It sort of started with an article on ArtsHub when Jane Montgomery Griffiths responded to critics’ reviews of her text (and performance in), Antigone. Her argument was that there was a gendered response to it. She went on to contextualise her practice, her research and the way in which men often find women they can’t explain away or dismiss troubling. Then the comments started rolling in (the discussion section is filled with additional commentary). Then the commentators took to twitter, as they are wont to do, and the conversation drifted slightly away from gender and towards artists engaging publically in their own or other people’s practice. And then Jane Howard made a bold point (not dissimilar to her one recorded by The Lifted Brow earlier in the year) “if you want your work recorded into history, I think in 2015 that’s the artist’s responsibility”. So, as I sat at my MacBook Pro pretending to be Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder, is this really the case?
The answer is of course; it’s not that simple. My immediate hesitation is that an artist writing about themselves and their work comes across as vain and as though it needs to be justified (maybe it does). The second issue is that many artists use quotes in their subsequent advertising and for grant applications, so to be quoting yourself is a little odd. And finally, if the artist is making the art, should they also have to be the ones writing about it?
However, to use a recent example, given just how many shows there were at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, it seems rather cumbersome to expect a handful of critics and reviewers to cover the lot of them. I felt like, despite the hard work of many, there was a dearth of critical engagement with the myriad productions on show over the past couple of weeks; and there were some outstanding shows. Major publications like The Age and The Herald Sun can hardly fit in a couple of hundred words for every show in a dozen, which means they’re limited in their capabilities too. So how much is going unrecorded?
The truth is, major print publications have been dwindling in circulation for some time—this is hardly a revelation—and as they continue to do so, theatre criticism is and will be further pushed aside. While there is a certain thrill in having a review published, the time seems ripe for a renaissance of online theatre criticism, more on that later. The birth, of course, came with the advent of the blog and was helmed by the likes of Alison Croggon and her site Theatre Notes, preserved in its glory online. Theatre Notes is worth exploring, not only for its historicity, but also because of the stoushes between herself and other critics, (infamously) like Cameron Woodhead—who is still reviewing at The Age—other (at the time) burgeoning theatre writers—such as Jana Perkovic—established playwrights—like Ross Mueller—and charts the rise of numerous individuals, including; Declan Greene, Simon Stone, and Anne Louise Sarks (off the top of my head) as well as many, many more. Although there seems to be less enthusiasm about blogs than there has been in the past, it feels as though there is a change in the air as people become more and more invested in documentation and the possibilities of other mediums.
First though, it’s understandable that after the initial excitement about blogs, there was a lapse towards cynicism. It seemed as though the only blogs worth paying attention to were the ones written by those already published in major publications anyway, so the sudden ‘democratisation’ that was foretold never eventuated. In addition, with no financial remuneration it can be difficult to continue maintaining a blog, and consistency is often key in these kinds of ventures — not to mention the ticket prices; it may have actually been costing people to keep it running. And finally, the question of, ‘is anybody really reading this’ crept into people’s minds and many abandoned their online writing. Of course, there are famous exceptions to the dwindling blog scene, though these are normally nefarious, such as Diva Knows Best and SOYP.
There seems to me now to be a growing maturity in theatre criticism in Australia. There are still the entertaining smack-downs thanks to Byron Bache; a form that appears within most critical landscapes. However, there is also the considered response from the artist his or herself — see the first link in this piece, for example. And although we often crave to be included in a published newspaper, there are numerous other avenues to explore as well. Jana Perkovic writes a column called The Critic for The Lifted Brow (you’ll have to forgive me for mentioning them twice, I do their social media, but I also maintain that they are very good); Jane Howard blogs regularly for Kill Your Darlings and has written some incredibly personal, articulate entries on a range of topics and issues facing artists today; Perkovic (again!) maintains a podcast with Fleur Kilpatrick where they interview critics, artists, and cultural commentators alike, which is well worth a listen for some in depth analysis; Kilpatrick maintains a blog, which comes at theatre and criticism from a range of places, including a remarkable dialogue with Cameron Woodhead after he gave her play The City They Burned a mixed review; or even Julian Meyrick’s long read articles for The Conversation. These are just some examples of the way that theatre criticism and therefore documentation is changing in Australia. There are in fact several other online sites worth checking out and I encourage you to seek them out. I wonder if it is worth noting the prevalence of strong female voices in this space, although, that might be saying more about me.
To return to the initial point, is it the artists’ responsibility to be reviewing others’ work? Ultimately, it can’t hurt. Until there is some kind of body supporting critics and criticism—Criticism-writing Australia, major performing companies themselves, the now-only-maybe-happening National Programme for Excellence in the arts? —It would seem that there is plenty of scope and potential for more artists to engage in a wide range of critical styles. After all, if we don’t, who will?