If you didn’t happen to see it rolling around social media or on Artsjournal.com last week, Carolina Performing Arts’ festival, The Commons, experimented with a new model of criticism. Their reflections on the process appeared under the attention getting title of, “Uh, We Sort of Made an Arts-Criticism Utopia? Here’s What We Learned.”
What they did was pretty simple, but more resource and labor intensive than most media outlets have invested. They assigned two critics to a show, one who was embedded for the entire creation process, and another who only saw the final product.
The premise was that critical documentation is at once changing in form, diminishing in frequency, and urgently needed. And it’s not just documentation of performances that is needed, but also of the work and conversation that surrounds and sustains them.
My read on their process was that since the traditional media sources for arts criticism were divesting themselves of the practice, there is room to re-imagine what it means to discuss the merits of an event/performance/work. Part of the re-imagining seems to be examining what the critic, artists, and readership are really looking for from a critique. In the process, a lot of old rules are ripe for being broken.
The Commons Crit was designed to test several hypotheses, which we raised again at the start of the roundtable: that criticism should not always be beholden to a coverage model; that critics should have the space and freedom to experiment; that critics and artists are allies, not adversaries; that artistic process deserves as much attention as the final product; and that artists have legitimate ideas about who can authentically represent the cultural perspective of their work.
In journalism, it’s a no-no to let an artist pick their reviewer, but in The Commons, to a large extent, we did. At least, we consulted the writers about what sort of person would be an apt conduit for their cultural perspective. For example, Victoria and Stephanie—accomplished writers, but not performance critics—were selected for their fluency in Spanish and border issues, while Chris and Michaela built upon longstanding relationships with Justin. For Eb. Brown, a male African-American embedded writer was essential, but it would take the perspective of a female African-American writer (Danielle Purifoy) to round out the performance’s meaning.
The thing is, in my very first blog post over 15 years ago I linked to an opinion piece by Chris Lavin, “Why Arts Coverage Should Be More Like Sports,” where he basically calls for exactly the rule breaking relationship the Carolina Performing Arts Festival has engaged in.
And, in my experience, many arts critics see themselves as critics first, story-tellers second. Some actually keep a distance from the performers, directors and theater executives to “”preserve their objectivity.” Getting the full range of stories that capture the drama of making art is difficult even if the arts organizations were interested in seeing that full-range of stories. I’m not sure they really are.
When compared to the open access a sports franchise allows, most arts organizations look like a cross between the Kremlin and the Vatican. Casting is closed. Practices closed. Interviews with actors and actresses limited and guarded. An athlete who refuses to do interviews can get fined. An actor or actress or director or composer who can’t find time for the media is not uncommon. How would a director take to a theater critic watching practice and asking for his/her early analysis of the challenges this cast faces with the material — the relatively strengths and weaknesses of the lead actor, the tendencies of the play write to resist rewriting?
I will confess that one of my first thoughts was whether this model could be sustainable –until, of course, I remembered this was one of the very first topics I wrote about on the blog and many places have found a way to sustain their sports reporting.
I think what would help make it sustainable is writers who are adept at the storytelling aspect of the job. Audiences are ready to accept the opinions of people on social media whom they have never met so the value of a certified objective opinion has greatly diminished.
When it comes to sports, people are more than ready to identify with a good story and argue its merits with their neighbors without worrying overly much about the objective truths of the matter. The arts are much more about storytelling than sports. There are no statistics about a dancer’s range of motion at the matinee versus the evening performance to bog the conversation down.
You can read the reviews on The Commons Crit page. One of the things that is somewhat confusing for the first time visitor is that there is no clear delineation between what appears to be preview pieces and the the reviews. The reviews have both the thoughts of the embedded writer and one-time writer in one place, but there are also other stories by the embedded writer about that same event. (Here is another such pairing.) If you are coming to the site to figure out what your experience might be, it can be difficult to determine, but that is an easy matter of labeling.