There has been a lot of talk about criticism lately asking what it is, why is it important, what is the difference between “good” criticism and “bad” criticism and who gets to do it, anyway? This is understandable for many, many reasons, not least of which is that the general tone of discourse in our culture is at an extraordinary low while the need for thoughtful criticism is at an all-time high. We live in incredibly complicated times that require examination and circumspection. Yet things have devolved to the point that a political campaign can literally reject truth as a criteria for making allegations and a state political party platform can reject the teaching of values clarification and critical thinking skills in schools; ignorant pugnacity in the pursuit of extremism passes for discourse in the public realm and people communicate their approval through clicking a “like” button. At the same time the traditional hierarchies for determining the “legitimacy” of critics have begun to fail. Att the risk of endlessly re-stating the obvious, the internet has changed everything and it has mostly demonstrated the truth of two time-honored sentiments:
- “Opinions are like pieholes, everyone has one.”
- “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
Yes, the internet has enabled many intelligent, thoughtful people to share their ideas and insights on countless things, but it has also created the very serious problem of having conversations regularly reduced to the least common denominator. For most of us this is now a fact of life that merely demands that we be more discerning in whose opinions we trust and more prudent about who we engage in conversation. For others, it seems to be an existential threat. Michael Kaiser, hysterically over-reacting to the emancipation of the great unwashed, ruffled feathers when in an essay on The Huffington Post he stated:
“… the growing influence of blogs, chat rooms and message boards devoted to the arts has given the local professional critic a slew of competitors…Many arts institutions even allow their audience members to write their own critiques on the organizational website. This is a scary trend.”
Suffice it to say that we here at Culturebot vehemently disagreed with him on several levels – one, the presumption that arts audiences are too ignorant and uninformed to have thoughtful opinions; two, that institutions should be opaque, resistant to change and indifferent to the opinions of their audiences and three, that there is any longer such as thing as a “professional critic” in mainstream arts journalism. I am not going to completely re-hash our responses in this essay; you can read Jeremy’s response here and my response here. One key issue though is Kaiser’s dismissal of “amateurs” and his outmoded and unrealistic attachment to the idea of a critic vetted and approved by the socially empowered arbiters of distinction, that approval being largely specious to begin with. As I say in my response, it is worth noting that “amateurs” in the 21st Century are frequently quite knowledgeable:
Are we amateurs? No. Kaiser’s derogatory use of the term indicates a startling lack of respect for audience members and a lack of knowledge about the composition of that audience. He might be surprised to learn how many people in the audience actually know what they are talking about. Not everyone can afford to get a Master’s in arts admin, criticism, dance, theater, etc. only to come into a job market where your best option is a $30K/year, 60hr/wk job in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Much less take time off from their life to study with Kaiser in the Kennedy Center Fellowship for Arts Management. Thus the established arts infrastructure tends to skew to people who are either willing to live penuriously or have other resources to draw on.
Even fewer people can make a living as an artist.
So the audience for the arts – and the people who are passionate enough to frequent cultural institutions, comment on their sites or start their own blogs – are frequently educated, knowledgeable, committed individuals who, you know, have actual jobs. They are artists and former artists, they are friends and families of artists, they are people who grew up or into an appreciation of the arts for any number of reasons but because of the necessities of making a living are relegated to “amateur” status. Sure there are some ill-informed writers and commenters out there, but as I’ve watched arts writing on the internet evolve over the past eight years I’ve been surprised by the quality of writing, the knowledge of the writers and the vitality of the discussion.
You can also read my account of a panel I participated in at the Dance Critics Association where I articulate the difference between reviewers and critics and the underlying assumptions of print vs. new media.
But on some level I owe Kaiser a debt of gratitude, because he compelled me to closely examine what we do at Culturebot, why we have always been different, why what we do is important and how we can do it better. This line of inquiry has been very fruitful, not only in defining and improving Culturebot’s critical practice, but in opening up a deep conversation about the role of the critic, the nature of spectatorship (Ranciere, et al) and the transformative potential of the arts. Fortunately Jeremy has been keeping things going on the editorial front and been an invaluable sounding board, resource and collaborator as we tease out these questions looking for answers. Culturebot has been doing what we do for almost nine years and now we are finally explaining it. Over the past year we have published (and will continue to publish) a series of essays articulating the challenges and promises of the changing arts landscape. The essay you are currently reading will propose a new framework for the critic in this emerging landscape and a vision for how that role can facilitate change and innovation sector-wide.
WHAT IS A CRITIC?
Many people have taken on this question of late. Daniel Mendehlson’s recent manifesto on The New Yorker blog, which I encourage you to read in its entirety, has some thoughtful insights. While we don’t entirely agree with his positions, there are two in particular that resonate:
“The serious critic ultimately loves his subject more than he loves his reader—a consideration that brings you to the question of what ought to be reviewed in the first place. When you write criticism about literature or any other subject, you’re writing for literature or that subject, even more than you’re writing for your reader: you’re adding to the accumulated sum of things that have been said about your subject over the years. If the subject is an interesting one, that’s a worthy project. Because the serious literary critic (or dance critic, or music critic) loves his subject above anything else, he will review, either negatively or positively, those works of literature or dance or music—high and low, rarefied and popular, celebrated and neglected—that he finds worthy of examination, analysis, and interpretation. To set interesting works before intelligent audiences does honor to the subject. If you only write about what you think people are interested in, you fail your subject—and fail your reader, too, who may in the end find himself happy to encounter something he wouldn’t have chosen for himself.”
This is the heart of what we have always strived to do here, to identify those things that we find “worthy of examination, analysis, and interpretation” and “set interesting works before intelligent audiences”. We are passionate about the work we cover and want to share it with intelligent, engaged audiences. We are not in the business of being a consumer advocate for Joe Ticketbuyer, we are facilitating discourse.
Secondly, Mendelsohn asserts:
The role of the critic, I repeat, is to mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience; to educate and edify in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way.
I would add to this assertion by suggesting that the critic be deeply informed and widely accessible, which is something we strive to do here at Culturebot. This is probably where we part ways with Mendelsohn, in that I suspect he is suggesting, like Kaiser, that a “real” critic must receive the imprimatur of legitimacy from the appropriate cultural “authorities”.
In contrast, Culturebot has been working to cultivate a critical voice that embraces subjectivity and the informality/intimacy of the internet – its humor, irreverence and informality – while acknowledging the need for intellectual rigor. Our critical endeavor is not about reviewing, it is not about what the writer did or didn’t like – it is about information, examination and exegesis; creating context by connecting the work at hand to larger ideas, to historical and aesthetic precedents and to the world in which we live.
In a related essay in the New York Times entitled “A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical“, Dwight Garner proposes:
Marx understood that criticism doesn’t mean delivering petty, ill-tempered Simon Cowell-like put-downs. It doesn’t necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It’s at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human.
Interestingly, Garner uses the word “love” in a similar way to Mendelsohn. This may be a contentious idea (and the fact that it resonates with me may have more to do with my Jewishness than anything else) but criticism is an act of love. It means you care enough to devote time, energy and thought to really paying attention, to taking the work seriously, to asking questions and having a meaningful conversation that will, hopefully, support your audience in having a considered life; one in which ideas, aesthetics and morality matter, one where art is a forum for parsing the complexities of human experience and guiding us towards right action. Does this love of art or these qualities of personality require the imprimatur of a cultural hierarchy to be realized in the public sphere? Because in a very real sense the critic is a public intellectual, someone who is passionately devoted to a life of the mind as a means for deepening lived experience generally, serving as an expositor and mediator between the artistic endeavor and the audience. More on this later.
CRITICISM IN THE 21st CENTURY
The first step of re-framing the critic in the 21st century is to abandon the reviewer-based model of criticism predicated on traditional consumer print media. I am not going to completely re-state Culturebot’s concept of critical horizontalism here. For a fuller explanation please read this essay. In brief what I am advocating is the following:
Culturebot proposes a new framework for arts criticism that we refer to as “critical horizontalism”. In this framework criticism is a creative practice unto itself and the writer exists in subjective relation to the work of the artist. The writer’s response is the continuation of a dialogue initiated by the artist. If this response is then published on the Internet, this creates a horizontal field of discourse with the work. This model resists the commodification of the performing arts as “entertainment” but rather situates it as time-based art. The performance itself is an ephemeral nexus where audience, artist and ideas converge. The critic supports the continued investigation of the art event across multiple platforms.
The practical implementation of this is expressed in the idea of “embedded criticism”, something we recently explored in our Exit Art project and a term that has been used more frequently of late. (Andrew Haydon discusses it thoughtfully here.) Embedded Criticism further removes the writer from the traditional arts journalism model by encouraging the writer to engage with the artist’s process over time in the dual role of dramaturg and expositor. In this arrangement a writer is attached to a given project and works internally as dramaturg and sounding board throughout the life cycle of the project. At the same time the writer is responsible for writing about and documenting the process in a public-facing way on the Internet and through “horizontal” audience engagement strategies. Alternately a writer may be embedded in a presenting institution and serve this function with multiple artists over the course of a season. In fact, our advocacy of this methodology has its origins in Culturebot’s initial iteration as in-house blog of Performance Space 122 where we worked closely with artists throughout their creative process, sharing that with audiences and colleagues alike to enhance outreach and community engagement.
This notion of embedded criticism is not entirely new, of course. I haven’t read the collected essays in Doug Borwick’s book Building Communities, Not Audiences, I would assume that this idea is represented in there somewhere. The idea of an organizational critic-in-residence has been prototyped at the Cleveland Orchestra, though from here it looks like this is more of a gussied-up marketing tactic than actual dramaturgy or criticism, and I haven’t found any reporting on the success or outcome of the initiative. Danspace Project currently has a scholar-in-residence, Jenn Joy. In conversation with my old friend and colleague Gwydion Suilebhan, I learned that the theater folks in Washington, D.C. have started to use the term “auditurgy” to describe “The process of providing theatre audiences with context regarding a theatrical piece prior to seeing the show without spoilers” which is probably a little closer to what Culturebot is proposing. The key distinction is in the particulars of implementation, which I will more fully articulate in a later section of this essay.
Culturebot’s conception of the embedded critic also implies a re-positioning and re-imagining of the performing arts “presenting” institution in the culture at large, layering the ideas of Harold Skramstad’s seminal 1999 essay “An Agenda for American Museums In the 21st Century” (10MB PDF download here) onto performing arts institutions. Skramstad asserts:
The great age of collection building in museums is over. Now is the time for the next great agenda of museum development in America. This agenda needs to take as its mission nothing less than to engage actively in the design and delivery of experiences that have the power to inspire and change the way people see both the world and the possibility of their own lives. We have many practical institutions to help us work through our day-to-day problems. We have enough educational institutions that focus on training us to master the skills we need to graduate from school and get a job. Yet we have too few institutions that have as their goal to inspire and change us. American museums need to take this up as their new challenge. Up to now much of their time has been devoted to building their collections and sharing them through to the larger world. Now they must help us create the new world of in-reach in which people, young and old alike, can reach in to museums though experiences that will help give value and meaning to their own lives and at the same time stretch and enlarge their perceptions of the world.
Culturebot’s primary field of interest is contemporary performance and as such the notion of an embedded critic seems more viable in that context. Institutions that support contemporary performance, whether tending towards theater, dance, “live art” or the undefinable, tend to embrace a more investigative approach to the commissioning, development and presentation of work than institutions dedicated to more traditional modes of producing and presenting existing repertory from the canon. One hopes that this idea of embedded criticism will gain traction throughout the performing arts sector, but it seems most likely to thrive, initially, amongst contemporary arts centers and festivals.
Another component of this re-framing is perhaps a bit more esoteric but, in my reading, nonetheless essential. In an earlier essay available here, I discuss the different aesthetic propositions of different kinds of performance. In brief, I assert that the nature of engagement and attention demanded of the audience by contemporary performance is fundamentally different than that of other kinds of more entertainment-oriented performance. This is important because in this context, as has been asserted elsewhere, the audience’s engagement with the performance begins as soon as they hear about it and continues until they no longer think about it. This is a belief that I have long held and continue to have re-affirmed, most recently through the final performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Park Avenue Armory. I was profoundly moved by way the ensemble subtly entered the space, performed with grace and transcendence and then undramatically concluded, leaving the space with a quiet, understated humility. It was not an ending, it was a caesura. To me the unified aesthetic experience of the entire production reinforced the notion that the dance is always there. For a specific moment in space/time the performers, the audience and the artist’s ideas come together, we focus our collective attention to make the work manifest, and then it vanishes back into the ether. But it is never really gone, it is just disembodied and abstract, living in memory and mind, waiting to reappear.
So let’s start there: the actual performance is only a blip (an important blip, but merely a moment nonetheless) on a much larger creative arc of investigation. Let’s re-imagine the performing arts institution as an “engager”, not merely a “presenter” and let’s re-frame the critic within the institution or within the artist’s creative process rather than on the outside passing judgement. In this new world, what does this new critic actually do?
ON BEING A 21st CENTURY CRITIC
Building on Mendelsohn’s idea of the critic as mediator between artist and audience and Culturebot’s framework of “critical horizontalism” as outlined above, we propose that the contemporary critic expand their text-based responsive practice to include three new functions:
These functions, taken together, form the foundational work of the 21st Century Critic. So what do these terms mean and what is the work?
Here when we speak of dramaturgy we are referring to a mutually beneficial collaborative relationship between differently-tasked generative artists. The dramaturge is an intellectual and aesthetic companion engaging in constructive inquiry and investigation alongside the director, choreographer, designers and performers. At the same time the critic/dramaturge is a scribe and documentarian. In the digital age this means assembling video and audio documentation of the process as well as generating text-based analysis and exegesis. The critic/dramaturge may assemble a bibliography as well and ALL of this material, thoughtfully edited and arranged, can be shared on the internet. More on that later.
It is incumbent on aspiring critics to reassess the practice of dramaturgy in the Information Age. The way we relate to information has been profoundly changed by the internet, both practically and aesthetically. Google was invented in no small part due to a desire by its founders to invert and innovate the traditional system of citation in academic research. For that matter, anyone who has been involved in web design has had to learn how to create Information Architecture documents. Website are built using something called “the document object model” that is far too complicated to go into here but basically is a way of assembling information (code, content, scripts, data) from multiple sources in one place.These are new ways of approaching, analyzing and structuring the relationships between information and how we engage with it. The web has revolutionized experience design and user interfaces and is more and more reframing our experience of narrative.
At the same time it is casting doubt on the efficacy of text as a means of transmitting information – is text archaic? What playwright hasn’t watched a wretched production of their work and been frustrated by the limitations of text to convey their vision? If text is a medium to convey emotions and abstract thought, if it serves as evidence of experience, then is it not subject to the inaccuracies of translation both between languages and the slippage from page to stage as translated through actors/directors? Not the mention the semiotic slippage of meaning as words change through time. Is text the most effective use of notation for movement-based and body-based performances and how do we now reassess the ideas of ownership, authorship and intellectual property? (vis a vis Factory 449’s appropriation of Temporary Distortion‘s work, Beyonce’s alleged appropriation of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Sarah Michelson’s alleged use of Twyla Tharp’s choreography in Devotion).
Dramaturgy in the Information Age demands a broader reach and more expansive skill set than ever before, and a willingness to exploit the tools and terms of our time to re-assess the contexts, meanings and implications of performance. The critic/dramaturge cannot merely be a historian or fact-checker but must be an innovator of forms of intellectual inquiry. S/he must be engaged in thoughtful conversation around the nature of performance and the multiple valences given to words, actions and embodied presence. This dramaturgical function must make use of all available tools and strategies to identify important questions, assemble information and present it both to the artist and the engaged observer.
Advocacy is here meant to imply the expository function of the embedded critic, serving as mediator between artist and audience during the developmental process or, if institutionally embedded, throughout a season, prior and subsequent to the performance. Advocacy means disseminating the ideas and investigations, identifying people, texts and other relevant sources outside the work and sharing them with potential audience members to engender dialogue and promote conversations.
Too often this function is left to the artists themselves or to marketing departments that don’t have the expertise, experience or resources to successfully implement these initiatives. Unfortunately most institutions are still deeply invested in a commodity-based communications strategy predicated on an “entertainment” model of presentation. While there is certainly a role for that in the culture at large (just as there is a role for consumer-oriented reviewers in popular general interest publications), the task of the 21st Century Performing Arts Presenter is to move away from commodity-based models of entertainment marketing and to explore ongoing deep engagement.
At this point I would like to re-emphasize the importance of the critical voice. As mentioned previously, since the beginning Culturebot has consciously worked to cultivate a critical voice that embraces the subjectivity and informality of the internet while aspiring towards intellectual rigor. That being said, we do not aspire to be academics. The function of the 21st Century critic is not only to mediate between artist and audience but between academic and audience as well. At the moment the bulk of thoughtful writing about contemporary performance happens in academic settings or esoteric industry publications. It is frequently jargon-laden and obscure, alienating all but the most deeply invested of audience members. Theory, of course, is a vital and essential component of a healthy arts ecosystem, but the biggest challenge facing contemporary performance today is not a lack of people with Masters degrees and Doctorates exploring theory but rather a perceived lack of relevance and a noticeable lack of audience. The Performing Arts in America generally is suffering from audience attrition and the perception of irrelevance due, in no small part, to wider cultural assumptions around what the performing arts are and who they are for. We are now presented with the extraordinary opportunity to look deeply into the origins and potential of live performance, revisit our assumptions about spectatorship and rebuild the arts institution.
As part of this re-building and re-imagining the Embedded Critic fulfills an Advocacy function as the first step towards engagement. S/he will use the internet, social media and other tools to build knowledge and awareness of the work of the institution, the contexts and ideas of the artists and support transparency, porousness and connection. Marketing still has its place, but it is a diminished role as we shift our emphasis from trying to “sell a ticket to a show” to offering our communities a space to observe or participate in transformative experiences and engage with each other. In a sense we are metaphorically and literally re-building civic space and public life – but more on this later.
If Advocacy is the “information distribution” function of the 21st Century Critic, then Engagement is the social function. The Engagement function puts the idea of critical horizontalism into practice with ancillary, contextual public programs designed to transform audiences into communities by bringing artist, critic and audience together for non-hierarchical discourse, subverting and innovating traditional models of artist talk backs and panel discussions.
Culturebot started exploring this in earnest last year, after our conversation series at Under The Radar. We received a lot of positive feedback from the conversations but also some very thoughtful responses including the fact that the presentational aesthetics of the panel form itself reinforce hierarchical structures we sought to break down. Thus we started researching alternate forms. We had prior experience with Lois Weaver’s “The Long Table” project and Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology as non-hierarchical organizational techniques and started to read more deeply into the origins and applications of those processes. We were directed to the European art/research collective Everybodys who have created an open source toolbox for creative innovation and intervention. At the same time we continued to assimilate into our critical practice the work of multiple theorists on performance and spectatorship ranging from Spangberg to Ranciere to Bishop, Jackson and Foster. We did our first experiments with engagement as creative critical practice at the invitation of Ron Berry for the Fusebox Festival in 2012. It was very successful (and very fun) – there is a write-up here.
Our vision of the embedded critic’s engagement function is to develop and implement these ancillary, contextual public programs. They can be tailored to a specific project or specific institution, they can be scalable frameworks, they can be performative, conversational, interactive, mediated – the possibilities are endless. The only caveat is that they provide points of access and engagement for “audiences” and that they eschew the traditional hierarchies of the presenting model. This is challenging because, as noted in the introductory section of this essay, democracy is messy and so is horizontalism. The internet has reinforced our cultural tendency to allow conversations to be reduced to the least common denominator. The critic/dramaturge and dare I say “public intellectual” of the 21st Century will not only be responsible for passing judgement (more on that in the next section) but also for fostering discussion. It will be necessary to develop new techniques and propositions that will encourage rigorous, informed discourse while attempting to resist the impulse (and efforts of others) to allow these conversations to devolve. Culturebot will be exploring these ideas and working to develop these strategies moving onward in various cities and venues, including a “performance” in March 2013 at On The Boards in Seattle, WA. We hope you’ll join us and if you have ideas or strategies you know of or are developing, please share them with us!
ON “CRITICAL” CRITICISM
Let’s not forget that the word critic comes from the Greek word for “judge”. It would be foolhardy to abandon the traditional model of criticism in sole favor of the embedded model or to neuter the critic, stripping him/her of the ability to pass judgement.
Our idea is that the critic will serve a dual function, as embedded in certain projects and institutions and external with others. Ideally these functions would be expressed through a text-based practice and then co-exist in juxtaposition, aggregated on the web. Audiences and artists can then develop an understanding of the critic’s predilections and biases over time, and evaluate his/her judgements – either negative or positive – based on knowledge of the critic’s history.
Our experience at Culturebot has been that artists are remarkably resilient when confronted with thoughtful criticism, even when it is negative. We are committed to following artists over long spans of time and thus when we are offering negative commentary it is not in isolation but as part of a longer arc of investigation. While there is a place for heated, passionate, even occasionally vitriolic debate over a given artist, their work or an institution’s policies and choices, there is less of a place for the short-term gain of snarky reviewing and snide asides. If someone, for some reason, invokes a critic’s ire, the critic is responsible for articulating their anger in a meaningful way, not giving in to the impulse to make ad hominem personal attacks.
In this sense the 21st Century Critical model acknowledges that even the “external” critic is embedded in the arts ecology. While reviewers in mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times still attempt to maintain the illusion of objectivity, we know that in fact most reviewers have numerous and complicated relationships with the artists about whom they write. They socialize with them, network professionally and frequently run in the same circles. Embedded Criticism rejects the illusion of objectivity (and the specious hierarchical inference of power created by the myth of objectivity) and demands that a critic acknowledge their subjectivity and prejudices, be transparent about their relationships. Critics must be called to account to justify their opinions and actions as much as artists and institutions must be held responsible for theirs.
In this way we are not so much abandoning the ability of the critic to be deeply critical, negative or even dismissive. We are merely altering the frame so that the critic’s opinion is not perceived to descend from some imagined realm of Platonic objectivity “on high”, but rather from a subjective experience predicated on real human biases – and that this subjective experience is, necessarily, deeply embedded in the artistic ecosystem and should be treated as such.
ON CRITICISM, ART and CULTURE
From our vantage point, it seems that the age of ubiquitous big cultural institutions in America is winding down. Post-war prosperity, optimism and a sense of social mobility and civic engagement led to a boom that people thought would last forever. Every city would have a symphony, an opera, a ballet and several museums, each accessible to all. Tyrone Guthrie dreamed of a truly regional theater system where regional theaters would create and produce professional plays by, from and about their community. Those days are gone; many cities no longer have the tax base or philanthropic infrastructure to support symphonies, operas and ballets, museums have already begun a process of re-imagination and regional theater takes its repertoire from New York writers, casts from NYC and LA, maybe Chicago, and replicates the same mostly-pallid fare nationwide.
In the wake of this enormous transition in America’s cultural life it is understandable that so many arts professionals and concerned constituents are bemoaning the current state of the arts – lack of funding, dwindling attendance, a perceived lack of relevance. No doubt it is a difficult time, but it is also a moment of extraordinary possibility. Many foundations, regional and local arts organizations are working progressively and aggressively to adapt to the financial and social realities we face. And while it is fashionable in some circles to denigrate the NEA, if we really look at it Rocco Landesman has assembled an extraordinary team of innovative people to reassess the NEA’s programs and develop new ones. initiatives like ArtPlace, based on the thinking of the Urban Institute’s Maria Rosario Jackson, the NEA/Knight Arts Journalism Challenge and others indicate that the NEA is thinking strategically about the future and trying to create a new ecosystem that is responsive to the financial and cultural realities on the ground. We may not always agree on what the NEA and other funders support, but we can agree that most of the time they’re working with vision to re-imagine the arts and its role in society, even within an infrastructure that may not readily support change. At the same time artist service organizations and artists themselves are working passionately too, bringing new ideas to the table.
Culturebot grew out of a small arts organization and I personally have spent the 20-some odd years of my career in the arts – first as an artist, now as an administrator – in the world of independent, small and mid-sized arts organizations. That is my passion and while I wholly support the idea of maintaining big institutions and admire their capacity to undertake projects of incredible scale, I think that real change starts on a smaller level, that real impact happens when the art is closer to the audience, when the audience is closer to the institution and the institution is closer to the community. That’s when lives are changed, that’s when kids get the bug that transforms them into lifelong arts people.
As I noted in the introduction it seems to me that we are at a point in American culture where the loudest, angriest, least-informed voices often win out over thoughtful consideration, moderation and circumspection. I fear that we live in a time when pugnacity wins out over conciliation, aggression over collaboration and short-term greed triumphs over the long-term common good. As someone who values the examined life, who believes in the social contract and the notion that intelligent people can disagree without becoming homicidal, xenophobic, partisans, I have dedicated a great deal of my time and energy to the idea that the arts – particularly the performing arts – provide a space to foster reflection, education and communication. I would never suggest that any artist has a moral or political imperative to adhere to any socially-engaged justification for their work. Artists make art for whatever reason calls them forward. But the overall ecology of the arts, the “culture” sector, exists within a larger framework of Culture; it exists as a laboratory and an “auditorium” – place for people to be heard. The cultural sector exists as a place to engage with the ideas that shape our experiences of the world, to try and bridge the almost unfathomable gap between interiorities by making our inner lives manifest in the material world. Making art – visual, theater, dance, music, writing, new media, etc. – is the process of articulating our subjective experience in a way that can be shared with others, it is an attempt to bridge the gap of our existential isolation and come together as individuals and in community. At its best, art creates a matrix for the intentional intersection of subjectivities, particularly when watching performance, in which a third entity consisting of the combined intelligences of audience and performer comes into being and, for a moment, we transcend the limitations of everyday experience.
I say this at the risk of undermining the credibility of everything I’ve written thus far with the appearance of vaguely metaphysical speculation, but I believe passionately in the role culture (with a small “c”) plays in affecting the tone and composition of Culture (with a capital “C”). My experience suggests that there is something larger at work, with competing impulses towards creation and destruction. Thus, whether in the abstract or with a specific social agenda, the arts ecosystem supports the creative impulse in ourselves and in our communities. tt can support the tendency towards progress rather than regression and it must be nurtured. It is not entertainment and it is not commodity, it is a vital social function that supports civil society and human development.
In order to fully realize the potential of the arts in our culture, we need people dedicated to building bridges. I imagine that person as a new type of critic, re-framed for the 21st Century: the critic as dramaturge, advocate and engager, the critic as public intellectual. I imagine the new critic as an insightful commentator and expositor, a facilitator of public discourse mediating between artist, audience, institution and academics, working to build a sustainable, responsible, transparent arts ecosystem that will sustain itself – and our culture – into the future.