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July 24, 2007

Critics as co-creators?

Jennifer A. Smith

One of the notions that's stuck with me from the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater six months ago is something put forth by Erik Ehn on the first day of the program. (Ehn is dean of the School of Theater at CalArts and also head of the Writing for Performance program.) Ehn stressed the idea of the critic as "co-creator" or "co-maker" of the theatrical experience, not merely a recorder of something frozen. He also argued that it's not the critic's job to sort out good and bad, but to create, right alongside the performers themselves, the meaning of the theater work.

Frankly, I wish I'd felt a little more lively when our group met with Ehn. After waking at 4 a.m. and heading hundreds of miles west to make it to L.A. from Madison by noon--not easy to do, even with the time zones working in your favor--I was drained. I agree with some, but not all, of what Ehn had to say, and that's why I find his thinking so intriguing.

This idea of a work of art being unfinished until a viewer/audience member engages with it is not new, especially to those with a background in visual art. And, on some level, all audience members are always (mentally, internally) co-creating an evening's performance given what they as individuals bring to a performance in terms of life experience, knowledge (or not) of the playwright or script, etc. But I feel Ehn took things a bit farther than the basic truism that we are always co-creating art in our minds along with the artists who've put it out there. Since Ehn was talking specifically to a group of critics--those of us with the privilege of "co-creating" publicly and in print--this idea of co-creating takes on higher stakes.

And not only was Ehn talking specifically to journalists, but to journalists from smaller markets (the focus of the NEA Arts Journalism Institutes). At its worst, co-creating could turn into pandering or picking up slack for plays that fall short of the mark (along the lines of "What they really meant to do was..." or "What they were really trying to say was..."). At its best, however, co-creating keeps us in that frame of mind that truly is criticism, not just reviewing. We think not just about what happened or how well things were executed, but a performance's larger meaning and context.

Where co-creating gets thorny is when our own personal ideas don't match up with the playwright's (artist's, dancer's, etc.) ideas. We may disagree with the ideas being put out there, but still admire the originality, rigor and passion with which those ideas are conveyed--and this is perhaps why it's hard to let go of notions of quality (conveyed, one hopes, in a way that goes well beyond mere "good" and "bad"). I can dislike something on a personal level yet still appreciate its quality or significance.

One final thought from Ehn, worth revisiting at another time, that has also stayed with me: "If theater is a conversation, where are the real conversations [in our local communities] being had?"

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at July 24, 2007 9:30 AM

COMMENTS

I'd hate to think that critics would relinquish their authority and independence as CREATORS in their own right, as writers of analytical and argumentative essays that are ends in themselves.

Now, if Ehn or any other artist finds something useful in that separate journalistic creation, and can apply it to improve the work at hand, what could be better?

But if the process starts with a critic who considers himself/herself as a co-creator of the work under review, rather than a separate and independent responder to it, with no obligation except rendering an honest, well-grounded opinion, I can't see anything coming of it except bland writing and mutual back-scratching.

Co-creation may, in some sense, be a serendipitous outcome of good criticsm, but it's not a very good foundation for the enterprise of art-making or criticism-making. The instinct of performing artists is collaboration, so it's not surprising Ehn would like the idea of co-creating.

The imperative of the critic is independent thinking followed by independent expression, and critics who think of themselves as collaborators are in danger of sacrificing honesty for the sake of collegiality.

Posted by: Anonymous at July 26, 2007 2:08 PM

Thanks for your feedback. I think you raise some great points. Ultimately, I think it boils down to how this notion of "co-creation" is interpreted and applied. I think the critic's independence can be maintained if both critic and artist remain open to the idea that the end result of a work of art may be quite different from an artist's intentions. Sometimes intentions and results collide in interesting ways.

My very unofficial sense was that those of us in the room who heard Ehn's talk were dubious of doing away so extensively with assessments of quality, and this is perhaps an inevitable difference in mindset between someone who is an artist/academic and people who write for daily or weekly papers.

Still, though, there is something about the "co-creator" notion that intrigues me and stays with me, partly because it implies good faith on the part of the critic. At its best (in my interpretation, anyway), it means that you're open to an experience and willing to see where it takes you, whatever the meaning of it ultimately turns out to be.

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at July 26, 2007 6:10 PM

Yes, Jennifer. The need to be open to having an experience without prejudging it should go without saying. That's a non-negotiable requisite for a critic -- even when you've hated every show you've seen by artist X, it's part of your makeup to meet him/her halfway the next time around. I'd have no problem with a critic learning something about the artist's intentions beforehand, then deciding in the review whether those intentions were realized, were worthy in the first place, or even whether the artist, in a spark of inspiration, had subverted or contradicted his/her conscious aims in a way that elevated the piece to true genius (it can happen; William Blake's understanding of John Milton, for instance, seems much richer than Milton's own understanding of "Paradise Lost," and how many times have you misheard a rock lyric, only to be disappointed when you found out what the singer was actually saying?). But engaging with the artist to get useful background knowledge is far from signing on as a "co-creator" with a vested interest in a good outcome, beyond the general, underlying hope that we'll have a good experience, not a dull or annoying one. I think the most eloquent argument I've ever encountered for the beholder's co-creator role in a work of art is somewhere in Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," where Marcel, the narrator, is waiting in an ante-room for an audience with some important personage or other, and muses at length on how the writer's work is not complete without the reader's own creative effort. (Of course, I failed to note where this passage is in the thousands of pages of the 7-volumes, and have never been able to locate it again through skimming; possibly I dreamed it, and would appreciate it if any experts out there recognize what I'm talking about and could give me a citation.) This is a wonderful idea, because it elevates us all, and I think it's truthful. But it's an artist's point of view; the reader only puts in the creative effort to understand deeply if the reader, through a critical application of taste and interest, is moved to plunge in deeply. I think that a critic can sometimes become a partner in the way Proust envisions -- but the partnership should never exist from the get-go. It has to be earned by both the artist (through interesting expression) and the critic (through cultivated knowledge and openness). So the partnership should only materialize when the deal the art work is proposing to the world proves mutually satisfactory to the critic -- who, if he/she is doing a good job, may well produce a review that doesn't sign on to the deal at hand, but proposes some changes in its terms that would make it even better. I don't see how artists can ask for more than that. Well, they can, like kids who want the whole box of cookies, but they shouldn't oughta get it.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at July 27, 2007 11:44 AM