Theatre in Wales

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Reviewing: What's It All For?

On Criticism & Critics

A O Scott- Better Living Through Criticism , Penguin Press , December 17, 2018
On Criticism & Critics by A O Scott- Better Living Through Criticism From the USA: “The administration has systematically destroyed our confidence in its credibility and good intentions, perhaps in the democratic process itself.” It is a common voice of despair which might have been written anytime in the last two years. In fact not so; the author was the theatre critic Robert Brustein in an essay “the Unseriousness of Arthur Miller.” He was writing in 1967 and his article is one of 39 collected in “the Third Theatre” published in 1970.

It came to mind when reading another article, this time published by Exeunt magazine on 22nd October of this year. Its topic was quality in theatre and who are its adjudicators. It picked a gender fight on newspaper critics for being all the same. As an argument it looked threadbare, since the best of theatre writers- McMillan, Marlowe, Brennan, Clapp- are women. But it called for new modes of response without specifying what they might be. In particular the word “old” was used as disparagement.

Well, Robert Brustein is old, born in 1927, and so is James Roose-Evans, also born in 1927. To read Brustein at the Open Space and the Living Theatre and to read Roose-Evans on Bread and Puppet Theatre is to have events and experiences evoked that thrill across the decades. The adrenalin of the productions makes today's concerns seem anaemic. To disparage the old is to give to the present a superiority that is invalid. The tyranny of the present is a burden better shaken off. A O Scott, long-standing film critic for The New York Times, certainly is unchained by the present.

His six chapters- interrupted by three Socratean dialogues- have titles such as “The Critic as Artist and Vice Versa,” “the Eye of the Beholder” and “How to Be Wrong”. His vaults across time go to Hesiod, Plato and Aristotle, Horace and his “Ars Poetica,” Kant is invoked: “The judgement of taste is not an intellectual judgement and so not logical, but is aesthetic- which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective.” Kant's three-part philosophical hierarchy, the ascent from sensation to reason, begins with “the agreeable.”

If subjectivity is the ground then the consequence is inevitable. So, as Scott puts it, “the history of criticism is, in large measure, a history of struggle among various factions, positions, and personalities, of schisms arising from differences of taste, temperament and ideology.” Their reception straddles the respectful to the scornful. In 1921 T S Eliot, a powerful critic himself, is referring to the others as “no better than a Sunday park of contending and contentious orators, who have not even arrived at the articulation of their differences.”

Art, a dialogue across time, binds the centuries. Scott looks at Manet “conducting a passionate argument with Titian and Velázquez,” “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is an engagement with the masks and statuary of another continent. He is sharp on Marina Abramovic and her “The Artist Is Present”. Some who were in New York's Museum of Modern Art were prompted to remove all their clothes. Scott is moved to link the performance art-piece to Rilke's poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”

“Better Living Through Criticism” recalls the critics who have nourished the author himself. “I read Stanley Crouch on jazz, Robert Christgau and Ellen Willis on rock, J Hoberman and Andrew Sarris on film, Peter Schjeldahl on art. Also C Carr on underground, avant-garde theatre and performance art. I didn't know that the C stood for Cynthia.” He confesses that he never worked up the nerve or saved the money to get to the city to see Ontological-Hysteric Theater or Laurie Anderson or David Wojnarowicz or Alphabet City. In reading Carr “what won me over was not the force of her ideas but the charisma of her voice.”

Scott cites the caustic metaphor of fiction's greatest theatre critic, Addison de Witt. In 1938 he finds a great poetry critic, R P Blackmur, saying “criticism, I take it, is the formal discourse of an amateur.” But then amateur has two meanings. Scott adds his own lines that might have sprung from de Witt: “the critic is therefore a creature of paradox, at once superfluous and ubiquitous, indispensable and useless, to be trusted and reviled.”

“Better Living through Criticism” is discursive, precious on occasion, but diamond-hard at its centre. In dialogue the author answers his own question to the effect that “criticism was perfectly satisfying in its own right- complete and fulfilling enough to make anything more seem superfluous.” The book's central platform elevates the writing to a status of equality to that which is its subject. “Criticism is art's late-born twin. They draw strength and identity from a single source, even if, like most siblings, their mutual dependency is frequently cloaked in rivalry and suspicion.”

This equality has another dimension, that of codependency and symbiosis. One activity receives its full consummation by way of the other. “Criticism”, at least in the view of Scott, “far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood.” It is “not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name-the proper name- for the defence of art itself.”

We are a long way from the notion of a review. Scott sees a commonality in motive. Both art and criticism originate in “the urge to master and add something to reality”, their wellspring the “transformation of awe into understanding.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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