Why does the collapse of Australian critical writing matter and who does it matter to?
It matters to artists. All artists desire to please their audience, but for most – myself included – what matters a great deal more than praise or blame is that someone has perceived, with accuracy and insight, exactly what you did.
Theatre Notes taught me many things, but perhaps the most important lesson was that just as indifferent criticism can be disabling, good criticism can be enabling. It carves out cultural space, makes connections, suggests further possibilities and opens generosities of perception.
As more voices joined the many conversations over that decade, it became clear how critical dialogue could build a community invested in the performing arts, how it could be a link between artists and their audiences.
Most importantly, perhaps, in this age of polarising communities, it demonstrated how differences of opinion could illuminate each other as part of a common sensibility and larger argument.
The brief interregnum of blogging opened up some exciting possibilities: a more generous view of public critical discourse that welcomed essential new voices and, with them, new ideas. The community of exchange that grew up around blogs – including artists, audience members and critics in the conversation – gave a glimpse of what criticism can do in a model driven not by commercial imperative but centred on the art itself.
It demonstrated how critical dialogue can be the lifeblood of intellectual exchange, how it could be an energy that generates community and creates audiences for new work, how it could connect the present of the performing arts to its past, and throw open paths for its future.
These are the possibilities that sites such as Audrey, Seesaw and Witness seek to keep open, each in their own way. But for all of us, the costs of continuing what is an essential public service are mounting up. It seems to me one more aspect of the crisis in our cultural memory.
In 2016, I wrote in The Monthly that the past three years have seen an unremitting ideological war on knowledge, inquiry and, significantly, cultural memory.
Three years later, it seems to me that this war on cultural memory has been all but lost by the increasingly exhausted people inside and outside institutions around Australia battling to keep it alive.
Cultural memory in our nation has always been limited. There are many reasons for this, but a major one is our lack of a robust tradition of public critical exchange. This particularly affects performance. As an ephemeral form, criticism constitutes its memory, and functions in many cases as its major historical record. The cultural amnesia that characterises our public knowledge of performance is exacerbated by the retreat of history as a discipline in our educational institutions: it’s taught less and less. The less we remember, the more we are condemned to an ever-narrowing present.
As Julian Meyrick pointed out in a Platform Paper in 2005:
Donald Horne’s complaint that the industry’s idea of cultural debate is a one-line telegram signed by twenty artists, points up the lack of articulated vision coming from theatre professionals on the ground today […] At a recent public meeting on the future of Playbox [Theatre], I was not the only one struck by the lack of specific knowledge about the company we had come to discuss. And when, at the end, someone stood up— as someone always does— and said: ‘Who needs the past anyway?’— as someone always does—a vision rose before my eyes of a wheel of fire on which Australian theatre was to be endlessly wracked, our historical forget- ting a constituent part of our ongoing suffering.
In the current climate, the only public critique that flourishes is the atomised product-driven consumer review, which is more often a function of public relations than of serious intellectual enterprise. And that in turn reflects back on artmaking itself, influencing what is considered important and what isn’t. And so on and so on, in an eternal circle.
What this impoverished and impoverishing critical discourse most commonly disadvantages is the new, the complex, the difficult, the exciting. Very often it ignores or misrepresents, even in well intentioned ways, the work of the marginalised: women, LGBTQI+ artists, CALD artists, especially from Australia’s African and Asian diaspora, and Indigenous cultures.
At the moment, it is busy characterising the decolonising impulse that is driving the most interesting art and thought happening in this country as self-interested ‘identity politics’, turning it into a weapon in the culture wars. But that’s another Platform Paper.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of this argument is that everyone agrees that it’s important to have a healthy, diverse critical culture. At Audrey Journal, Seesaw and Witness, we are all familiar with the voices that tell us how important it is that we continue, how essential the service we provide is to our local cultures. But if no-one pays for this service, it’s simply not going to exist. Lip service is cheap.
This is an edited extract from Platform Paper 61: Criticism, Performance and the Need for Conversation, available now through Currency House