Young Critical Practices: Ways of Thinking in and With the Arts

Anette Therese Pettersen*

This essay is a line of thought still in the making, in which I am interested in what a critical practice for youth is or can be. How is criticism by children and youth defined and practiced in the performing arts field today? With philosopher Rosi Braidotti’s claim on thinking as “what being alive feels like” and Irit Rogoff’s famous division of approaches to critical thinking, I would like to turn from the term “criticism” and towards a “critical practice”: How can we as adult organisers invite or facilitate for a range of critical practices for youths? The essay uses my own critical practice as an entry point to look at some examples of critical practice that are in use in the field today.
Keywords: criticism, critique, criticality, tya, critical practice, posthumanism

Longing and Lingering

I am shifting my gaze between the screen, directly in front of me, and the view through the huge windows a meter and a half in front of me: still, green grass, yellow straws, the dark blue ocean with the white foam of waves against grey and brown cliffs, and in the distance mountains with specks of white snow. The windows stretch from floor to ceiling, allowing the view of the landscape of the Lofoten islands here in the north of Norway to surround me.

The horizon has a layer of grey, white and blue clouds, while the sky is the perfect pale blue. The same pale blue as my sheets; the crispness of the duvet covers can almost be felt against my skin as I rest my eyes on the view of the sky. After three weeks of looking out the same windows, the view still has not lost its breath-taking effect on me. The view creates a longing in me, as if I long to be where I actually already am. I can already sense how I will long for this when I in a couple of days go south again. And perhaps this longing, this nostalgia in advance, so to speak, is just as much a part of being as the state we call nostalgia.

I relate this longing to the way philosopher Rosi Braidotti, in her lectures “Posthuman, All Too Human: The Memoirs and Aspirations of a Posthumanist” (2017), defines thinking as “what being alive feels like” (22).[[1]] Braidotti’s description is something I recognise as a state I often am in when I encounter works of art that has an especially strong affective impact on me. It is an approach to meaning that stresses meaning as an ongoing process, instead of meaning being understood as something which is hidden within the artwork, practically waiting for the enlightened and clever critic to discover, unveil and then show to the world. It is an “embodied and embedded, affective and relational approach that is constitutive of bodily materialism,” to lean on Braidotti (7). And this is the same feeling I get when looking out my window at the sea, mountains and sky: the intense feeling of being that is combined with an undefined sense of longing and craving. How I want to stay in the moment, stay focused and just be. And, at the same time, I am propelled ahead, I have an undefined urge for action. And it is the attempts of putting these moments into words, to re-stage them in their ambivalence through the writing process, that brought me to (or at least; that kept me in) critical writing.

The Lofoten islands in Norway. Photo: Anette Therese Pettersen

This approach is something I want to explore as a way of looking at a critical practice. For the last fifteen years I have made my living as a performing arts critic, and this role has become a defining aspect of my (professional) identity. The most visible part of this practice are the texts I publish in newspapers and magazines, but my practice also includes initiating, giving and attending to workshops as well as editing and reading—together and alone. At the moment, I am working on a PhD on criticism and youth, where I want to explore the affective impact of the work is as a starting point for a critical (writing) practice. To me, these are all aspects of my critical practice, and I am curious of whether some of these ways of thinking of criticism as a practice also could be reshaped into invitations for youths to participate in or to be further developed by youths.

***

Writing about performances that one does not immediately connect with comes with the territory when you are a professional theatre and dance critic. This also includes writing about performances for children and youth, where I as an adult quite often am very explicitly not a part of the performance’s target audience. I have previously written about the act of writing about art that is explicitly not made for the writer (2012, 2015, 2018, 2020) and called myself the “critic as an uninvited guest” (“Critic as an Uninvited Guest”) and the act of writing as “criticism for an absent reader” (Pettersen & Sandvik). It is this double challenge of both writing about something you were not really intended to take part in[2] and also styling it for a reader with the same status, that is still puzzling to me. The intended guest (aka the child or youth) rarely gets to take part in these discussions, nor do they usually read or listen in on the discussions going on. The attempts at inviting young audience to write, talk or in other ways critically engage in their experiences with art seem to be increasing, but it is my impression that the young readers or audience to a large degree still seem to be absent here. It might have to do with the adult often being the one who invite the young to writing, and that this makes the adults the implicit readers. I think a critical practice for the young reader also needs to be thought by someone not looking from the outside, but from the group themselves. For all I know, perhaps their conversation is already going on: I am just not part of it.

Criticism, Critical Writing and Critical Practice

“Criticism” is traditionally thought of as a practice of judging something (here: art). Performance lecturer and critic Theron Schmidt describes critical writing as “a particular kind of writing in that it typically sits in relation to some other event.” Diana Damian Martin, performance critic and theorist (and co-editor of this section), describes the act of critical writing as a “choreography of attention,” which unfolds both during the encounter with the performance and after, in the process of writing/producing a piece of criticism (219). I would propose that a piece of critical writing or practice is an excerpt of this choreography. A scene or tableau (possibly but not necessarily in the form of a written text) of ones thinking with and against (or looking away from) a piece of art. In my own practice, I usually choose one (or maybe two) out of all the possible moments, and through my writing I try to make the atmosphere reappear. Or, rather, it often begins as an attempt to restage a moment, an affective state, but the result is usually something that resembles it. It is my take on the tableau as I recall it and then reshaped into something that evoke a similar state in me in the process of making it. This relates to how Peggy Phelan describes performative writing, as a writing that aspire “to enact the affective force of the performance event again, as it plays itself out in an ongoing temporality” (11–12).   

Thinking in and with the World/Art

Braidotti’s definition of thinking as “what being alive feels like” (22) is a move away from thinking as a cognitive or literal practice, expanding it to a “feeling.” In this context, I find Irit Rogoff’s (by now famous) division of paradigmatical shifts from “criticism,” through “critique” towards “criticality” as useful as a lens to explore this specific field (“From Criticism”). Rogoff defines criticism as application of values or finding fault, critique as a “certain external knowingness, a certain ability to look in from the outside and unravel and examine and expose that which had seemingly lay hidden within the folds of structured knowledge,” whereas criticality (clearly the term she favours) “is taking shape through an emphasis on the present, of living out a situation, of understanding culture as a series of effects rather than of causes, of the possibilities of actualising some of its potential rather than revealing its faults” (“From Criticism”).

If we combine Braidotti’s definition of thinking with Schmidt and Damian Martin’s descriptions, the scope on critical thinking and writing will include the entire body in its meeting with a piece of art. Combined with Rogoff’s definitions, it also allows us the opportunity to explore a critical practice not merely as that of writing an analysis of the arts, but rather exploring what the affective impact of the meeting with an art event can lead to.

Choreographed attention in Lofoten. Photo: Anette Therese Pettersen
Criticism: The Normative Action of Evaluating

Evaluating, or “finding fault” (as Rogoff describes it), is perhaps the most normative action within a critical practice (“From Criticism”). It is in my experience the aspect children and youth (and most adults) tend to propose first when I ask them to describe what criticism is. In an article on dance criticism, Erin Brannigan refers to Roger Copeland’s list of main components in dance review to be descriptive, interpretive and evaluative (211). It is the latter that has been dominant in the mainstream review (especially in the newspaper format), and it is also this I most often see reproduced in formats of criticism for children and youth.

One way of arriving at an evaluation is by posing questions. The aim of this format tends to be either to provide data for a research project (Østern et al) or to reach adult readers. The former sometimes also aims to reach young readers, but it is my experience that the process of writing or performing this type of criticism often is the goal rather than producing texts or other for a wider public. It is often the act of arriving at an opinion and being in discussion with it that is the task at hand.

Diagram of “How did you feel after the visit?” with 36% stating “happy”; 22% “confused”; 17% “eager”; 9% “who cares . . .” and 5% “disappointed.” Screenshot from Konsttestarna.fi, 6 Jan. 2021

One grand scale example of this is the Finnish project called Konsttestarna (Art tests), where all Finnish 8th graders are invited to attend two cultural events (opera, concert, theatre or exhibition). The ongoing project is a collaboration between three Finnish organizations, and the website was launched in 2017. After seeing a performance, exhibition or concert, the youths have the opportunity to share their reflections on the website, Konsttestarna.fi. On the site, the youth will reply to some basic questions, such as “How did it make you feel?” “How was the art?” and so on, followed by five different options for reply as well as a field where the youths can write comments or reviews. This model generates a sort of statistics about the performances more than reviews or texts and looks a bit like Tripadvisor for the arts.

The performance The Play that Goes Wrong has received 409 reviews (which is not an uncommon amount of reviews in this database). 36% of the young critics have responded that the performance made them happy, 22% that it made them confused. 62% replied that the performance made them feel better afterwards than they felt when they arrived at the theatre, but only 16% would choose to see the performance again. Most of the comments are exactly comments ranging from “very good!” through symbols like “:P” or “9/10” to a couple of sentences: “I didn’t think it was funny or interesting, since I don’t have the kind of humour that was played at the theatre. And confused, different”[3] (“Konsttestarna”). These comments rarely provide me as a reader with any elaboration on why or how the critic arrived at their opinion on the performance. They remind me of the excerpts that the theatres themselves publish as advertisement on their websites, with quotes from review (except that in this case the quote is the review).

Critique: Examination and Description

As described (pun not intended) by Borchgrevink and Habbestad, description is a common feature of especially the review, but also other formats of critical practice. I choose to combine this aspect with Rogoff’s term “critique,” which in Rogoff’s terms means the “ability to look in from the outside and unravel and examine” (“From Criticism”). Through describing the performance, the aim or message of a performance often appears, as well as a discussion on the process of evaluating the performance event.

This is a common trait in reviews in mainstream media, and this is also mirrored in critical writing by youths in projects such as Unge Stemmer (young voices) and Young Critics North Wales. These pieces of critical writing tend to favour the format of mainstream reviews. The latter format is perhaps the one that is most known to the critics or other professionals who organise these projects, and I have myself been part of or initiated different versions of workshops that introduce youths to the critique. There are also several different sites and projects, such as Imaginate’s Talking about theatre and the Scandinavian Mitt Iris (which is no longer active) that introduce children and youths to a range of questions they can/could base their comments or reviews of a performance on.

Screenshot of Youngcriticsconwy.wordpress.com, 6 Jan. 2021

Teaterungdom (theatre youth) is one out of very few examples I have come across that is a magazine that is initiated and run by youths themselves. As the title of the magazine indicates, these are youths that are interested in theatre and the magazine’s outspoken goal is to “make the theatres more available for youths” (Teaterungdom). The “about” page is signed “By, with and for youths.” The texts are styled much the same way as reviews in newspapers with titles, ingress and facts, followed by a description of the performance, context for it, as well as an opinion on it.

In a recently published text, the author Helge Langerud Heikkilä writes about how the performance Historien om Woundman og Robyn (The Story about Woundman and Robyn) has an impact on him, how it coincides with his own life and makes him cry—a lot. He goes on to write:

This became a personal review. It might be on the side of our mission? I am not sure, what I am sure about is that all reviews will be shaped by the reviewer that writes them. And my situation right now makes me really understand and judge The story about Woundman and Robyn on a very human level and in an emotional way.

(Heikkilä)[4]

To some extent, this comments on the (at least experienced) limitations of the review or critique: the experience of sharing too much or diverting the attention away from the art and on to oneself, and thus moving away from the “mission” of the text. Instead of focusing on what it is the performance does on stage the text looks on what it has done with the critic and how it makes the critic feel.

Photo from Historien om Woundman og Robyn (The Story about Woundman and Robyn) by Brageteatret. Photo: Brageteatret
Criticality and Critical Practices

This, therefore, leads me on to how Rogoff uses the term criticality to describe that which take “shape through an emphasis on the present, of living out a situation, of understanding culture as a series of effects rather than of causes, of the possibilities of actualising some of its potential rather than revealing its faults” (“From Criticism”). This touches partly on what Rogoff elsewhere has called looking away (“Looking Away”), but also on the aspects of critical writing that Schmidt describes as shaping “the contexts in which the work is made and received, playing not just a responsive role but actively shaping how and what it is possible to make, see, do, and say” (Schmidt x). It is an approach that does not necessarily focus on the performance or art event as such.

Childrens Choice Awards. Photo: Jenna Winter

The difference between this latter category and criticism and critique lays in the emphasis on adding something and thus making something new. Through the critical practice a new piece of art takes form. To some extent, I find that Rogoff’s term “criticality” includes or builds upon the other two terms, but the former term offers a wider variety of critical approaches.

The outcome of a practice of criticality, or critical practice, is not necessarily a text, it could just as easily be a conversation or even an award show. The Canadian performance company Mammalian Diving Reflex has a range of projects that engage children and youths, which facilitate critical practice, such as their project The Children’s Choice Awards. Just as many other critical projects with children and youths, the Awards also takes place during performing arts festivals. This particular project often takes place in an “adult” festival, and the Awards consist of a jury with children from the area of the festival. The children participate in the shows and happenings of the festival, and at the end of the festival the children evaluate the arts, make categories and nominate candidates, as well as participate in the awards show.

I attended one version of this award during the German festival the Ruhr Triennale in 2013, with a jury that consisted of almost 100 children and with thirty awards. Many of the awards were descriptive and evaluative, such as “Best of the Best” (to Rimini Protokoll for Situation Rooms) or “Worst Costumes” (to Heiner Goebbels/Harry Partch for Delusion of the Fury). There is an aspect of thinking-as-what-being-alive-feels-like in this project. This is seen in awards such as “The Show Where I Had to Swim Away from all the Sweat” (to Boris Charmatz for Levée des conflits), “The Music That Was So Boring That I Asked Myself If This Was Actually Music” (to Quay Brothers for In Absentia) and “The Show Where I Fell Asleep the Fastest” (to Gavin Bryars The Sinking of the Titanic) (Pettersen, 2013). The short, descriptive titles describe the experience of someone as much (if not more than) the work in itself. In them the affective impact or meeting is performed in a super short tableau, so to speak.

Video from The Children’s Choice Awards at Ruhrtriennale, Duisburg in Germany 2013
Conversations

Another approach to criticality and critical practice can be found in Matthew Reason’s book, The Young Audience (2010), where he describes a series of workshops he has conducted with children. In these workshops, the children have seen a performance and are afterwards invited to draw something, while Reason and a team of researchers then engage in conversations with the children about their drawings and what they remember from the performance they have seen. This performs in two different ways: The tasks the children are given and the questions prompted by the researchers are very much similar to the ones I have come across in different formats of criticism workshops: “Draw something you remember from the performance” (Reason 61), “how do the different elements of the production fit together” (158) and “what did it mean to me” (160). Reason also mentions the prospect of criticism in his book (152), where he writes the following under the caption “children as critics”:

Responding to and talking about are experience is a social need and it is vital for the experience itself. There is pleasure in understanding that enhances the experience and empowers the audience. So we should aim to provide children and young people with a structure in which they can develop their abilities as reflective and analytical critics.

(152)

Several of the children made drawings that combined what they had experienced in the performance event with things they had seen or experienced elsewhere (104–5). In the process of drawing, the impact of the performance is being processed. In this way, this approach opens up for both a lingering with the performance as well as that of looking away from it.

Photo from T.E.E.N. kitchen table discussion at Assitej festival in 2019 in Kristiansand, Norway.  Photo: Scenekunstbruket

In closing, I would also like to take a short look at the European project T.E.E.N. (later developed into the project TEEN—Teen Ambassadors across Europe),[5] where a group of youths lead a series of conversations called Kitchen Table Discussion. The format has been decided upon by the youths in collaboration with the (adult) project leaders, after trying out several other formats—including different approaches to writing. The conversations take place during a range of festivals for performing arts for children and youth in Europe, and the topic for each conversation is decided by the youths that lead the conversation. To avoid “adult-splaining,” only one adult at the time will be allowed at the table, and only on the youths’ invitation or acceptance. Typically, the discussions I have witnessed open with a collective evaluation (by the youth) of a performance from the festival program and then spurs on to other topics. During the festival Showbox in Oslo in December 2020, one of these discussions were launched as a podcast episode, consisting of only four Norwegian youths in the studio. As I listened to the episode while walking in the pouring rain, feeling quite distant from the mountain view in Lofoten, the episode revealed itself to be about just that: feelings. Four teenagers talking about their own experiences in life in general, and a critical discussion on how they relate this to the expectations they experience from society. The words “art” or “performance” were as far I can recall never mentioned, and the conversation circled around the youths’ lives and their feeling of being in the world. If it was not for the fact that the talk was programmed as a part of a performing arts festival, the relation between art and the talk might not have occurred to me.

This rather extreme way of looking away from the arts might partly have to do with how this year’s pandemic have influenced the programming of the festival and made ordinary, physical performances impossible. But as I listened in, and kept expecting them to talk about a performance, I also started to think about performances that could have been a part of the festival. Their act of looking away diverted my eyes back in, so to speak.

***

To return to Braidotti: if thinking means “what being alive feels like”—I still see a huge gap in how we facilitate critical practices for children and youth. Where and what are the possibilities for critical practices to occur, on the premise of the youth? I think there might be some potential in looking away from the arts, as well as thinking with and beside it, but how do you invite someone to look away? This, I hope to explore further.

Works Cited

Borchgrevin, Hild and Habbestad, Ida. “Describe, Evaluate, Argue: Teaching Music Criticism for Young Writers.” Critical Stages, vol. 22, 2021.

Braidotti, Rosi. “Posthuman, All Too Human: The Memoirs and Aspirations of a Posthumanist.” Tanner Lectures Library, 2017.

Brannigan, Erin. “Whatever Happened to Dance Criticism?” The Routledge Companion to Dance Studies, edited Helen Thomas and Stacey Prickett, Routledge, 2019, pp. 206–18.

Damian Martin, Diana. “Criticism as a Political Event.” Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes, edited by Duška Radosavljević, Bloomsbury, 2016, pp. 219–35.

Fensham, Rachel. “Affective Spectatorship: Watching Theatre and the Study of Affect.” Unfolding Spectatorship: Shifting Political, Ethical and Intermedial Positions, edited by Christel Stalpaert et al., Academia press, 2016, pp. 29–60.

Konsttestarna.” The Play That Goes Wrong.

Moi, Ebba. “Hendelsen.” Kunstformidling: Fra verk til betrakter, edited by Charlotte Blanche Myrvold and Gerd Elise Mørland, Pax Forlag A/S, 2019, pp. 47–78.

Pettersen, Anette Therese. “Between Public and Private: Theatre Performances through the School System.” IATC.com.hk, 2020.  

—. “Deltakelse i en anti-dannelsesreise?Scenekunst.no, 2015.

—. “Når barna får bedømme.” Kulturrådet.no, 2013.

—. “Om å løpe i takt.” Scenekunst.no, 2012.

—. “The Critic as an Uninvited Guest.” Criticism for an Absent Eeader, edited by Pettersen and Maria Sandvik, Uten Tittel forlag, 2018, pp. 82–90.

Pettersen, Anette Therese, and Maria Sandvik, editors. Criticism for an Absent Reader, Uten Tittel forlag, 2018.

Phelan, Peggy. Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories. Routledge, 1997.

Reason, Matthew. The Young Audience: Exploring and Enhancing Children’s Experiences of Theatre. Institute of Education Press, 2010.

Rogoff, Irit. “From Criticism to Critique to Criticality”. Transversal Texts.

—. “Looking Away.” After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance, edited by Gavin Butt, 2005, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 117–34.

Schmidt, Theron. “How We Talk about the Work Is the Work: Performing Critical Writing.” Performance Research, vol. 23, no. 2, 2018, pp. 37–43. DOI: 10.1080/13528165.2018.1464751

Teaterungdom. “Om oss.” Teaterungdom.no.

Østern, Tone Pernille, Thomas Dahl, Alex Strømme, Jesper Aagaard Petersen, Anna-Lena Østern, and Staffan Selander, editors. Dybde//læring. Universitetsforlaget, 2019.


[1] I will not be elaborating on Braidotti’s philosophy, but rather “use” it as a means to think about ways to critically and creatively engage in the topic of theatre (and dance/all performance) criticism and children and youth.

[2] This is not always the case: the adult (and often professional) spectator also tends to be an intended, if not explicitly, spectator.

[3] Original Swedish text: “Jag tyckte inte den var så rolig och intressant, eftersom att jag inte har sådan humor som utspelades på teatern. Och virrig, annorlunda.”

[4] Original Norwegian text: “Dette ble en personlig anmeldelse. Kanskje er det på siden av vårt oppdrag? Jeg er ikke sikker, det jeg er sikker på er at alle anmeldelser vil være formet av anmelderen som skriver den. Og min situasjon akkurat nå gjør at jeg virkelig kan forstå og vurdere Historien om Woundman og Robyn på et helt menneskelig plan og på en emosjonell måte.”

[5] At an earlier stage of this project (2016–2018), I was involved as advisor. 


*Anette Therese Pettersen (b.1979) is a theatre and dance researcher, critic, editor and curator. Currently a PhD research fellow at the University of Agder in Norway. Co-founder of projects of criticism, such as Writingshop, Critics in Conversation, Dansekritikerrørsla (Dance critic movement) and Performing Criticism Globally. Editor of a series of books on criticism, theatre and dance, such as Criticism for an Absent Reader (2018).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email