Sam Williams*

In 2010, as art editor of an English-language magazine in Berlin, I was asked to take part in a panel titled “Death of the Critic.” It was organized by a journalist from Toronto, who had started a web TV show she described as a “TMZ for the art scene.” It was unashamedly trashy and committed to spectacle with a kind of Catholic fervor. She described herself as a “performance journalist.” She would invite artists to touch her (extremely large) breasts in return for being allowed to cross the rope to private art events. We would cycle on battered bikes from Mitte to Kreuzberg—attempting against all odds to attend all gallery openings on a given night—some combination of drunk and stoned, with our hearts broken open and knees grazed like children.

Art opening in Berlin

Beneath the bohemian nonsense, there was also something profound: a sense of the numinousness of the live encounter and a critical responsibility to communicate the raucous, anything-is-possible-ness that opens up in front of a work of art as it does in the unscripted encounters of life itself. There was also a belief that thinking about art is not something that belongs to ivory towers and dinner parties, but to the street and the demos: something that belongs to us all.

A bust-up with a lamppost put me in hospital, she was evicted from her flat, and the panel never happened. Besides, I asked: hadn’t criticism always been in crisis? She didn’t think so. Clement Greenberg. Rosalind Krauss. Jane Jacobs. Michael Fried. These were the 20th Century’s crusading critics, who had fought for the space for new art forms to come into being. Where were the crusading critics for the twenty-first century? What would a crusading criticism look like now?

Seven years on, having stepped sideways from art into theatre, and from Berlin to London, I find that the question persists. I experience this both as someone writing about theatre informed by visual art and as someone making theatre and feeling the need for a critical ecology (as both landscape and movement) that seeks to understand and dress[1] new work. Perhaps more importantly, as part of an audience, I feel the need for criticism that mediates between the confusion of the cultural moment and the work that interprets it, which stitches them together and enables me to do the same.

The last hundred years have seen the end of painting,[2] the crisis of the museum[3] and the end of art as such.[4] The death of criticism retains its place in discussions across several fora, including this one.[5] Uniquely for criticism though, crisis is a native state. As Paul De Man has noted, [6] criticism without crisis fails critically: “all true criticism occurs in the mode of crisis.” Criticism belongs at the heart of the mise-en-abyme that constitutes a work of art—the “self-reflecting mirror-effect by means of which a work . . . asserts, by its very existence, its separation from empirical reality”.

What De Man describes in respect of a work of literary fiction obtains, making the necessary alterations, for theatre and indeed any work of art. At least within limits: works of visual art may seek to open up this kind of abyss, only to return to everyday reality on the strength of the Kierkegaardian absurd; or—in the terms of object-oriented ontology—to have us feel at home in an increasingly abyssal everyday reality. From this perspective, the crisis of current criticism is really the absence of crisis proper: a failure to put the work into question by relating to its actual origin or intent.

I would like to propose that this is not simply because we live in neoliberal times in which everything registers as crisis, but because we really are in crisis. Really. The current aesthetic crisis goes way beyond theatre, beyond criticism, and beyond the criticality that formal self-searching has embedded in art itself. It is, at root, the crisis wrought by climate change, which has not merely changed how we as humans model our being in the world, but has thrown into question our ability to model reality at all.

The Dead Critic: Farewell to Subjectivity and All That

The dominant mode of criticism in the UK is retreating. Mainstream critical space has contracted further from its already shrivelled monoform. In April this year, The Guardian rescinded Lyn Gardner’s theatre blog. This was a blow to independent theatre, performance, and live art scenes, for whom Gardner was often a lone voice, making emerging work known to a mainstream audience. We can presume that, aged seventy-seven, The Guardian’s lead critic Michael Billington will not be in post much longer, and it is doubtful in the current climate that he will be replaced. That Gardner’s blog has since relocated to the weekly trade journal, The Stage, is less a sign of criticism’s continued currency, than its retreat from the public sphere into backstage business for an industry audience.

In the slow churn of theatre’s critical ecology, Gardner’s semi-retirement comes hot-ish on the heels of John Lahr. Although retired from the New Yorker in 2013, Lahr’s Joy Ride, published in 2015, constituted a final farewell—not just for Lahr, but for the critic-as-public-intellectual as such. Speaking with David Lan at London’s Young Vic in late 2015, Lahr described theatre as a communion between subjectivities, and particularly between the playwright and the critic, representing the audience on media’s public stage. For Lahr, the job of the critic is “getting to the inconsolable” in the artist, while “being your best self.” His favoured artists—mostly playwrights—he describes as “the inconsolables.” The more inconsolable, the better.

Lahr is, in many ways, theatre’s Michael Fried—noted critic of “theatricality” in visual art.[7] Fried is deeply opposed to the encounter between audience and artwork as capable of producing meaning in itself. Fried’s criticism is modelled on buried treasure: an artist has hidden something called “genius” into a thing called a work of art; the critical task is to dig it out. Fried is now something of a figure of fun in the art world,[8] but his analysis is powerful, and continues to shape the popular imaginary of critic and artist alike.

Lahr’s view, like Fried’s, bespeaks the desolation of the subject cast adrift on a dead earth, consolable only by means of another subjectivity skilfully rendered to appear as ‘real’ as his own. The justification for this critical narcissism is the presumption that the critic’s subjectivity speaks to the subjectivity in us all. It can, and sometimes it does. However, the self-mirroring tendency of art tends to reify critical subjectivity as general. It occludes particular subjectivities and closes down emancipatory possibilities—not just for the audience but also for the work, which, through the magic of critical ventriloquism, can be made to speak for itself. It is this role that crusading critics like Clement Greenberg, Rosalind Krauss, Herbert Read and Kenneth Tynan were prepared to fill. Whereas these critics ushered in new movements, I would like to suggest that new critical currents – if they are to respond to the times we are in—will need to cultivate a more discursive kind of criticism. We need to feed ways of making and speaking about art and theatre that collapse movementist paradigms, and that involve audiences and artists alike.

Resisting Criticality: The Lapsed Critic

The noisy exit of the old criticism marks the exit, not just of a specific critical culture, but of the historically specific ontology that birthed it. In this mode, the critic bodied forth an anthropocentric world-view in which a human subject sets out to realize their subjectivity – whether as an agent in the world; as a character onstage, as an artist through his oeuvre; or as a critic through his criticism. Locked within these bounded selves, art takes place as a communion between subjectivities at the site of the impossibility of communion as such: art stands in place of politics.

There is more to it than this, however. Critical models emerge in lockstep with the art forms they describe. Art forms that outrun dominant critical models either simply escape the notice of the cultural apparatus, or else are judged simply to be bad. As Henry M. Sayre has noted, the avant-garde of an entire generation—feminist performance—was glanced over in the 1970s. This phenomenon has not changed over time. In 2010, I attended a conference at Berlin’s HKW—House of World Cultures—“On Rage,” at which two academics summarily dismissed the avant-garde as an historical phenomenon of the early twentieth century. As I was living inside the twenty-first century avant-garde at that time, this was puzzling. The avant-garde in our own era may be simply illegible to a mainstream that either seeks to detect it based on historical model or even rejects it altogether.

Criticism is a cultural practice that stages the mechanisms of cultural politics and political culture at large. As Diederich Diedrichsen has written,[9] the term “neoliberal” has effectively cannibalized itself, collapsing into a signifier on the left standing not for political content but announcing one’s own place on a negatively determined “right” side. Criticality retreats behind a vacuous identity politics of pose.

Outside mainstream media and academia, which is difficult for the public to access, criticism in the UK takes place in the blogosphere, aggregated at the more critical end of the spectrum by Exeunt and supplemented by enthusiast and student blogs, and by writers with their own followings cultivated through social media presence. Subject to the same logic of self-curation as the internet at large, writing on the net tends to collapse criticality into identity-signalling.

A critical culture located in the “cloud” obeys the infernal weather systems of the news cycle. Advocates of “European-style” theatre square up to those against it (perennially Davids Hare, Edgar and supporting cast). Generalized excitement is expressed over theatre from “elsewhere” at the level of style, but ignores the theatrical, cultural and political contexts that produce it. Critical discussion in general is confined to pleasure and displeasure, approval and disapproval. More dismal still are discussions of the infrastructure and funding of UK theatre; and of the need for theatre to be “accessible” to all, while “engaging” specific “communities”. Such false binaries are resolved in an uncreative intellectual space occupied by approved liberal positions. Meanwhile, the politics of representation, policed largely by white men, is reified into an unproductive call-out culture. All this comes at the expense of criticism that confronts theatre and theatremaking on its own terms, or—in De Man’s phrasing—according to its intent and origins.

As Jodi Dean has pointed out, the “struggle for visibility, currency and . . . mindshare”[10] liquidates content into pure circulation, independent of the operational criticism that takes place at the level of making and staging work. This struggle for visibility in the digital agora urges reflex pronouncements oriented around novelty, spectacle and urgent expressions of raw subjectivity, that secure clicks and announces participation, but repress or occlude discourse that is productive of emergent realities. The art that suffers most in this critical climate is one that struggles to articulate these new realities.

Re-sitting Criticism in the Anthropocene

We are in a new era of aesthetics, shaped by ecological emergency, and on the verge of official recognition as a new geological phase determined by human activity: the Anthropocene. There are competing analyses of when this era began, but Timothy Morton has suggested two key temporal sites: the 1790s, when industrial materials started to show up in the earth’s crust, and 1945, when a layer of radioactive material was deposited over its surface. Morton believes that we are in an asymmetric age defined by ontological infinities plunging deep into the heart of all entities – not just the human subject.[11] Our bodies themselves are burial grounds of post-industrial discharge as well as incubators of technofuturist entelechies. Beneath this pressure from without, the subject is compelled to yield.

The dawn of the industrial revolution in 1750, birthed by the philosophy of individualism, economics of capitalism, and fitted with the ideologies of the scientific method, may be some time ago, but its vestiges cling on. Morton’s analysis figures that we have gone beyond the ages of Romantic “isms,” itself a romantic notion, which is why when we look for artistic movements we discover that – like other discrete identities – they have vanished. Where modernism undertook the project of categorizing existing forms and postmodernism the process of breaking them down into constituent elements, we are now in an age of new aesthetic forms struggling to be born.

Stückemarkt, Theatertreffen16: black holes. Photo: Piero Chiussi / Agentur Stand

There are signs that object-orientation is already making its way into theatre. Pitches by emerging artists for the Stückemarkt at last year’s Theatertreffen Festival in Berlin foregrounded the post-human condition, black holes and audience-contingent processes. In the UK, such gestures are more tentative. Last year’s Oil[12] still strikes naturalist notes in its text and design but, in tracing the material history of oil across the map through successive generations and metempsychotic entities, it attempts to address the new era at the level of form as well as content.

Ella Hickson’s Oil, directed by Carrie Cracknell, and designed by Lizzie Clachan, The Almeida, 2016. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

In this context, new directions for theatre criticism may be gleaned from art writing. Art writing arose in the nineties in response to the increasing conservatism of literary publishing houses vis à vis experimental writing and to art world conceptualism, which had become a reservoir for the avant-garde grammars produced and discarded by literature and theatre.[13] Art writing deploys literary techniques of fiction, non-fiction, journalism, drama and poetry, and moves freely between the registers of philosophy and standup. It is based on an understanding that art takes place in what David Bowie, citing Duchamp, calls “grey space”: “[T]he piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their new interpretation and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle.”[14] He adds: “that grey space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be about.”


David Bowie on art’s grey spaces in the 21st Century, BBC Newsnight, 1999

As art writers, we worked out that the only way to take that grey space experienced in the theatre, gallery or museum to the page is through techniques of representation analogous to those employed by artists themselves. Thus, art writing strives to constitute an art form of its own—not to upstage the work, but to collaborate with it. Art writer Travis Jeppesen—who was also invited to attend that panel on the death of the critic in 2010—proposes the formula of object-oriented writing,[15] which feeds back into criticism’s origins with literature and philosophy in the figure of Diderot.

Jeppesen’s proposal of an art writing that inhabits the (art) object attempts to theorize critical practice in line with the broad field of speculative realism[16], and object-oriented ontology in particular. There is a circularity to this maneuver: of all philosophical currents, object-orientation is perhaps the only one since Nietzsche’s that plausibly developed out of art: Timothy Morton, one of its leading exponents—and originally a Shelley scholar—has said as much: “art is causal. That is what’s frightening about it.” “Ooo” thinking will feel warmly familiar to anyone used to thinking with and through art.

A New Critical Position: Between Art and Theatre

The site of emergent forms of criticality appears now to lie within a rapprochement between the hitherto siloed disciplines of art and theatre. This is partly due to visual art’s tendency to gaze outward onto other disciplines to incorporate them. However, both art and theatre now have to take account of the awkward position of performance and live art as a bracketed discipline between theatre and art. Performance has generally been aligned more with visual art, but shares a point of origin with theatre. The presence of performance within those two contexts effectively alters their constitution.

Nourished by the rich blood of private finance, the critical organs of visual art enjoy a healthier, though not unproblematic, support system.[17] Art criticism has conventionally paid theatre little attention, quarantining it from a discourse to which dance, performance, and music are freely admitted. There are signs that this may be changing. In 2016, Frieze published ten articles tagged “theatre,” compared to three in 2014 and just one in 2015.[18] Recent issues have included reviews of plays in London and New York theatres. This would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, where occasional coverage was confined to the work of experimental theatre artists such as Rimini Protokoll, Romeo Castelluci or René Pollesch. Substantial features have recently been dedicated to understanding the emergent phenomenon of artist’s theatre and evidence a fascination with theatrical form. This is in part dilettantish, but also expresses an appreciation of the qualities of theatre-as-form that makes it suited to analysing current reality.

Another site of critical rapprochement between theatre and art is Berlin’s Volksbühne, which, from September, will be headed by Chris Dercon, formerly director of Tate Modern, with Marietta Piekenbrock as programme director. The programme for 2017-18 seems to comprehend a role for criticism within the institution, asking: “Does it even make sense to think of the world of art in separate categories? What would a contemporary stage look like if it could be designed anew?”[19] There is an impulse here to think theatre critically, in terms of its origin or intent. Indeed, through its new ”discourse” series, the Volksbühne anticipates a place for criticality at the heart of the institution; but instead of orienting it inward as in the case of the in-house dramaturg, it is turned outward, toward the audience. There is a movement to relocate criticality with the audience, and not just within the institution itself.

Critical Service

As dramaturg Bernd Stegemann points out,[20] the ability to articulate and project a worldview, which is the skill of the demagogue, was engineered between democracy and theatre in ancient Athens. It is also the basis of conventional notions of the artist or the critic as a particular kind of self projected onto the world. Criticality at large still hankers after this kind of genius—or, at least, someone with answers. But, as Occupy activists told journalist Paul Mason, when they projected their 99% “bat signal” onto Brooklyn’s Verizon Building: “There is no Batman, dude. The superhero who’s gonna save us—is us.”[21]

Criticism is grappling with new forms that are still being generated, but have not yet gathered sufficient momentum to be fully articulate. In such times, criticism needs to be prepared to wear out shoe leather and burn candles at all ends to advocate for new and emerging art forms. It needs to be as dogged in the work of interpreting theatre for the audience as it is in hunting down admirable work, while providing a sensitive critical context in which such work may come into being.

What Timothy Morton has philosophically termed a “revenge of objects” might also be called the revenge of ecology against the human construct of “nature,” or of the feminine—after the matrixial character[22] of this new landscape of deep objects and dark ecologies. In Hegelian terms, the slave has turned on the master.[23] As object-oriented feminism has made clear, women have a special sympathy with the object:[24] they know what it is to be treated as one.

Work expressing new forms may be incendiary or shocking, but it may also be hesitant and unsure. Work making tentative explorations of new forms requires sensitivity, generosity, and commitment to attempting to understand it on its own terms—to inhabit it—sometimes withholding judgment while it is on its way to becoming. Such work is badly served by an approach that assesses it against markers of quality barnacled with old ideologies. It is no coincidence that these works are often by women or probe female experience as such.[25] The project of an écriture feminine for theatre remains new.

Two performances in search of a form: See Me Now, Young Vic, 2016 (above),
Incredible Bleeding Women, Soho Theatre, 2016 (below). Photo: Matt Humphrey

Current criticism requires an eye on the horizon, an ear to the ground and a willingness to learn from artists, directors and curators what new forms art might take. It also needs to recognize how these new forms might shape and respond to culture. It further requires the critic to deploy new strategies to reformat criticism so that it is competent to respond. It is only a criticism that recognizes the emergent art form in itself that can do justice to emergent art forms onstage, in the gallery, and elsewhere. Whether this will take place at a textual level in cultural digests such as this, or whether critical practice will cede to newly performative tendencies and embed itself within the apparatuses of theatre-making as it has in the art world, it is too early to predict.

Yaël Farber’s Salomé, National Theatre, 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton


[1] “For a long time now, the art critic has seemed a legitimate representative of the art world. Like the artist, curator, gallery owner, and collector, when an art critic shows up at an opening or some other art-world event, nobody wonders, What’s he doing here? That something should be written about art is taken as self-evident. When works of art aren’t provided with a text—in an accompanying pamphlet, catalogue, art magazine, or elsewhere—they seem to have been delivered into the world unprotected, lost and unclad. Images without text are embarrassing, like a naked person in a public space. At the very least they need a textual bikini in the form of an inscription with the name of the artist and the title (in the worst case this can read ‘untitled’). Only the domestic intimacy of a private collection allows for the full nakedness of a work of art.” Boris Groys “Critical Reflections” in ArtForum, October 1997.
[2] Kenneth Clarke “The Future of Painting,” in The Listener, 1935; Douglas Crimp “The End of Painting,” in October, Vol. 16, 1981.
[3] See, e.g. Brian O’Doherty, Museums in Crisis, 1972.
[4] Arthur C. Danto, “The End of Art: A Philosophical Defense,” in History and Theory, Vol. 37, No. 4, 1998.
[5] Mihály Szilágyi-Gá, “Criticizing the End of Criticism,” in Critical Stages, No. 9, February 2014.
[6] Paul De Man, “The Crisis of Contemporary Criticism,” in Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Vol. 6. No. 1, 1967.
[7] Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in ArtForum, June 1967.
[8] “Critic Michael Fried made a career out of misreading Bertolt Brecht in order to attack the ‘theatricality’ of various artworks.” Stephen Squibb, “Stage Craft,” in Frieze, March 2016.
[9] Diedrich Diederichsen, “Weder Wohnung noch Währung,” in Texte zür Kunst 105, March 2017. See here.
[10] Jodi Dean, “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics,” Vol. 1, Issue 1, Cultural Politics, 2005. See here.
[11] Morton’s notion of an asymmetric age is based on his remodelling of Hegel’s Aesthetics, which delineates three ages: symbolic, classical, romantic. Although containing features of all three ages, the asymmetric age also defines itself against them. Timothy Morton, “Art in the Age of Asymmetry,” in Evental Aesthetics, No. 1, 2012. See here.
[12] Oil, written by Ellie Hickson and directed by Carrie Cracknell, The Almeida, 2016.
[13] See, for example, John Douglas Millar’s “Art/Writing,” in Art Monthly, September 2011.
[14] David Bowie, speaking to Jeremy Paxman, on BBC Newsnight in 1999. Accessed via YouTube here (June 2017).
[15] See, for example, here.
[16] Speculative realism is a catch-all term for a strain of 21st century philosophy that originated with a conference between Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux, and Iain Hamilton-Grant at Goldsmiths University in April 2007. For Harman, all it takes to be a speculative realist is to oppose what Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism,” on which, it is claimed, most philosophy is based – on an interplay between human and world. Speculative realism is grounded in a critique of Kant, and embraces: object-oriented philosophy (Graham Harman); object-oriented ontology (coined by Levi Bryant, then adopted Harman and others including Timothy Morton and Ian Bogost); Marcus Gabriel’s new realism; and the new materialisms of Jussi Parikka, Rosi Braidotti, and others. See Graham Harman, “brief SR/ooo tutorial” on his Object-Oriented Philosophy blog, July 23, 2010. More here.
[17] The UK-based publication Frieze is paradigmatic here, operating one of the world’s leading art magazines as well as one of its biggest art fairs and, since 2003, the Frieze Foundation which channels emerging work into the art market.
[18] Analysis based on Frieze’s online archive, updated last year, so there may be omissions.
[19] The pdf of the programme announcement can be downloaded here.
[20] Bernd Stegemann, Das Gespenst des Populismus: ein Essay zur politischen Dramaturgie (2017).
[21] Why It’s All Kicking Off Everywhere, by Paul Mason, directed by David Lan, as seen at the Young Vic on Tuesday, March 28, 2017.
[22] The term is taken from the latin matrix meaning mother, breeding female, womb.
[23] See e.g. G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807, Chapters 1-3.
[24] See, e.g. Katherine Behar, ed., Object-Oriented Feminism, 2016.
[25] A few recent examples are illustrative here: Marisa Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Women (Soho Theatre, 2016; Underbelly Festival, 2017) stages cabaret as a series of menstrual rituals. Deeply rooted in the anthropology and experience of menstruation, it proposes revolutionary reclamation of female power from ecocidal masculinity, and directly connects the suppression of women with ecological catastrophe. The work’s explosive potential was dampened by not having a fully worked-out form to provide structural support. The Young Vic’s See Me Now (2017), devised and performed by sex workers contained insights into the labour of love and eros, and how those workers are criminalized, while their clients’ emotional and sexual needs – which cannot be accommodated by a rigidly enforced unified subject – are squeezed into anonymous and extra-legal spaces. The production was hamstrung by reliance on formal conventions that favoured character-centred redemption narratives and gestural politics that undermined the material. It was begging to be accommodated by a new form. Meanwhile, the critical horror that greeted Yaël Farber’s Salomé at London’s National Theatre was testament to a critical culture unable to compute new formal efforts. See, for example, Matt Trueman’s review for Whatsonstage on May 10, 2017: see here.
Editor’s note: In regards to the section “A New Critical Position: Between Art and Theatre,” in addition to the lineage of work which the author discusses, I would also foreground the significant role of two additional strands: the development of performance writing, particularly at Dartington College in the U.K. in the early nineties, fore-fronted by Caroline Bergvall, Dell Olsen, John Hall and others, and the earlier rise of U.S.-based Poetics in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the Language movement, with writers like Leslie Scalapino, Lyn Hejinan, Carla Harryman, Ron Silliman, Hannah Weiner and more. These “interspersals” of poetics, performance and writing have been at the forefront of alternative practices of criticism in the U.K., alongside the growing community of online criticism, and provide a different mode of understanding what is constituted within and by art writing for criticism.

*Sam Williams is a theatre maker, critic and, currently, a visiting lecturer at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She is working on a contemporary adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Messingkauf Dialogues and developing a model of ecorealist theatre. Previous work has appeared at Berlin’s Volksbühne and was awarded a 2015 Kone Foundation Saari Fellowship. Sam’s journalism and art writing on new aesthetic forms at the intersection of art, theatre and politics has appeared widely, including for Frieze, The Guardian, the BBC and Exberliner, where she was art editor. Twitter: @jaynescarlett.

Copyright © 2017 Sam Williams
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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Criticism in a Time of Crisis
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