannot recover from the blow of a single-lined scathing review. Sometimes – too often – this is deserved. We mustn’t be congratulated simply because we create. Very often we create kak and though we do not like it, we are well-served by criticism. Often, too, the kak is lauded and we play our show-biz bit-parts in a morphed equivalent of the emperor and his envied invisible suit as we shower praise through gritted teeth. But as we class some as artists and some as fools, and audiences mobilise (mostly unaware that they do so) to make a production a sell-out hit or an abysmal bomb, we have to start taking the judges in hand. Like many democracies, this crit world is flawed; that’s an obvious thing but sometimes forgotten.

A smart guy once suggested to me that it is impossible to hold any opinion without avoiding hypocrisy. It is very difficult, now, to believe in one thing without contradicting another, often indirect and far-off and identifiable to few. We are aware of many things. It is petulant to believe work is worth being seen, yet whine about the reception when it isn’t ideal. But it’s the power of that reception. We are all subject and subjective, but if everyone’s a potential and powerful critic, the review must be subject, too.

All images © Liam Lynch.

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  1. Lizzy says:

    ‘A smart guy once suggested to me that it is impossible to hold any opinion without avoiding hypocrisy’
    dont you mean ‘hold any opinion without hypocrisy’ or ‘hold any opinion and aviod hypocrisy’?
    otherwise its a double negative…
    am I misunderstanding?

    interesting article, though.

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  2. Murray says:

    Nice article.

    I think people tend to forget though that the greatest critic is the audience. Word of mouth is far more powerful than a newspaper/blog critique. You’ll listen to your friend before some ‘stuck-up’ critic. So the artist doesn’t really have to worry about the critic (or get bummed when a review is unfavourable) Rather concentrate on audience perception.

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  3. Moose says:

    Can we have some examples Libby? ie. Which events were poorly served by Cue this year?

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  4. Libby says:

    Hi guys. Lizzy, you’re correct; apologies, with an awareness that if I want to make comments like this, they ought to be immaculate. So far as my thoughts here go, I’m mostly interested in the power we can access now through online media, and the criteria of a qualified critic. I don’t know what those are, but I wrote to question. Of course our audiences are our critics and main concern. Perhaps I was too weak in guiding the focus of the piece to the ways it has become easy for anyone to review anything, good or bad, and potentially swing said audience. As I said, I have no problem with criticism. I’m curious about who we deem appropriate to criticise work in a world where audiences take public forums quite seriously. Personally, I felt one of my interviews with a Cue journalist problematic. But I’m not keen on mud-slinging. They’re learning as I’m learning. Maybe you find my article confirms my own argument. I’m open to that irony. Feedback is constructive and we ought to draw our own conclusions.

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  5. alicia cheese says:

    There is only one sure recourse for this dilemma, and that is time. In time the weight of an original and truly inspiring piece of work will have repeatedly spoken for itself on its own terms and many lesser talents will have drawn from it. It will have bled into the ethos and consciousness of other artists and into the sensibilities of those who value good art. Time is the only real equaliser in the court of opinion and popular consumption.

    The point about the liberalisation of popular opinion via the internet being a detracting force from the ability to identify and herald good work in the here and now is valid, but I also see it as a balancing force against the forces of commercialisation and marketing that have dumbed-down the appreciation of creativity over the last few decades. So much mediocrity has forced itself into too many peoples’ headspace for too long, mainly because this process has been profitable rather than universally inspiring. These commercial forces have also distorted our ability to identify and appreciate better art – double whammy. There is tremendous value to be gained from finding a marginal online critic whose tastes match your own and using their reviews as a guideline to discovering work that you alone find special and unique. This will diversify the future of the art-world in ways that we had not previously considered possible.

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  6. Megan says:

    A good rule of thumb; I trust the blogger or critic. I will take someone’s word for it if they have earned credibility with me, regardless of their credentials. The problem with Grahamstown, and CUE, is that both the productions and the reviews are a case of hit-and-miss, with only the really well known performers and Grahamstown repeats getting a head start with audiences and ticket sales. Unfortunately, at the festival the trap of rubbish crits is further complicated by the fluctuating standards of good, brave, experimental, run-of-the-mill, safe, done before, under-funded and sensational. I went to see one of the ‘rave review’ ‘pick of the festival’ shows in a theatre here in Cape Town and was bored and disappointed.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    Responders: See also: Roland Barthes. See also: Irony.

    Thank you, Libby Allen. Finally.

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  8. Serin says:

    Thank you Libby. This is so so true.

    The Cue, a few years ago, used to boast a range of top guest Arts Journo’s from around the country. I remember when it used to be a very gratifying and stimulating read.

    This year saw some of the most inane, uninspired writing I have ever read. It made Rhodes look like it has been training their students to write for those free shopping centre rags you get at the check out till.

    The writers came off sounding like teeny bloggers grappling with things they simply didn’t understand.

    Since when are aspirant Journo’s entitled to be critics? Why should artists and theatre makers work be made guinea pigs to some first year Journalism 101 project? Such a shame that this is all The National Arts Festival can bother to offer, that this is the only commentary or engagement artists will receive on their work.

    It’s a slap in the face to the hundreds who bring work to the fest. The Cue kids were able to do some very serious damage this year to shows that deserved to be seen and supported.

    I resent the fact that new work is at the mercy of these precocious and sarky pens. Again this wouldn’t matter if the CUE held litte public sway but sadly it is too often used as the festival goers Bible.

    The National Arts Festival needs to review this issue pretty seriously. Invite exciting, provocative and experienced minds to write for them.

    Its also a hugely embarrassing blemish on the Rhodes Journalism depo’s cred.

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  9. Carl says:

    Sorry but why the hell does Micheal MacGarry keep popping up in all these Mahala Grahamstown articles? They have nothing to do with him yet there he is. Did he steal the camera or something and photograph himself around the town looking all tormented and broody.

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  10. Libby says:

    Michael Macgarry was one of the recipients of this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist award. So, relevant to any festival-related discussion. And no, I do not believe he stole Liam’s camera. Outstanding self-portraits if he did.

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  11. Anonymous says:

    I think it’s important to remember that, no matter how we feel about it, we are in an age where the internet and so on has made it possible for everyone to voice their opinion. Also an age where short and easy to consume is generally preferred over longwinded and knowledgable. People are quite happy to read those “What’s your favourite food?” type interviews rather than questions that require 5 minute answers.

    Granted, the Cue writers (or at least the Festival 50 writers) may not be the top calibre yet, and they may not be able to draw on a vast (and in many cases boring) knowledge of performance, but they have a valid opinion (even if we disagree or think it’s stupid), and they’re expressing it.

    I think you get that. It’s the fact that Cue is regarded as the festival bible that’s troubling.

    Does it need to be? Where are the “experts”? This is the 21st century. Everyone has a blog, including those experts. So why not promote them? I’m not sure if there’s a rule about posters for anything other than festival performances? Otherwise get the word out there, get a team of writers that you’re confident in and get them writing and promoting.

    Nafest.co.za this year had a festival-long blog with reviews; various regional reviewers had their blogs up, but very few people know about them. Maybe a flyer each day with 3 or 4 shows reviewed for a trifling sum of bronze coins? Or a few computers set up in the village green with links to collected reviews?

    I’ve found that theatre folk like to complain without getting proactive (You’ve at least got this onto a growing-in-popularity public forum, so that’s good). If we’re unhappy with something, we need to figure out how to change it positively, instead of accepting it. This is a first step, maybe somebody can take the next few before Fest 2011.

    If Cue has competition, that can only be a good thing.

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  12. taryn m says:

    Alicia, v applicable commentary. Thank you.
    Libby, thank you for that article. I hope it stirs more than mere debate.

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  13. clare mortimer says:

    Libby, vital that you raise this. Shows have died as a result of student journo’s not understanding or having a knowledge of what it is they are watching. I speak not only of genre and other yawns, but each has its own leisure. What is for one the utmost joy in a spot of late-night bawd, will perhaps not be the one to understand the demands of a similarly late-night Berkoff. Whilst one might relish in the whimsy of puppets and cloud, the other finds its soul in esoteric dance and sweat. That they ARE the bible as far as day and weekend trippers ( I speak of the Cue in 50 words) is concerned, has to be a worry. I could bang on about the acres of crap we may see in the town, and it is there, two horrid lines in the Cue for a really good show can cause ruin, by a person who simply did not know what he\she was watching.

    It is becoming urgent that this is raised. I do not speak from sour grapes, always done OK in GT, but I have had one experience where a “real” journo had to be sent and a glowing review placed the next day by way of apology. But given the fees, venue hire etc, can we afford to be written off?

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  14. Libby says:

    Anonymous, I like your thoughts. Artsblog, running off the festival’s site – the one you’ve mentioned – was, funnily enough, one of the reasons I felt compelled to write, as one of their most active reviewers was a teenager whose qualification to review appears to be ‘I’ve been to so many festivals’. I’ve been to so many rugby games – I could still report nothing but pithy, superficial stuff on them. I use rugby to art because of the relativity of it all. It is fine for young journalists to learn by writing, and gauging reader response, just as it is fine for young productions to learn by being performed, and gauging audience response. But it’s not balanced- the performers aren’t affecting the writers’ incomes as they learn. I agree that us theatre folk are prone to whinging (ours just another type of whinge round the office water cooler) and I also agree that diversifying the reviews and publications on offer can only be a good thing. I’d hope we could appeal to Cue and the bloggers (and anyone who writer who disregards accountability) first, though. And commit to our unrest in spaces like this and more, I hope, rather than leaving it at the idle whinge.

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  15. Libby says:

    Uh, I mean, ‘any writer who disregards…’ All this righteousness makes for messy fingers.

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  16. Anonymous says:

    Clare – any reviewer, even one who is considered an expert in their field, is going to have a final opinion. If well-respected reviewers were asked to do the Festival 50, they’d still have to condense their thoughts to 50 words, which would almost certainly cut out a lot of the more useful comments. Saying “this works in this way, but it doesn’t work in that way, but if you like this sort of thing then you should still go” is a tricky proposition in 50 words.

    The 2 line movie reviews in various papers are written by professionals, and still don’t really give us a sense of the movie. We glance at the bottom line – the number out of ten – and then make our decision based on that and whether we’re interested in that type of film.

    The Festival 50 is targeted at the more casual Grahamstown patron, the person who doesn’t have a clue who Berkoff or Brecht are. In a festival with such a huge number of shows, one little paper doesn’t have the resources or space to give thoughtful reviews to everything. A person who is a huge fan of Mamet is almost certainly going to watch a show of his work despite the review. Someone who watches a music review every other month in town is going to need some convincing.

    It’s sad that a few words can affect the income of a play, but unfortunately that’s how it works the world over (Except when it doesn’t – The Twilight movies…). The issue of how much power a critic has is a topic that I’ve seen debated in plenty of publications, but nobody seems to have found a solution.

    That’s why I think people need options. They flock to reviews, they want a bottom line, but if there’s several bottom lines to choose from, the shows have more chance of getting fairly dealt with. I don’t think Cue can be entirely blamed here.

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  17. Anonymous says:

    * Music “revue”, of course.

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  18. Steven says:

    Fantastically clever and artuculate article Libby, and stimulating reading all responses. Heratening to know that there are people who actually care enough about the arts to contribute.

    I have to add that the Cue did have some excellent professional critics writing over the Festival: Adrienne Sichel, Robyn Sassen and Christine Kennedy (to name a few…please excuse apalling spelling!) I admired these writer’s insights and honesty in tackiling a wide range of work in a very concentrated time.

    While I agree that careless words cost livlihoods, it is very difficult to quantify what ‘qualifies’ a critic. Of course attributes like experience in the field, knowledge of the subject, training all come into play, but ultimately, there is no universal watch-dog giving out SABS stamps of approval for critics. And so we artists are stuck with whoever is writing about us: the good and the very, very bad. Often these writers only priority is to sell newspapers, so bitchy or controversial coments abound, especially in countries like the UK and USA, with very little regard for the consequence to artists.

    Ultimately, artists rely on publicity. And arts writers rely on arttists to write about. IIts a symbiotic relationship. But not a symbiotic relationship such as that between say, an ox-pecker and a zebra …it is more like the relationship between a crocodile and a crocodile bird…the birds find food in the mouth of the predator, and the predator gets its teeth cleaned in return…but in the dangerous quest for food, the bird is constantly at risk of the unpredictable whim of its’ partner, which could crush it an any second, for no reason whatsoever.

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  19. Whyno? says:

    ‘I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.’
    Jean-Michel Basquiat

    Cue journalists, I hope – especially if you are first years – that you leanrt a ton whilst writing for Cue. Most importantly,that you do not want to be a critic. If you can do, don’t critique!

    ‘I don’t think the critics could understand what we were doing.’
    Jimmy Page

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  20. Sean says:

    Necessary thoughts, thank you. I liked your statement, “Brevity is not a fair companion to stakes of this height.”

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  21. Tony Lankester says:

    Hi All
    Just wanted to let you know that the Festival is following the debate here, having read Libby’s original article – so it hasn’t gone unnoticed. I’m not going to jump into the fray here, suffice to say that your comments are all noted and will form part of our ongoing discussions with Rhodes Journalism and our planning for next year.
    Not easy, but your comments will help guide our approach – so thanks.

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  22. lois says:

    I think this is very healthy and positive discussion. Tony thanks for taking note of this–it featured very heavily in several discussions I had with various artists and the festival this year. We applaud the festival for always being open for discussion and debate around such issues, for wanting to improve and better the system.

    Perhaps its time to create an independent alternative to the Cue. Maybe Mahala or some indie publication should lead the way. So much great stuff to engage with at the fest, so much more commentary, analysis, insight to be shared. The CUE falls short yearly in offering this. Lets stop Whinging and do something about it. Sadly an Online feed is not enough–in the daily rush of festival goers day, print and paper is still the most successful medium.

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  23. Anonymous too says:

    In 2009 The Cue published a scathing, pubescent review of The Game. The review bashed the production so badly that it developed a reputation. Ticket sales BENEFITED from the review.

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  24. alicia cheese says:

    The worst review that anyone can get is no review at all. Anomosity is preferable to obscurity.

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  25. Kretz says:

    Hi Libby.
    I’ll pin my colours to the mast and admit I was one of the team of Artsblog writers.
    The point about an online publication is that it allows immediate reader response, which is where the godlike role of the critic is diluted. Unfortunately comments were few and far between on Artsblog this year but there were some that questioned the reviewer, and others that validated what was written.
    Artists too, are welcome, in fact invited – actually we’re on our knees begging them – to also comment and tell the reviewer off if they felt criticism was unfair or due to misinterpretation of the performance. Comment and debate are crucial to making the online forum work for both audiences and performers (and the writers) to get maximum value.

    The addition of a teenage reviewer this year was a bit of an experiment, an attempt to connect with a large teenage audience at festival. There has been some criticism on this but I maintain it is not bad idea, it probably just needs to be better managed, the bias better communicated, perhaps.

    Finally, if Artsblog was embraced by the performers and audiences (and advertising and going mobile is key methinks), I believe it could be the answer to the authoritarian voice that the printed page assumes. The original idea was to have a conversation, initiated, but not controlled, by the writers.

    Oddly enough, it seemed to work better last year, which was it’s first, than this time around, but I think we’ll get it right…

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  26. Anonymous says:

    mr liam lynch’s pics have held more depth in the past.

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  27. Mike Loewe says:

    Mike Loewe here, Steve’s blogging partner in crime. I’ve been asked by Ismail to look at this. I have. It’s intense and wide-ranging. It’s precisely the kind of blood-curdling debate which has been missing from festival media for a number of years. It’s a pity that performers see themselves in such conflict with writers. Worse, is that there has been no space — until online media came along — for performers to vent, comment, discuss, discourse. We are working at that this year. I’ve met with Tony and we’d like to carry on this discussion where it counts — at festival. At this stage, it will be online, but hopefully we can reconnect the blog to a mobi site giving the access to comment and recourse. In fact, words such as “subversive” and “irreverent” have been tossed around. I’ve invited Andy to join a group of arts journalists, or professional critics, to start the discussion. I suspected it was already out here online, because after attending 17 festivals, I am acutely aware that it takes place every year, same place, same time. I find it inspiring — that is if we journalists survive the sharp words and weapons aimed and fired in our direction! I am in agreement that a great piece of performance will outlive by far any negative or poorly written review/revue whateva. But it’s always better for performers to read a piece and say or feel that the insights provided by the critic are, at the very least, true — or as close to it as seems possible. We have genius at work on our stage, and yes, there is crap too. Journalism is a vast profession. I’m happy to call myself a festival journalist, a vibe writer, and I’m more than happy to stick that out there, upfront, when blogging. Ironically, we hacks are also judged harshly by our audience, which includes you fokkers, and that’s what makes the whole fest emporium such an inspiration. I’ve never heard journalists ask performers if they have the correct qualifications, experience, insight or talent to get out onto the stage. So, does I have to have a licence to view your work? Do I need to wear a T which states: “Media: Be warned I have attended 17 festivals in a row, but that does not make me a critic!” Or how about: “Performer-accredited arts critic!”. Freedom cuts both ways here. The greatest irony is that arts journalists love performing artists. I mean really love them, blood, guts, sabre-tongues and the lot. But who cares? The public are swayed by reviews. And so what if a journalist writes like a member of the audience? They are the people. They will decide no matter what we say or write, whether you moved or transcended them. Or if your art is worth telling someone else about. It’s tiresome to hear performers patronise people. It’s such a love-hate thing. I’ve watched festival since 1986. I’ve loved growing and changing with it. It’s been thrilling to observe how festival remains regime-resistant, a place of free expression, of art. It’s brilliant to see how a younger audience has come to adopt festival as a life-changing, must-do, part-of-me experience. So much to inspire — while around us, not so much. Neither hack, nor performer should ever be allowed to fuck with that space.

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  28. Megan says:

    I dunno Mike
    A year later is a bit late to pick up the argument. And again, I think the point is missed. I am both a performer and ‘self appointed critic’; I write a blog, http://www.meganshead.co.za, where I give as good as I get. The point is quite simply that the festival is not prepared to put money into the writing of festival reviews and so the quality is uneven, erratic, the opinions uninformed, the shows badly dished out to inappropriate writers, and there is no way of knowing ‘from whence it comes’. An example: I have a reputation. People know who I am and what I like. They know if they usually agree with me, and if they do they can rely on my recommendation. Most performers put so much into getting their work to the festival; and it is damn hard, outrageously expensive, back breaking, soul frying stuff. To have the Neil Diamond review lauded and given five stars by the same person who called my play boring is hard.
    Performers are desperate that their stuff is liked. But to give an arbitrary somebody a chance to comment, and sometimes let that be the only comment, and the make or break of a festival show seems irresponsible.
    PS. I am still talking about the shitty little daily that is printed. On line reviews for Grahamstown haven’t seemed to feature for the performers or festival audiences yet.

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  29. Tony says:

    Let me add something….Megan, I want to respond to your statement “the festival is not prepared to put money into the writing of festival reviews”

    That is quite simply incorrect. We do. And a lot of money too. And effort and time and thought. Be careful of falling into the “uninformed opinions” category you rail against. Check your facts.

    But that’s only half my response. The other half is this (and I ask the question to be provocative): Should the Festival use its money to fund arts journalism? Surely that is what other bodies exist for – journalism schools, organisations like the MDDA, the National Arts Council etc etc. Yes, it is good for the industry to have strong, good, robust arts journalism. But it is also good for the media to have strong arts pages, good for sponsors who get exposure for their investment, and good for artists who get exposure for their work in the media. So why does it fall on the Festival’s shoulders to fund when so many others also stand to benefit? And if organisations like the Festival allocate their resources to all industries/sectors that surround the event, we may end up spreading ourselves too thin and not leaving enough to spend on the main reason for our existence: the staging of the Festival. We’ll end up funding arts journalists, crafter training projects, design initiatives, marketing training, caterers who provide food backstage, seamstresses who make costumes…and on and on and on. Where do we draw the line?

    Gradually all that associated spend adds up to the kind of money that would fund one, two, three productions to come to the Festival. So how should we spend our money, then?

    I said I was asking the question to be provocative. And I am. Clearly I think there is value in spending on training a new generation of arts writers or else we wouldn’t do it. But I don’t think everyone should assume “it happens in Grahamstown in June and so the Festival must pay for it”.

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  30. Megan says:

    You are right Tony, I am sorry. When I referred to the festival I meant it as a generic term for the whole shebang, and it was uninformed, and I fell into that trap. I do want to be clear though. I wasn’t suggesting you spend money training young new journalists, (or training any young anythings for that matter) I was suggesting that you find a way of getting more stuff from good, well known ones. You make a good point too about how and what you shouldn’t be spending your money on, but we don’t always have a clear sense of what it is being spent on.

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