Ivan Medenica[1]

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Résumé
L’« Intercritique » sans conflit d’intérêt

Peut-on être un « intercritique » sans se compromettre ? Ici, Ivan Medenica affirme que la question n’est pas aussi neuve qu’on le pense. L’enjeu de la critique « de l’intérieur » et « de l’extérieur » n’appartient pas au seul début du 20e siècle. Cependant, pour le critique de ces dernières années – surtout s’il est pigiste –, il existe de nombreux dangers potentiels de conflit d’intérêt alors même qu’il tente de survivre économiquement. Outre ces dilemmes éthiques et économiques, le critique doit combattre l’idée que les formes théâtrales nouvelles, souvent interdisciplinaires, exigent un langage critique nouveau et distinct. Medenica tente de tracer les défis auxquels doit se mesurer l’« intercritique » aujourd’hui.

After theatre itself and other forms of cultural production, it has come the turn for theatre criticism to fancy up with one of the prefixes popular for decades, such as ‘post’, ‘trans’, ‘cross’, ‘inter’, ‘multi’. This comment is not supposed to be taken seriously – it is nothing more than an outlet of a suspicious sense of humour and not an a priori negative attitude towards the concept of inter-criticism we are here invited to discuss. There is no place for irony because inter-criticism is an essentially provocative notion which, in the serious and developed theoretical form that has been presented to us, truly problematises some of the categories traditionally associated with theatre criticism: objectivity, competency, professionalism, authority, distance… If we sum up the offered hypotheses, we arrive at a conclusion that the continuous transgression of critical practice and the related instability of the position of a critic, which are claimed to be the dominant forms of the profession today, come as a consequence of diverse reasons – aesthetical, cultural-media and ethical-guild. The reasons range from heterogeneity and complexity of new performing practices which defy a universal critical view, through contradictions between the observer and the observed in the contemporary ‘society of spectacle’, to the multiplication and ethically dubious combination of different jobs a theatre critic performs today, especially if he/she is a freelancer[2].

Although these features of theatre criticism undoubtedly have a ground in some elements of the contemporary art, culture, media and society, it should not escape our attention that the issue of critical practice’s ‘transgressive’ character is not new. Before I focus on the main topic of my speech – the ethical challenges inherent in the concept of inter-criticism – I would like to remind you of a debate developed twenty or more years ago about the difference between the criticism from inside and thecriticism from outside. The debate was led in international conferences, but it originated, as far as I know, from French theatre studies and, in the first place, discussions of Bernard Dort. He finds that it is a critic’s destiny to permanently stay stuck between two polar opposites – to assume a simultaneous position from the ‘inside’ (immanent structure of a theatre piece) and the ‘outside’ position (referent frame of the audience).[3] The attribute ‘outside’ is not to be taken to mean some, for instance, audience’ populist expectations, but a general social and intellectual context a performance is inscribed in: according to Dort, such a criticism would at the same time be ‘a criticism of a theatre act as an act of aesthetics, as well as a criticism of the social and political circumstances of theatrical activity’.[4] Developing Dort’s thesis further, this is how Georges Banu formulates this dualism: criticism from insideanalyses a performance measuring it to its own set of rules, while criticism from outside focuses on the wider echoes and associations a performance creates in the contemporary culture and society.[5]

This distinction is rooted, primarily, in the advent and rapid development of theatre studies at that time, and the related advancement of a new profession, originating in the German theatre system: the profession of a dramaturge. Both phenomena – the profession of a dramaturge and theatre studies – mark a breakthrough of knowledge into the domain of making theatre and thinking about theatre, which imposed a demand on the critics to observe a performance from within, and understand its artistic structures and strategies. Such an ‘intellectualisation and professionalization’ of theatrical discourse – both the one in theatre and the one about theatre – coincided with the emergence of new, different and radical forms in theatre; it is actually most probable that these processes were causally interlaced. Speaking about theatre of the 1970s and 1980s, describing it as a theatre where a director only offers a non-authoritarian unity to the stage elements, Dort imposes the following demand on the ‘critical word’: ‘any performance worthy of being called that somehow reinterprets the question of theatre, and calls fora new word each time.[6] (underlined by I. M). Banu, too, explains the advancement of internal criticism by the aesthetical development of the contemporary stage, amplification of its linguistic complexity, resulting in ‘a consequent need for an criticism from inside aimed at an analysis of a performance according to the criteria of the very act of theatre.’[7] Such an approach seriously oversteps the intentions (and competences) of a ‘classical critic’, the one whose basis is more in the media than in theatre science and theatre itself: such a critic’s writing is informing audience about a performance’s narrative and offering an impressionist attitude about the results of artists, actors first of all; an essential understanding of the art of directing is beyond his/her capabilities.

Now, with this historical introduction, some of the criteria suggested to define the notion of inter-criticism no longer allow interpretation through the prism of the present circumstances alone. In the first line, I mean the criterion of the aesthetical distinctiveness of contemporary theatre practices. ‘In contemporary performing practices (hybrid, participatory, post-dramatic, etc.), we can probably no longer speak about one single kind of criticism, but about various methods of critical writing using specific methodologies, approaches and styles, all of which can be incorporated within a single critical work.’[8] As we have seen, Dort and Banu’s emphasis on the dialectic relationship between criticism from inside and criticism from outside was rooted in their awareness of new performing practices which, by their aesthetic features, have not changed essentially since the 1970s, although, the notion of ‘postdramatic’ had not yet been established at the time, while today it is unavoidable: fragmentary, hybrid, multiple strategies… Such a performing practice, then as well as now, obscured a direct and unified aesthetical and ideological view of a critic – it required of him to confront different perspectives in thinking about a single performance, to possess professional knowledge about contemporary theatre, as well as an insight into the intellectual and social trends of his time. The best affirmation of the kinship between the present-day inter-criticism and former dialectics of inside/outside criticism is a linguistic one, and is reflected in Banu’s metaphor: half-hill view. ‘Through alternating opposites, moving towards or away, internal or external, a critic’s activity can, in its long road, come to an ideal position, the half-hill view. And it is not a fixed position, but a product of all the positions adopted along the critical road.’[9] The constant repositioning of a critical view on theatre (with a sensitivity to changes of performing strategies) corresponds to the offered aesthetical criteria of inter-criticism, while the metaphor ‘half-hill view’ implies a position between – inter.

On the contrary to the aesthetic criteria which, thus, follow in the footsteps of the previous critical and artistic practices in theatre[10], the cultural-media and ethical-guild criteria of inter-criticism offered in the call for papers seem to be explicable by the present circumstances and tendencies. As already stated, the main topic of my speech is the issue of ethical challenges brought by the changed position of criticism, or more precisely, a critic, on the contemporary ‘labour market’. I will leave aside the cultural-media conditions for the appearance of inter-criticism because I believe that, although inspiring for theoretical thought, they have no firm base in the everyday practice of theatre criticism.

The offered argumentation supports a hypothesis that, due to the multiplication of a theatre critic’s jobs today, his privileged position of the one who ‘speaks from a distance’ is lost. A possible consequence of such a situation is jeopardising the ethics of the profession, with an emphasis on the ‘conflict of interest’. More precisely, a theatre critic today – a freelance model in particular – is engaged in different fields at the same time: he/she works as a conference mediator, teaches at university, works as an editor of professional journals, hosts festivals, and occasionally gives performances personally, thus stepping out into the space between (inter-) the critical thinking and the artistic action. His multifaceted involvement in the life of theatre, where his interests interlace with the interests of those who create or produce theatre, therefore, results in him losing the distance taken as an ethical precondition of his profession. The loss of distance and relativisation of the notion of ‘objectiveness’ makes it impossible to preserve the same view of the professional ethics in theatre criticism. In short, we are discreetly suggested that aninter-critic is necessarily in a situation of a conflict of interest if the notion is rigidly understood, or, better yet, that the very notion of the conflict of interest is stripped of its sense in the critical practice today.

Analysed one by one, some of these claims about the changed position of the guild and ethical norms of the profession are confirmed, while others stay quite problematic, nevertheless. The greatest change happens, really, on the labour market: a theatre critic today accepts many other engagements indeed, due to, primarily, new and unfavourable financial circumstances. Since today’s media arena is focused on the effective, the momentary, the fast, the superficial and the spectacular, it neglects any kind of artistic criticism (theatre included), which is as a default contrary to the media required characteristics: it is serious, slow, it comes after the event, it cherishes the truth about its artistic subject instead of its superficial effect, it is not inclined to bombastic and cheep judgements… This is why the medias frequently closes down their columns or cut their length and, consequently, their authors’ fees (I guess they follow some arithmetical logic – as many characters as much money), forcing a critic to seek new or additional sources of income. This basic, existential problem is aggravated further by the fact that theatre critics are rarely full-time employees in the media they write for; this situation is as old as the critical profession, but it is much more pronounced today. Although the situation in this respect differs from country to country, the Serbian example seems paradigmatic: of all active theatre critics only three are employed in their media or this is their primary source of income.

This empirical insight confirms that the reasons a critic today is forced to engage in other professions are justified. Thus, a critic resorts to shifting his position into the space ‘between’ – between thinking about theatre and, usually, its post-premiere exploitation (public discussions, festival selections…). However, the conclusion derived from such multiplication of jobs – the loss of distance, problematic position ofobjectivity and relativisation of the notion of the ‘conflict of interest’ – cannot be justified and accepted. Most of the additional jobs available to a theatre critic do not jeopardise, although they might be making it more difficult, the privileged and ethically binding position of the one who speaks about theatre objectively and from a distance.

In regard to this, my first thought is the job of a university lecturer, which offers a position detached from the interests of those who create, produce and/or exploit a theatre performance. A certain kind of problems might occur though in situations where theatre studies – critics are usually recruited from – are within the same faculties (academies or conservatoires) where theatre artists receive their education: mostly in institutions of Russian and East European model. If a professor of theatre studies writes critical reviews about his/her academic colleagues – lecturers teaching artistic subjects at academies are quite often active artists as well – with whom they have no shared interest in theatre, but in the system of education, then such a situation can be a cause to challenges in interpersonal relationships. A similar emotional problem a professor-critic can encounter with his former students who have become active artists in theatre. If such special circumstances are left aside, it turns out that the position of a critic who is at the same time a professor – although in these cases the relationship should be rotated, because professorship is usually the main, and criticism side profession – is a rare one which provides financial security, and directly consequential, enables an absolute distance in regard to theatre production, maintenance of a high moral standard and avoiding a conflict of interest. Thus, the conclusion of this short digression, reveals that the so-called ‘university criticism’, which is define by all theories as a special form of criticism,[11] does not only differ from the press criticism on the grounds of competence in theatre knowledge, but by the criterion of the privileged distance as well. Today this second difference is much more relevant: the majority of active freelance critics in the media of general type have, as a result of adequate education, professional knowledge about theatre, but often lack, as opposed to critics-professors, the comfortable position of a complete independence in regard to theatre.

With other kinds of work he can (or has to) engage in, a freelance critic has more difficulties then a critic-professor to maintain the distance in regard to theatre and its creators, but it does not mean, as already emphasised, that such a distance is jeopardised completely. The participation in public forums with artists, festival selections, editing monographs about great artists – all these engagements jeopardise a critic’s distance only by the communication and co-operation, often quite close, with those who create and/or produce theatre, after which it becomes more difficult to write and think about those people in the same unbiased way. Therefore, the problem is of purely psychological or emotional nature: how to evaluate someone’s work objectively once you have gained an understanding of their inner sensitivity, attitudes, way of thinking? This position is completely contradictory to the attitudes of George Bernard Shaw that a critic ‘should know no one.’[12] However exclusive and exaggerative, quite in the line with the author’s spirit, this recipe highlights the real psychological problem, or better still, a challenge: disjoining the professional attitude to an artist’s work and the private attitude to his personality.

If he succumbs to this kind of psychological pressure, a critic becomes biased (in a worse case) orconstructive (in a somewhat milder case). The notion of ‘constructive criticism’ is quite problematic as it is based on an artist’s expectation that a critic, having grasped his inner creative intentions, values the intention more than the result in case the two are not on an equal level: if a piece is not on the level of the intended. In other words, a critic is supposed to speak on behalf of an artist, with a full understanding and appreciation for the artist’s intentions, thus being ‘constructive’. In his famous Shaw alike essay The Necessity for Destructive Criticism, Richard Gilman offers an explicit claim ‘that the people who insist that the criticism be constructive are invariably asking that it be kind, indulgent, boneless and corroborative, that is not be criticism at all’.[13] Gilman rightfully sees constructive criticism and loyal criticism as one and the same, and makes his point quoting Shaw: ‘because loyalty in a critic is corruption’.[14]

Although the problem of ‘constructive criticism’ or more concretely ‘emotional corruption’ is by no means to be neglected, the fact remains that it works in the delicate fields of the psychological, personal, and the intimate, thus eluding further theoretical analysis. It is quite a private matter how a critic will deal with the challenges of his personal relationship with artists whose work he analyses and evaluates. If readers and colleagues recognise his bias and constructiveness, he will simply lose his authority, provided that he ever had an authority to begin with: objectiveness, indeed, is one of the grounds for earning authority in criticism.
A much more solid ground than this, the one that allows forming a norm according to ethical and/or professional standards, is the field of the conflict of interest. When the problem is transferred to this field, it turns out that almost none of the additional occupations of an inter-critic’s, at least from the list offered in the call for papers for this conference, lead him/her to the conflict of interest. Once again, there is a quite private problem of how a critic will write a negative review, when he sees it appropriate, about an artist on whom he has edited a book; or how will he negotiate with a manager whose production he invites to a festival, even though in the previous years the performances of the same company were left out from his selection; or how will he face an artist he has given a bad review in a later forum or on a committee.

None of these uncomfortable situations, though, can be called a conflict of interest, because this notion is defined, almost entirely, by a critic’s position in the process of creating and producing theatre. This means that a conflict of interest would occur in a case that a critic is employed, for example, as a dramaturge in a theatre, or that a critic is regularly engaged by one or more directors, as a freelance associate, while continuing to write reviews, sit on festival jury panels and committees which decide on theatre financing.

The recently adopted Code of Practice of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC/AICT) reads: … ‘Theatre critics should make every possible effort to avoid situations which are or which can be perceived to be conflicts of interest by declining to review any production with which they are personally connected or by serving on juries with which they are personally connected.’[15] Although I was intensively involved in formulating the Code, or for that very reason, I am unpleasantly surprised to realise that we have failed to explicitly state that a situation of a conflict of interest not only occurs when a critic writes or in any other way evaluates a performance he has personally worked on. Moreover, a conflict of interest occurs if a critic writes about other people’s productions or sits on a jury evaluating such productions, if he is associated with a ‘competing’ theatre, usually as a dramaturge.

The notion of “rivalship” is crucial here: for a critic who is constantly engaged in the work on productions – because he is employed in a theatre or is a regular freelance associate of a theatre – the majority of other artists and theatres present a real or potential competition. This is where a conflict of interest arises. The delicate and complex personal relationships between critics and artists are not subject to sanctions, because they slip formal treatment, remaining in the sphere of individual ethics, which leaves our attitude towards such associations in the realm of subjective opinion. As opposed to that, a conflict of interest can be positively diagnosed, like in all other fields, which can then lead to concrete consequences – however symbolical they might be. The difference between these two types of problematic situations a critic can find himself in – let’s call them extensive constructiveness and conflict of interest – is similar to the distinction between misdeeds subject only to moral condemnation and those subject to both moral condemnation and legal sanction.

If now, at the very end of this speech, we sum up everything stated so far, we come to the following conclusions. The media’s interest in serious artistic criticism is diminishing, due to the fact that focus is shifted towards the superficial and spectacular, so a critic without financial backup in the form of, for example, a regular university position, is forced to seek other kinds of engagement, for existential reasons primarily. This puts him into a position between (inter) observing and participating. Most of the engagements – editing professional publications, acting as a festival selector, jury and committee work, mediating/hosting discussions with artists – jeopardise his distance towards theatre, due to a frequent communication and co-operation with its creators, but, nevertheless, they do not erase it; the position of distance can be preserved, although a considerable psychological effort is necessary. On the other hand, there are jobs with an inherent danger of a critic becoming not only constructive in regard to artists, but leading to a serious conflict of interest. Such situations include a continuous engagement in the creation or production of performances. For a critic engaged in this work, many companies, theatres and artists he does not co-operate with present competition, so that, when he writes about them, he unavoidably falls into the conflict-of-interest trap.

This sharp and clear distinction between the two types of additional work available to a critic who cannot be (or does not want to be) just a critic, makes it clear that his inter-critic position does not unavoidably denial the ethical categories traditionally associated with the profession: distance, objectivity, impartiality… If he avoids a continual engagement in creation of performances, an inter-critic, regardless of all his additional engagements, will not be in a situation regarded to be a conflict of interest.

Therefore, I firmly reject the notion that relativisation of ethical standards can be a criterion for defining inter-criticism: both a freelance inter-critic and a critic-university professor face the same ethical requirements. It turns out that, from the corpus of ethical-guild criteria for defining inter-criticism (as we labelled them earlier), we are left with purely guild ones: those highlighting the changed position of a critic on the labour market, pointing out that he is forced to engage in other kinds of work. But, as it has also been demonstrated, this, too, is not an absolute novelty, but rather an expansion of a situation that has always been present: critics engaging in other professions… Having in mind the negation of the aesthetical criteria in defining an inter-critical position, we could make an ancient conclusion – however prudent they might sound, many of the things offered as new and unique have been present in all times and all places. This, I dare say, is applicable to the provocative notion ofinter-criticism, too.


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[1] Ivan Medenica, PhD, was born in Belgrade. He simultaneously studied Philosophy and Dramaturgy. Now Medenica holds the title of Docent teaching The History of World Drama and Theatre at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts. He regularly publishes articles in the national and foreign theatre periodicals; his articles have been published in French, German, Czech, Hungarian, Spanish, Slovakian, Polish, Romanian… He was the Chairman or co-Chairman of three International Symposiums of Theatre Critics and Experts (2003, 2006, 2009) organized by Sterijino Pozorje festival in cooperation with IATC. He has participated in a number of conferences abroad: Prague, St Etienne, Moscow, Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava, Avignon, Almada, Maribor, etc. He is actively engaged in theatre criticism. He has received the National Award for the Best Theatre Criticism four times, in 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2008. He is member of the editorial board of the theatre periodical Teatron. From 2003 till 2007 Medenica was the Artistic Director of the Sterijino pozorje theater festival in Novi Sad. From 2007, he is The Adjunct Secretary General of the IATC.
[2] International conference „Inter-criticism“, http://www.aict-iatc.org/documents/maribor.pdf
[3] Reference after: Žorž Bani, Dramski kritičar: utopija, biografija i nedoumica, „Pozorišna predstava i jezik kritike“ (zbornik radova s Petog Međunarodnog simpozijuma pozorišnih kritičara i teatrologa), Sterijino pozorje, Novi Sad, 1983, 28
[4] Bernar Dort, Dve kritike, „Scena“, knjiga II, br. 6, novembar-decembar, Sterijino pozorje, Novi Sad, 1989, 19
[5] Žorž Bani, Pogled s pola brda, „Kritika u pozorištu i kritika izvan pozorišta“ (zbornik radova sa Šestog Međunarodnog simpozijuma pozorišnih kritičara i teatrologa), Sterijino pozorje, Novi Sad 1986, 19
[6] Bernar Dort, Tri reči o pozorištu, „Pozorišna predstava i jezik kritike“ (zbornik radova s Petog Međunarodnog simpozijuma pozorišnih kritičara i teatrologa), Sterijino pozorje, Novi Sad, 1983, 43
[7] Žorž Bani, Idem, 23
[8] Call for Papers for the International Conference ’Inter-criticism’
[9] Žorž Bani, Idem, 24
[10] Here we must put a significant remark: although the change of critical discourse caused by new theatre forms can be traced from earlier times, it does not mean that the requirement it imposes on the criticism is not developing further, even becoming more complex today, following an increased fragmentation, hybridity, radicalisation and interdisciplinariness.
Patrice Pavis, Dictionaire du theatre, Dunod, Paris 1996, 76
[12] Džordž Bernard Šo, O muzici (Bernard Shaw, Shaw’s Music), Nolit, Beograd 1991, 27
[13] Richard Gilmann, The Necessity for Destructive Criticism, „Common and Uncommon Masks“, Random House, New York 1971, 13
[14] Idem, 14
[15] http://www.aict-iatc.org/documents/Code of Practice.pdf

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‘Inter-critic’ without a Conflict of Interest