Ideas: October 2007 Archives
Critics are trained to think of themselves as objective observers of shows. While we strive to be receptive to what we see, we are also constantly analyzing and setting aside our personal feelings and any potential baggage.
It was that need for emotional distance that had me questioning a few weeks ago whether I should ask my editor to reassign the review I was scheduled to do. It wasn't a matter of my having any sort of personal connection with the show or anyone in it. Rather, my grandfather was in the late stages of cancer and we had been told he would likely die within the week. Would I be able to properly review a musical farce about two Wisconsin ice fishermen if I had to go the day my grandfather died? After discussing it with my editor, we decided that I would go ahead with the previous plans to attend the show and write the review.
The show was superbly done--which didn't surprise me as so far everything Williamston Theatre has done in the two years of their existence has been superb--and I found myself deeply drawn into the show. Some of this was because one of the two main actors reminded me a great deal of my grandfather, a man who loved his fishing. When the musical turned serious and started talking about how short our life is here on earth and how unexpectedly it could end, I cried through the entire song.
A few hours after getting home from the musical, I learned that my grandfather had died. Almost immediately I blogged about both the musical and his death. It's one of the wonderful things about blogs, you can write personal things that would likely never be appropriate for a newspaper. This is especially true given that my blog isn't associated with the newspaper in any way.
As I mourned for the next few days, I found myself faced with writing the review. I had to do a fair amount of soul-searching. Should I disqualify myself from writing the review because I had such a deep, emotional connection based on personal events? Could I honestly saying that I was being objective and unbiased?
Eventually, the answer that I came up with was that as a theater critic, I'm not required to put my humanity into deep freeze. The reader loses no value in a review simply because I am able to connect with a play. On the contrary, how useful can we as critics be to our readers if we never allow ourselves to feel anything or to emotionally connect with a show the way that our readers will?
So, I wrote the review, being careful to sort out in my own mind what was personal and what was valid material for evaluation (and given our 300-word limit, it certainly helped with identifying material to cut).
That was my answer. I'm curious what other critics might have done in the same situation--or even whether you'd even consider the situation a potential conflict.
I've been sitting back and watching the discussion between Mike Boehm and Jeff Croff in the comment trail of my entry last week, in part because I haven't wanted to interrupt an interesting dialog between the two.
I'm definitely a fence-sitter on this issue. I would love to see more public support and funding for the arts. I firmly believe that, like education, the benefits of the arts accrue to more than just the consumer of art (and I use consumer in a broad sense to mean not just the purchaser of a piece of art or a ticket, but anyone who experiences art in its many forms). I think the arts make our community and our world a better place to live in. They have the ability to instill us with hope and optimism or at least to give people an outlet to express their frustrations and cynicism with the reassurance that they're being heard.
However, I also believe that many artists have hurt the cause of public funding by being overly demanding and refusing to look at things realistically.
Last year, arts funding in our state was frozen. We were going through a budget crisis of epic proportions--one that resulted this past week in an increased income tax and expanded sales tax. We've had to do this because of fiscally irresponsible policies throughout the nineties where the state privatized those businesses that made money and refused to institute responsible tax policies because they needed their soundbite for campaigning. Ah, but I wander off into the political in a non-arts related way. Let me get back on track.
People were outraged that money was cut and rallied at the Capitol demanding not only that the arts money be unfrozen (it eventually was at about 75% of original levels) but that the funding be restored to levels that they were in past decades.
As much as I'm a supporter of the arts and in paying taxes to support the arts, that demand tasted sour in my mouth. What they seemed to be saying was that the arts were more important than human services, education, and public safety. The state was talking about shutting down entirely and the artists were demanding that they receive an increase in funding rather than joining in the conversation about how where they could make sacrifices without committing suicide. It was a loss of credibility.
When there are tough economic times, artists need to be realistic and accept that there isn't money to be had. They will have a tough time winning supporters if they claim that funding their season is more important than keeping the schools open or paying for a firefighter or keeping the ambulances running.
The flip side, though, is that when money is available, the arts need to be recognized as important to the quality of life of a community. Once you get past the minimum levels on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it's going to be the arts that let your citizens climb from safety to belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.