Blaž Lukan[1]



Nouvelle critique et théâtre : Transfigurations du jugement critique

Comment, dans un environnement médiatique en transformation, et face à une culture théâtrale offrant tant de choses prétendument « nouvelles », le critique réussit-il à demeurer fidèle à l’époque pure et dure ? En grec, un critique se dit kritikós,soit une personne lucide et capable de différenciation ; mais qui peut demeurer ainsi alors que la forme même de la critique se trouve dans une situation si fluctuante ? Blaž Lukan étudie les nombreuses implications de ces questions dans sa communication.

Every in-depth discussion on theatre criticism is welcome. First of all, there can never be enough self-reflection; it is therefore positive that, like psychoanalysts or psychotherapists, theatre critics undergo peer review, “self-therapy” or “therapy” with their colleagues once a decade (though discussions are indeed more frequent than that). This enables them to reflect on their own critical apparatus, which can forget how to deal with its own self after years of dealing with the other (i.e. theatre or its performances). In relation to the object reviewed, the apparatus can decrease or grow to such a degree that it becomes self-sufficient and insensitive to authentic stimuli from the other side. Secondly, there is a lack of the theory of criticism, i.e. the theoretical reflection on criticism itself, its position and its function – in terms of metacriticism generated by theatre theory (criticism is namely not theoretical by default), or – less likely, of course – in the form of argument-based analysis created by the addressees, “the victims”, the creators, who the criticism is intended for, and even by the readers, who consume it in the mass media.

Discussion on the new role of criticism, on a criticism that is suitable in view of the changes occurring both in the performing arts and mass media markets, is also welcome. Theatre changes, develops and refines – and so does the media landscape, which hardly needs to be pointed out. Criticism tries to keep up with the changes. In doing so, it has several strategies at its disposal. The first strategy is that of insisting on the achieved, on the “universal” in criticism, on its established position, which most frequently manifests as absolute, separate, superior and faithfully observed criteria – the axioms painstakingly acquired over the course of centuries. The second strategy is that of adapting to new demands at all costs, adjusting to new conditions and quickly reacting to the provocations coming from the theatre and the media (as well as from their consumers – after all, theatre audiences and media users consist of the same population in complementary roles). The third strategy is that of resisting change, not through dignified insistence on the achieved and the reproduction of critical authority, and not through a full acceptance of new roles, but rather through a conscious and programmed opposition to the new; not in terms of preserving the old at all cost, but by creating an individualist, original attitude and approach. Due to the in-built principle of rebellion towards both the new and the traditional, however, that approach can be biased and “non-objective”, which makes it useless. As is customary in such cases, the strategy we are interested in is a combination of all three: that of preserving the good old universal criticism while drawing on inspirational new criticism and remaining original, authorial and creative in the process.

Nevertheless, this “middle” road is not to be taken for granted; actually, it is only an ideal, a utopia. Frequently, the “good old” or the universal is a sediment clinging to the critic like a redundant body part or organ, a disturbance within the apparatus, which is then unable to properly perceive the artistic production in terms of its originality or newness. Frequently, newness at all cost deteriorates into self-consciousness, into applauding oneself, one’s own originality and wittiness while losing touch with the object. Clinging to an inspirational novelty frequently results in the loss of both tradition and individuality, boiling down to blindly following new trends and products on the theatre market, as well as the changed laws that the two generate. A “middle-path” critic who considers neither his own outgoing points nor the changes on the market in which he operates, thus frequently becomes enslaved by his own individual model. He blindly insists on his critical position (“authority”), from which he also draws his argument apparatus until – not infrequently – it is completely empty or reduced to such a degree that his (former) critical greatness dwindles to mere rhetoric. The only quality such a critic has could perhaps be his persistence or duration (which, of course, can also be a nightmare), since persistence is undoubtedly an important notion in criticism. To follow theatre as a phenomenon in time (i.e. a continuity), in its duration rather than just the moment in which a performance takes place means to perceive, record and evaluate an essential moment of theatre that tends to be forgotten when discussing the transience of theatre. In spite of everything, theatre does last, continuously renewing itself in its repetition and making use of all the empirical experience of the past – not just its own but also that of others – something that is common, let’s say human. In this way, it transgresses from a performance into the spectacle of the world, integrating a knowledge that is wider than just inherently theatrical. A critic with an “unlimited term of office” can detect this duration, record it and once again note in new performances the sediments from past, foreign and general sources; in this way, he weaves theatre into the context or network that theatre itself ultimately strives for. Of course, there is always the danger of not seeing the trees for the forest, but this is not what we are dealing with at the moment. We are focusing first and foremost on the aspect of duration. One-time critical phenomena, one-day criticism fads – when a new critical pen glistens with insight and sensibility for a new theatre phenomenon and then disappears, sinks, discontinues the critical observation along with the phenomenon itself – are not rare but actually quite regular. Such a critic does a rather poor favour to his subject (and himself, if he takes himself seriously at all) because one of the functions of criticism (be it unwitting or planned) is that of keeping up and assisting the establishment, defence and promotion of theatre, its aesthetics and authors close to the critic in one way or another. Willingly or unwillingly, a critic always becomes a companion and defender of a certain type of theatre, direction, phenomenon, trend or author that he identifies with. This does not mean that he loses his legitimacy as a critic; he namely never subordinates his individual views to the trend, but only finds himself in the same line with it, on the same path. Of course, a critic may also take the opposite course, subordinating the trend to his vision and, by promoting it, actually promote his own self. Not only his critical stance (“taste”), but often highly concrete interest-based connections with the context, either creative, economic or political; however, these are already deviations from criticism, which profoundly avoid its true nature.

The above discussion on the search for critical strategy and durability brings us closer to the central theme of this paper. It is connected with a critical foundation or the basic instruments of critical methodology. What makes criticism what it is? Several answers are possible, especially if we refer to the original, etymological meaning of the concept. In ancient Greek, kritikós means a person who is lucid and capable of differentiation. The ancient Greek term for differentiation or telling apart is análysis, i.e. the fundamental solution, unloosing, deliverance, liberation. Criticism is therefore the power of discerning and judging (the critic is always judicious) or an activity involving the reflection of (on) art. It is an analytical process, by means of which notions formed on the basis of concepts are solved and differentiated, separated and categorized, grouped and isolated, but in such a way that the relationship between them is finally clear, as is the relation of the analyst toward one side or the other: his judgment. The basic critical strategy is that of remapping critical objects – their redistribution, in which the so-called original distribution of the critical object already takes place with the act of the perception or transfiguration of the performance event (an “objective” act in the process of perception) and settling it within the reception apparatus. The reception is perhaps the only factor that is not arbitrary because it is “physiological” (although it is also possible to problematize the gaze itself, its nature, function and power of perception; in postmodernism, the gaze is infected and constructed, with its “objectiveness” influenced by contemporary technology, which transposes it into the field of the mediatised). Even though rooted deeply in the subjective, reception is “objective” as such; everything that follows is based on the subjective critical intentions springing from the immanent analytical or critical codes. The critic differentiates high quality from low quality, left from right, high from low, good from bad – all this on the basis of immanent criteria and his own judgment. Judgment means evaluation, the categorizing power of criticism. The critic does both: he judges and differentiates, differentiates and judges.

This, of course, is the basic, theoretically “clear-cut” position. Essentially, criticism does both, which is why we speak of criticism in the first place. In practice however, there are numerous derogations. Actions (writing and publication) that do not differentiate end up joining, amassing, synthesizing (and the same is true in criticism, but only after the analytical phase), creating collections and stock (deposits) that often harbour power, not that of the art itself but especially that of the critic and his criticism. Actions that do not judge in fact promote, establish, praise and hail – i.e. advocate something that has been decided on in advance rather than recognized on the basis of analysis. Here, we arrive at the concept of arbitrariness, i.e. self-will, a calculating decision, programme, order and the essential approximation that the critic will follow instead of analytical insight, conclusion and the resulting power of utterance, i.e. the power of judgment. The critic namely judges/evaluates/assesses (as I will explain shortly, it is about a triple qualifier) on the basis of recognizing the value or price of the object of critical processing – in our case, that of a performance. Value, however, is not initiated into, labelled or placed on the artistic object, but seems to be inherent, with the criticism “reading” it (if prejudicing, we could say constructing it) by means of the implicit method of criticism.

When speaking of value, one should be aware that this particular field is quite touchy and difficult to discuss. First of all, how can value be recognized/“seen”, and secondly, how can it be defined/derived? What is value? Within the aesthetic framework, value is beauty as such, an immanent category – the quality of the beauty that corresponds to our aesthetic apparatus or “taste”. Value is determined by means of evaluation, i.e. with the process of perception and recognition, i.e. that of the definition of value. This is similar to another partially synonymous notion connected with the activities of criticism –evaluation. This is also a critical procedure for determining or recognizing the price of the artistic work (the very word “e-valuation” alludes to the value or price). Realistically speaking, however, despite being used in formulations like “the aesthetic value” or “a highly valued artistic work”, value and price are not only aesthetic, but also economic categories. By introducing economic categories into our discussion, we suddenly find ourselves in another field – that of the political economy. Consequently, the value and price are no longer inherent in the artistic work or rooted within it as its very essence (art as the production of beauty, where the beauty has an aesthetic value and price), but projected onto, arbitrarily added and ascribed to the artistic work. It is the economy that ascribes a price to products. There is no such thing as a natural, “organic” price. A price is always an agreement between various factors and economic categories; to top it all, it is changeable, adaptable and in accordance with the market conditions. Price is a phenomenon of (or on) the market, where artistic works circulate just like any other item; nevertheless, the primary market of art is cognitive and aesthetic rather than the utilitarian economic market of supply and demand.

We do not stick our heads in the sand in connection with the art economy, but the essence is as follows: a criticism that, in the course of its work, forgets, leaves out, adapts, transvalues or “transfigures” the aesthetic notion of value, price and judgment into something economic, becomes an arbitrary power functioning on the economic art market. This is a fact known well enough in the history of criticism, and we can also perceive various variants of the market role of critics nowadays in certain environments. We warn against this phenomenon especially because it presents a trap for criticism (called intercriticism at this symposium). Let us point out right away that, while warning about this trap, our aim is not to preserve the essence of criticism, the essentialist (modernist) concept of sealing criticism into an ebony tower of untouchability and marvellous isolation, from which it can pass judgment on the beautiful and the sublime unburdened with the everyday and the profane – that is, with life as such. We are aware that the times for that kind of criticism are over, that the contemporaneity is much more intertwined, that the tendency towards purity is not its superior feature and that the fast-paced time of reduced expectations wards the gaze away from clear recognitions. We are not trying to lament the contemporaneity either. What we are attempting to do is define a certain minimum essence of criticism, a certain threshold that criticism cannot cross because, if it does, it would no longer be criticism but something else – oftentimes an activity that we nowadays term with two consecutive letters, PR, which is actually the very opposite of criticism. PR stands for apology, the praising mechanism, promotion as enforcement – as assigning value, worth and price to something arbitrarily determined. We are trying to answer the simple abovementioned question: when is criticism actually criticism?

We are aware of the sensitivity of the discussion. Criticism is not a monosemous field – not clear-cut and pure in genre, but of many branches and faces, a multi-operational activity. It does indeed judge, evaluate and assess – it does deal with value, price and judgment and can be a differentiating power, but it comes across differently in various historical periods and value/aesthetic systems. However, criticism is never just a sum total of the factors of a historical period or a value/aesthetic system; it is not a statistic or an arithmetic calculation. To put it bluntly, criticism constantly constructs its own critical position, which is why this construction of the critical position or stance is something that merits discussion. There is no immanent value/price and judgment that we can ascribe to or, more precisely, extract from an artistic work or phenomenon. There is no historically independent, “eternal” universal value that criticism would be able to derive from an artistic work; if there were, criticism would turn into a monstrous activity, something close to “godly” and creative or destructive in character (admittedly, criticism does have such ambitions sometimes). There is no a priori critical power; if there is, it is called apriorism. This means that criticism is aware of its constructed character, of the limits and temporary nature of its actions and lifespan, which results from the connection of many urgencies and coincidences, including those of critical stance, “taste” and powers of differentiation and judgement. Therefore, there is also no common denominator that could underpin newly emerging critical (as well as artistic) phenomena and reduce their values to an elementary prime number, a universal artistic value. At the same time – and at this point, let us again warn about the sensitivity of the subject – without this basic value, this elementary particle around which the entire critical procedure evolves, there is no criticism as such. Does this mean that we find ourselves in an insoluble dilemma?

Not really. The notions of value, price and judgment, which we essentially defined as a single notion or procedure, are always aware of their predestined, “transient” and constructed character. This awareness of the critical criteria and their enforcement is constructed, self-built and self-created, which, along with their constant self-reflection, give rise to the foundation of the “law of aesthetics”. This law is never pure relativism; it is not absolute either as it struggles to reach its stances over and over again. It does not place them in advance and as given once and for all, but reaches them on the basis of differentiation and judgment. It is aware that judgment is not a logical successor to analysis; this is the critical doctrine of modernism (at least in the theatre context; it can perhaps be traced back to Lessing). It is aware that it is nothing but a construct, springing from analysis as a deconstructive approach. The difference or nuance is essential and the first thing we need to do is get rid of the reproach of arbitrariness. Construction does not equal an arbitrary procedure – i.e. an agreed, calculated stance inherent in the subject – but the highest possible approximation to a final realization or knowledge, which never becomes final. Criticism therefore does make judgments, which are always uttered clearly with a sovereign critical power, but always recognizes the possibility of exception, both in relation to the object (artwork) and to its own self (its own judgment). Such criticism is not dubious, but one that constantly reflects upon itself and creates the conditions for its functioning on all possible markets from the aesthetic to the political, while being firm and persistent in its instantaneous “temporary” decisions.

Such criticism still remains criticism – i.e. (nearly tautological) criticism as criticism, despite the fact that it can take on different manifestations or embodiments in the process of its expansion, which are all also ascribed to intercriticism. If such criticism functions within theatre or the performing arts – i.e. if it is no longer standing on the other bank, but swimming or drowning in the same river as art itself – it does so with the awareness of its own predetermined character. It never stops with critical (i.e. differentiating and judgment-oriented) thinking although it does not ultimately pronounce a verdict, which is not even necessary in this case. As already stated, a verdict is not a necessary succession to differentiating thought; the differentiating power does not necessarily utter a verdict, i.e. an aesthetic or ethical punishment (which is a verdict in an etymological sequence). To differentiate also means stating one’s opinion, which is different to the prevailing one – one’s own, original individual opinion, which can contribute to the improvement of something already existing and prevalent, or to the recognition of something not yet existent or new (this is the functioning of, for instance, critics in the role of dramaturges, which is fairly frequent at least in this environment). For instance, in the case of selecting for festivals or participating in panels or juries, this double critical power can create a new context subordinated to criticism and critical judgment, which are already calculated into its course (i.e. content or dramaturgy). The positive and even creative participation of the critic within the artistic field is never completely excluded (indeed, the participation of the critic on the “other bank” is also creative); the critic constructs his creative position with the awareness of his own critical nature, which does not have to be pushed aside, suppressed, forgotten or denied – indeed quite the opposite. One needs to act in connection and in harmony with it. After all, we are convinced of this by (foreign and domestic) examples of critics who have been engaged in the artistic activities of individual artists or institutions due to their (relentless) critical practice (K. Tynan, J. Vidmar). Derogations are of course possible and frequent. The economic definition of criticism, value, price and judgment (with the purpose of ascribing greater value, achieving a better price, acquiring a more favourable judgment) is frequent and criticism tends to mix with it. Something needs to be clear, however: a critic in the service of economy (and consequently politics) is no longer a critic (admittedly, 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 either) and has no moralist agenda in the background. In this case, criticism is transfigured into something else: either (under the best circumstances) into artistic production as such, its analytical support or (in a worst-case scenario) into its supply and sale, but strongly connects with the context in either case.

In a time that can also be called post-criticism, criticism thus frequently renounces its primordial differentiating power, placing itself into the service of various arbiters. Under the constant basic awareness of its own unreliability, which is its fundamental “genetic” determinant, it is transformed. In this particular period, critical judgment also undergoes various transfigurations and objectifies itself in various, frequently “negative” theoretical and practical fields: in the “accidents” of timely critical thought (Rancière), in the managerial and curatorial practices as elementary manifestations of the will to power, in selections and jury panels that are usually controlled by capital or politics, in the production of festival sensations, manipulations of media attention, etc. However, contemporary critical practices also generate an unexpected “positive” critical profit: they bring performing arts production closer to the context, i.e. they contextualize it and open it while indicating the possibilities of its integration into the environment, along with the possibilities of transcending or revolutionizing this environment. They are therefore a guarantee of a new impact. – Nevertheless, we should find suitable terms for the concepts and phenomena. The introduction of the notion of intercriticism seems a good attempt in this direction.


[1] Dr. Blaž Lukan is a dramaturg, writer and theatre critic. He is an assistant professor of dramaturgy and the head of dramaturgy at the Academy of Theatre, Film and Television in Ljubljana, member of the editorial board of magazines Maska and Amfiteater, and president of Slovene Association of Theatre Critics and Researchers. He was the artistic director of Glej Theatre and Slovene National Theatre Celje, he published several books, like Dramaturgical Figures: Essays on Today’s Theatre, Theatre Idioms (Gledališki pojmovnik), and an overview of Slovene dramaturgy (with a theoretical introduction) Slovene Dramaturgy: Dramaturgy as Theatre Practice.

Copyright © 2011 Blaž Lukan
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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New Criticism and Theatre: Transfigurations of Critical Judgment