Tuesday, September 29, 2009

We Interrupt This Programming...

... For a blog treatise.  Of sorts.

It occurred to me recently that what I’m trying to do with this blog – besides record the shows I see in my Year of Plays – is to discover whether it’s possible to talk about art without reviewing it.  I’m not sure yet whether it is.  In my posts thus far, I’ve tried very hard not to engage in the kinds of criticism one typically finds in reviews, but I haven’t succeeded completely.  And yet I find myself still needing to try.

See, I have a compelling desire to talk about art.  To share what I think and hear what other’s think.  I love having conversations with friends about what movies and plays they’ve seen, what books they’ve read, what other art they’ve encountered.  In these conversations, we are replete with colorful opinions and thoughtful critique.  We are not concerned about sounding self-important, or worried about egos, because the conversation is private and we are among people trust.  So honesty and insight abound.

But the game changes once the conversation goes public.  Once you go public, those conversations become reviews, and the knowledge that other people are hearing this alters the very nature of what is said.  The folks who do the talking (reviewers) start trying to sound clever or wise, or they mince words and whitewash their true opinions.  The folks who get talked about (artists) are subjected to public appraisal, which monkeys with the ego and prevents them from hearing any valuable feedback.  The end result, at least for me, is that reviews are untrustworthy, potentially dangerous, and not very useful – except to get butts in seats.

But I want to talk about art!  With a lot of people!  I want to talk about art with everyone, and I want the conversation everywhere, in private and in public!  Art is important.  And it should be talked about.  I want artists to hear all sorts of opinions and thoughts about their work – because then they will make more art in response!  I want non-artists to hear conversations about art – because then they might make some art of their own!  We need more art!

So can we have a public conversation about art without the entanglements of reviews?  Can we have a thoughtful, critical, entertaining, and honest discourse, without stepping on toes or inflating egos?  If we can, what does that conversation look like?  What do we talk about?  Do we speak only positively or neutrally?  Do we avoid offering any opinions at all?  That seems nearly impossible, and the effort seems bound to produce conversation that is hopelessly bland and inert.  But maybe I’m wrong.  Or maybe the point is not to avoid making judgments, but to alter the way we make them.  Who knows?  I certainly don’t.  At least not yet.  But if it’s possible at all to thread this needle – to speak honestly and insightfully about art, while remaining impeccable with one’s word, while generating material that is still entertaining and useful – I’m determined to find out how to do it.  And this blog is where I’m taking my first stab.

(P.S. – Maybe I’m being to hard on reviews and reviewers.  I’m sure there are many dedicated critics out there who contribute positively to the public discourse about art.  Who manage to check their own egos at the door and who have the guts to stand by their opinions, regardless of how their opinions affect others.  I just know I’m not made out of that kind of cloth.  My ego is both too unruly and too sensitive for such affairs!)


  1. Perhaps the issue is risk. Risk for others that they will get their feelings hurt. Risk for you that people will see you in a light you don't like. But art is risk--period. And errors of omission can be just as consequential as errors of commission. Today, I think the dialog on art is challenged both by too mahy errors of omission, soemthign you are trying to address is this blog, as well as by too many ego-driven errors of commission, the kind you are appropriately distancing yourself from. Maybe we can all learn from Charlotte: "Be humble" but also take the time to point out "Some pig!"

  2. Indeed I think this is very to the point. I see that part of my journey on this blog is to acclimate myself to the necessary risks involved in keeping a dialogue about art alive. Which will in turn strengthen my ability to risk as an artist.

    As any good teacher or director or artist knows, we must feel safe in order to risk. So perhaps my desire is to create a space for dialogue that feels inherently safe, which means creating parameters (such as being impeccable with one's word and avoiding ego-driven intentions) that help to keep it so.

  3. It's always been my opinion that a big part of art is the intention of the artist. So maybe, when 'talking about art,' we talk about the intention of the artwork. The review comes in, it would seem, when we determine whether or not the intention was fulfilled. But the more important part of the work is what it puts (or attempts to put) out in the world. So, perhaps the conversation you are look for exists by asking the questions: Why was the peice trying to do? Why? What does that mean for this 'world'? INSTEAD of: What did this piece DO and how successful was it?

  4. Yes I like this idea. However, the challenge is that the intention of the artist is so often obscure. We can infer an artist's intention from their work, but only the artist will know and be able to correct us if we are wrong. We could then say it doesn't matter whether we are right or wrong in determining the "why" of a piece, that it only matters what we understood the "why" to be. But then look at how we determine that -- we determine an artist's intention by processing what they present to us, and it seems the only way we can do that is by evaluating what the art DOES to us. I don't think there's anything wrong with evaluating what art DOES. But taking that next step and deciding how successful it is at what it does -- perhaps that's the part I find issue with.

  5. Anna,

    What a great idea for a blog. I applaud you in this endeavor and look forward to reading your posts. Don't forget you can always read a play if you have to miss a week - though that may not jive with the live theater aspect of the blog.
    I saw Our Town as well, and think that the moments you are talking about, and the produciton as a whole, are a great example of the director in action. He really found and honored the simplicity of the script and story, which brought about these human moments.
    I don't know if this pertains to discourse about art, but I read all of the reviews in the Times and other publications before going to see a show - to give myself some idea of whether I'll like it or if its worth dropping the cash for (esp. B'way). Then I buy tickets and drag my boyfriend to the show. But I'm realizing that I totally envy him;he goes to these shows knowing little to nothing about them, having read no one's opinion of the play, direction, or actors, and gets to be surprised by the play. I find that I'm always looking for a moment that was described in what I read to judge if it is as funny/sad/etc. as the reviewer made it out to be. But I find it hard to stop reading them, sometimes it is the best way to follow what is happening in the idustry.
    Anyway, keep it up! Looking forward to following your journey!

  6. Julian, I also use reviews in the same way you do, to figure out whether something is worth going to and to stay connected to what's happening in the industry. What I've found is that, as a theatergoer, I always take the reviews at face value. If the reviews say it's good then I believe it's good and I want to go see it, if they say it's bad, I decide to skip it. But then when I see the "good" shows, sometimes they're not as great as the reviewer made them out to be. Which then makes me think that there must have been a bunch of "bad" shows I skipped that I might have really liked. It's like I forget that reviews are just one person's opinion. As a performer, on the other hand, I'm constantly telling myself that reviews don't mean anything and that they're just one person's point of view. No point here, really, just that I find it an interesting and puzzling thing.

    Thanks for writing and for the support!