Posted by: Seth Nehil
I headed into T:BA as a blogger thinking about DK Row’s Oregonian article and Tim DuRoch’s response. It had me considering notions of accessibility, difficulty and exclusiveness in contemporary performance. I don’t think DK’s original argument was very productive. I mean, really – how can you begin to compare a collection of dance, theater and performance works (not to mention the concerts, lectures and installations, etc.) to a Trailblazers game? They’re like different worlds and each has its place. But I guess it’s a bitter truth that absurd, ignorant or outrageous postings do generate conversation in a comments section (…well, not exactly conversation, more like a chain of related monologues) while thoughtful or elegant articles are (hopefully) read and appreciated, but tend to lie dormant.
I headed into the act of writing criticism this year feeling very ambivalent about the role of the critic. Is it really our job to influence people’s opinions? I often doubt that minds can be changed at all, and certainly not through the direct consequence of some critic’s loquacity. If DK is really concerned about inviting a broader public into T:BA, then why not write an article which lets a potential audience know about pieces they might best enjoy. Something like an “easy-o-meter” which might guide viewers to works that match their level of interest.
We have to admit that different works are made for different audiences. Audiences don’t necessarily overlap – and that’s ok! We can acknowledge that some work takes training to appreciate. These works might require curiosity, diligence and self-education on the part of the viewer. The reward for this effort is the pleasure of new experience, new ways of seeing, a shift away from habitual modes of understanding.
As I think about writing criticism, I get caught in an epistemological quandary. How do I know that what I know is worth knowing? In response to this problem, I have been thinking about the way criticism might engage a root subjectivity. This would be expressed through a recognition of one’s own subjective experience, while allowing for an infinity of other subjectivities, all co-existing and overlapping. This would mean approaching a work on its own terms, not attacking it for being something it isn’t. It would mean examining one’s own bias, experience and perspective and positioning oneself in complicated relationship to a work, rather than judging based on predetermined conditions and absolute definitions. It’s a difficult or perhaps impossible task, but I think critics owe this to the intelligence of their readers.
Difficult art requires attention. Attention is the gift we give ourselves in approaching and understanding the artist’s intentions, convictions and ideas. Attention is built upon a foundation of basic commitment. We commit ourselves to a work, in an exchange with the artist(s) who commit themselves to an act of communication. I’m becoming more and more convinced that commitment is the key term in the exchange between artist and audience. It is commitment which opens up the possibility of pleasure through attention.
Should critics write about work to which they are not committed? Does a negative review actually help readers? I would be curious to hear other people’s thoughts.