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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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