Instead of simply pointing out the shortcomings of the production under review, the critic could suggest better alternatives to solving them, says Finnish dramaturge Juha-Pekka Hotinen.
by Matti Linnavuori
Juha-Pekka Hotinen’s activities have taken him to more vantage points concerning theatre criticism than anyone I can think of in Finland. He has at various times been a critic, a teacher of dramaturgy at the Theatre Academy, and now a dramaturge with a company whose productions attract far less critical attention than they would merit. On the receiving end of criticism, his artistic achievements include experimental and conceptual performances as well as opera librettos for the Finnish National Opera.
Let me put it bluntly: does anyone need for theatre criticism to continue to exist?
“In the 1980s when I used to write newspaper criticism, there was a habit of thinking that critics and artists are on opposite sides, and that it was a pathetic misunderstanding from the artists’ side that criticism should exist for their benefit, when we all knew with absolute certainty that we wrote for the general reader. But there is an enlightening and pedagogical quality to criticism as well. Criticism gives meaning and visibility to works of art in the cultural politics of the society, and in this respect critics and artists are allies rather than enemies.”
Hotinen (born 1957) joined the amateur Student Theatre in Turku in the late 1970s and soon began to write criticism alongside his university studies. He then edited the Theatre Journal till 1988.
“I felt uneasy writing criticism and I believe it was because the outdated journalistic genre demanded that I record value judgments. They resemble the listing of results in the sports pages. Now I am not saying it is unnecessary, on the contrary, readers need to be informed about the shifting value judgments in the arts. Secondly, covering premieres is like reporting news events, and I would prefer arts journalism to resemble political journalism: to anticipate future currents. In theatre journalism, this would mean forsaking the traditional genre of the review. The critic would be present at all phases of an upcoming production, in the planning, in the rehearsals etc. and he would publish these findings before the premiere takes places. The more the critic is involved, the better he perceives the shortcomings of the production. Likewise, political journalism at its most profound and interesting follows undercurrents of development at length, which enables it to reach deeper than a simple opinion poll.”
“It has been considered inappropriate for the critic to give advice to the artists. I support my counterargument by referring to Ernst Bloch’s utopian philosophy: he makes a distinction between concrete constructive criticism versus abstract utopias, i.e. building castles in the air. If the critic simply points out and lists the mistakes of the production under review, this adds up to nothing more than a complaint. The critic could and should suggest a better alternative to the weak points of the production. If I ever return to criticism, this is exactly what I will do: I will provide a better alternative.”
“The basic question is if the art is an autonomous area or a participant among other practices of life. This is not an either-or question but a line, where man places himself at different points in various historical moments. The critic must first decide what he sees as the idea of the art. The critic’s answer to himself then determines what kind of articles and to what kind of media he will write; a glam-magazine may well contain a worthy review and on the other hand, make-up may well be an important artistic genre.”
In 1988, Hotinen moved to the small northern town of Kemi to co-lead its municipal theatre together with Esko Salervo. Returning to Helsinki, Hotinen was recruited to the Theatre Academy in 1991 as a teacher of drama analysis, and under various teaching assignments he remained there till 2009. In his book of theoretical essays (Textual Harassment, 2002, only in Finnish) he among other things introduced the characteristics of postdramatic theatre years before the concept became widely known.
According to a contemporary cliché, in the internet era anyone can be a critic. Anyone can express an opinion.
“Yes, the influence and the power of experts have collapsed. Hierarchies have been deconstructed, which at the outset of postmodernism was perceived as something desirable. Now we are witnessing its downsides also: do we possess the means to differentiate between works of art other than our subjective pleasure? Granted, every opinion is allowed, but not every opinion carries equal weight. A subjective opinion contains less information than an educated view; the latter is something that the critic possesses and the creator of the artwork also, hopefully. The ordinary spectator has opinions, and the same goes for the artist when he moves outside his own artistic genre.”
I have suggested, e.g. in the Conference Papers Section of the current issue of Critical Stages, that theatres should start publishing criticism, since media houses seem no longer interested.
“It would also make sense if the directors’ union published criticism, or any trade union within the theatre branch.”
Since 2009, Hotinen has worked as a dramaturge with the Radio Theatre of the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation YLE. Radio Theatre reaches a huge number of listeners, many more than many a municipal theatre. Still, its premieres are covered regularly by only one newspaper and one literary journal.
You are among the first to face the extinction of criticism.
“Some of my colleagues at Radio Theatre have worked there so long that they have witnessed the gradual decline of critical attention. I am less worried. We have 26 premieres annually whereas the National Theatre has ten. Strictly arithmetically, the amount of space we receive compares well to that of the National. But there are so many new television channels and so much more televised drama that yes, radio has lost plenty of audiences.”
Criticism no longer provides a living to its practitioner, but criticism is written out of passion toward the art. Do you see theatre makers following suit, i.e. becoming amateurs?
“No, at least not entirely. Theatre professions consist of in-depth, special skills. However, the idea that every opinion should be equally important has infiltrated into the theatre also. One sees a radio reporter or an ice hockey coach turn overnight into an executive director of a municipal theatre, as if this change of profession were a matter-of-course. It is not. One must validate oneself. One must convince the artistic institution with one’s talent and ability, and gaining acceptance from the critics is a vital part of that.”
 Matti Linnavuori edits the Performance Reviews section of Critical Stages. He is a regular contributor to Parnasso, a literary journal in his native Finland. He has written, translated from English and directed several radio plays for YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and co-written one stage play, In Search of the Lost Baseball (2006) for Koko Theatre (Helsinki).