by Ott Karulin[1]

aOtt-Karulin-photo-by-Kaspar-Roost-8x6

At the last-year’s International Federation of Theatre Research annual conference, on the subject of ‘Mediating Performance,’ I asked rhetorically where have all the critics gone?[2] With the ever-rising freedom to speak one’s mind in the blogosphere and/or in social networks, has the era of professional theatre critics finally ended? When everyone can be a critic whose opinions are easily accessible and widely read both by the audiences and artists, the concept of professionalism has to be redefined.

The Double Position of Critics

The autonomous field as defined by Pierre Bourdieu “… is a separate social universe having its own laws and functioning independent of those of politics and economy,” but at the same time, “whatever its degree of independence is, it continues to be affected by the laws of the field which encompasses it, those of economic and political profit.”[3] With the fields of cultural production, such as the theatre field, these outer-field affects are even more important since art is always open to consecration by those outside the field; that is the audiences and the critics. For Bourdieu, the position of audiences is rather heteronomous, or as Hans van Maanen has put it: “As ticket-buyers they are part of the economic field; as students they are part of the educational field; as decision makers they can be part of the field of power.”[4] Still, in all these cases, audiences are outer-field agents and, although according to Bourdieu the fields of cultural production have to direct their products to only those on the same field, I would argue that a total autonomy of a field is just a theoretical possibility. Critics, on the other hand, take a double position: they are part of a theatre process (since their feedback, that could be a reflection of the audiences’ perception, might influence the future artistic choices of an artist), but at the same time they are always looking in from outside (as model spectators who mediate the artistic intentions to the outer-field agents, that is to the potential audiences), thus indicating the presence of the field.[5] Therefore critics should be approached as an autonomous field on its own, that at the same time is a mediating field between the fields of theatre and audiences. If we add the fields of criticism and audiences to Anneli Saro’s depiction of the theatre field as one of the fields of cultural production that is influenced by the political, economic and social fields[6], we get the following. Figure 1:

Figure 1. Relations between the theatre field and other fields[7]
Figure 1. Relations between the theatre field and other fields[7]

It is claimed here that because of the double position of critics as shown on Figure 1, reviews are from one side the mediators of inner-field rules to the audiences, and at the same time critics guard the demand of agents acting according to these inner-field rules. Or, in other words, critics always have to simultaneously serve the interests of many fields: on one side defend the autonomy of the theatre field (make value judgements only based on inner-field rules) and, on the other side, offer valid information to the potential audiences that they could make the decision to buy tickets to a performance and not regret it later on.

The Functions of Criticism

This brings us to the functions of theatre criticism. I will now concentrate on the functions of criticism in relation to the artwork. I agree, to a certain, less-hierarchical degree with Yun-Cheol Kim, who has stated: “I firmly believe that the most important function of theatre criticism is — and should be — to generate interest in the theatre arts in society.”[8] At the same time I disagree with Mark Brown that, “professional critics should be defending their unique literary craft, rather than accepting the idea that they, as a literary species, are constantly straining to join the ranks of the artists whose work they analyse.”[9] For me, although criticism–especially reviews in daily newspapers which have to suggest to readers that they should or should not see a particular show–has some characteristics of a commodity, any critical writing is also always an artwork in its own right. The only question is, when do the artistic intentions of a critic become more important than other functions of criticism and, if that becomes the case, is this still criticism?

In order to give my comments more focus, I will, for the time being, leave the questions of promotion of arts and aesthetic value. The functions of criticism in relation to the artwork are: preserving the artwork for history; interpreting the artwork; giving a value judgement on the artwork; mediating the artwork to the potential audiences; and giving feedback for the artists involved with the artwork. Preserving the artwork for history has long been one of the main functions of criticism; descriptions of what was seen on stage, as printed in reviews, were the only means to get information about the theatre in the past. However, today, when most of the productions are recorded, one could argue that this function is no longer of importance. I disagree, as the recordings hardly ever give the necessary context of reception to make value judgements on artworks of the past. The two following functions–interpreting the artwork and giving value judgements on artworks–have often been seen as opposites[10] and, even today, there are critics who believe in interpretation without judgement, and those who feel that judgement is the main function of any criticism. But one shouldn’t underestimate the impact which interpreting of artworks has on the development of the academic vocabulary of theatre studies. The function of mediating the artwork to potential audiences has been previously shown in Figure 1. As has already been stated, the double position critics have is dependent on the function of giving feedback to the artists involved with the artwork.

Keeping the above five functions in mind, I have researched the critical writings of productions awarded the prize for Best Directing from 2009 to 2012 in Estonia to see what functions are present in different types of criticism. Three types were distinguished: academic articles in culture magazines; reviews in daily newspapers; and entries in theatre-specialized blogs. In terms of preserving the artwork for history, some texts were marked by: extensive descriptions of the setting, or mise-en-scène,; interpretations which were notable for the contextualisation of the themes addressed in the productions; mediation, whereby there was either an intent to introduce the production for those who have not yet seen it (usually via a short synopsis of the plot) or the author made a suggestion to see or not to see the production under review. Finally, in terms of feedback, some critical texts argued with the artistic choices of the director, actors or designers; even if the argument was just “I didn’t like it!,” this was taken as judgement. The outcome is shown in the following Table 1:

Table 1: Functions represented[11]
Table 1: Functions represented[11]

As is evident from Table 1, reviews in daily newspapers are much more oriented towards making a clear value judgement and mediating the artwork to its potential audiences than academic articles in cultural journals, which are mainly oriented towards the artists, giving them feedback. Equally evident in all three types of critical writings was the fading importance of preservation for history as the function of criticism. Somewhat surprisingly, if one would have to write about these productions in one hundred years time, one would get a much better description from blog entries than from newspaper reviews. The reason behind that is the lack of tools of the bloggers to analyse the productions, hence they often turn to describing exactly what they saw. Another surprise was the low number of blog entries that tried to mediate the productions–only one quarter of them made some sort of a suggestion as to whether the reader should go and see the production. That means that the main purpose of blogging is to share one’s value judgements and all the other functions are fulfilled only when they help to make this judgement even more exact and memorable.

Perhaps the most important conclusion of my research is the observation that professional critics are more eager than before to use superlatives in their value judgements and prefer more often to write in the first person; both of which have hitherto been the characteristics of blog entries (at least in Estonia). At the same time, bloggers are learning the specific vocabulary of writing about theatre, so one has to wonder if the line between the professional and amateur criticism is fading; even more so since blog entries are bigger in volume and read more both by the audiences and artists, due to their simpler usage of language and clearly articulated value judgements.

Coming back to the position of critics as shown on Figure 1, one has to ask if in the (near) future the professional critics will merge with the audience field (since they are writing as bloggers, and, therefore, following the rules of the audience than the theatre field), or will the growing volume and popularity of blog entries force them to find new ways of writing criticism that might never get published, thus becoming agents of the theatre field. In both cases the field of criticism, as an autonomous field, would disappear, unless these two extremities could co-exist. The latter would, from the optimistic viewpoint, mean that theatre criticism concentrates on all above-mentioned functions of criticism in expected genres: interpretation in academic articles; mediating in daily newspapers; subjective value judgements (from which faux-shame is absent) in blogs and giving feedback to the artist through what I call cooperative and individual criticism.

Function-specific Criticism: an Example

The symposium on ‘Inter-criticism’[12] held in Maribor, Slovenia in 2010 offered a new term to cover the many ways where critics use their knowledge. The papers delivers there created a rather heated discussion. Blaž Lukan argued that “a critic in the ‘service’ of artistic production as a creative author or at least a dramaturge, frequently termed an ‘internal critic,’ is not a critic.”[13] Ivan Medenica suggested that a critic who does other than write criticism will “jeopardise his distance towards theatre, due to a frequent communication and co-operation with its creators,” although admitting that “the position of distance can be preserved, although a considerable psychological effort is necessary.”[14] A few years later and based on my personal experience with “frequent communication and co-operation” with artists, I would suggest that we should not try to force the many practices of critics under one term such as ‘inter-criticism,’ but, rather, first analyse the different practices on their own and then, perhaps, come to a conclusion.

Therefore I will now look more closely at cooperative and individual criticism; that is a critic giving feedback to an artist vis-à-vis the latter’s work.[15] Let me first define the terms. In cooperative criticism the giving of feedback to an artist takes place during the rehearsal period and the extent of involvement can vary from a one-time meeting between the critic and the artist(s) after the dress rehearsal to regular meetings with artist(s) throughout the rehearsal period. In individual criticism the critic gives feedback after the opening night in a private meeting with, or a personal letter to, the artist(s). In both cases the initiative should come from the artist, but the extent of critics involvement and the methods of giving feedback (written or spoken, just for the director or for the whole troupe), and to the extent to which critics should make public the knowledge they get from witnessing rehearsals[16] should be negotiated beforehand. One could ask what is the motivation for the critic to get involved with cooperative or individual criticism, beyond allowing the artist to use him or her as a professional model spectator? Insight into working methods of a certain director and testing your interpretation tools (any critic is familiar with the danger of over-interpreting) are the first two that come to mind. And still, how does a cooperative critic differ from a dramaturge who also follows the rehearsal period and gives regular feedback? The difference is in the positioning: a dramaturge is a co-creator, but a critic, regardless of how involved s/he is, should always stay an outsider, a spectator from outside. I agree with Medenica that to keep such a position “a considerable psychological effort is necessary.” It does raise ethical questions, as feared by Blaž Lukan, since the temptation to give director’s remarks–that is, explicit ideas on what could be done with the remaining rehearsal time to improve the artwork–is enormous. But, as said before, if the critic and the artist agree on rules beforehand, function-specific criticism, such as cooperative and individual criticism, might actually be a way for professional critics to avoid becoming redundant in the world of blogs, and would also assure that all the functions of criticism are still fulfilled.


aOtt-Karulin-photo-by-Kaspar-Roost-8x6

[1] Ott Karulin is the head of Estonian Theatre Agency and has written theatre reviews for the last ten years. In Spring 2013 he defended his PhD in theatre research at the University of Tartu with a dissertation titled “Rakvere Theatre in search of Full Games in 1985 to 2009.”
[2] Karulin, Ott 2012. Where have all the critics gone? – The annual conference of the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR) Mediating Performance, Santiago de Chile, Chile, 22.-28.07.2012.
[3] Bourdieu, Pierre 1993. The Field of Cultural Production. Essays on Art and Literature. – Polity Press. Cambridge.
[4] Maanen, Hans van 2009. How to Study Art Worlds. On the Societal Functioning of Aesthetic Values. – Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Saro, Anneli 2009. The Dynamics of the Estonian Theatre System: in Defence of Repertoire Theatre. – Methis. Studia humaniora Estonica, nr 3. Saro, Anneli ja Luule Epner (koostajad ja toimetajad). Tartu Ülikooli kirjanduse ja teatriteaduse osakond, Eesti Kirjandusmuuseumi kultuurilooline arhiiv, Tartu.
[7] Karulin, Ott 2013. Rakvere Teater “täismängude” otsinguil aastail 1985–2009 [Rakvere Theatre in search of Full Games from 1985 to 2009]. – Dissertationes de studies dramaticis Universitatis Tartuensis, no 2. Tartu: University of Tartu Press.
[8] Yun-Cheol Kim 2010. Three Questions I Keep Asking Myself in Practicing Criticism. Critical Stages: the IATC webjournal, Spring, No 2.
[9] Brown, Mark 2012. The Critic is Not an Artist. – Critical Stages: the IATC webjournal, December, No 7.
[10] Kirby, Michael 1974. Criticism: Four Faults. – The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 18, No. 3, Criticism Issue (September), pp. 59–68.
[11] Karulin, Ott 2012. Liftikriitika – paratamatus või mitte? [The Elevator Criticism: Inevitability or Not?] – Sirp. Estonian Culture Paper, No 36 (28.09).
[12] International conference ‘Inter-criticism’ was organized by the Borštnik Theatre Festival, Maribor and the Association of Theatre Critics and Researchers of Slovenia and held in Maribor, Slovenia, 20–21, October 2010.
[13] Blaž Lukan 2011. New Criticism and Theatre: Transfigurations of Critical Judgment. Critical Stages: the IATC webjournal, June, no 4.
[14] Ivan Medenica 2011. ‘Inter-critic’ without a Conflict of Interest. Critical Stages: the IATC webjournal, June, no 4.
[15] Karulin, Ott 2012. Kaasamis- ja individuaalkriitika – kirjutada või mitte? [Cooperative and Individual Criticism: To Write or Not to Write?] – Sirp. Estonian Culture Paper, No 45 (30.11).
[16] However, it should be noted that function-specific, even cooperative criticism shouldn’t forget other functions such as preserving the artwork for history.

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Re-negotiating Professional Criticism