Last week I plumbed the depths of my own pettiness for your entertainment. This week I offer a more literary frame as a reflective surface. Wheeeeeee, buckle up…
Ok. Say you get one’a those reviews. You know the ones. The kind that makes you feel totally incapable of rising above your worst self. Like you’re suddenly ashamed to be a person in a body. Maybe it helps you to picture this dude tossing the newspaper aside, screaming “ENOUGH,” ripping the cover from his Underwood, and banging this out on your behalf:
FROM W. H. AUDEN'S 1952 ESSAY 'DE DROITE ET DE GAUCHE'
“The desire to link art to life, beauty to truth, justice to goodness, almost infallibly leads criticism to utter a host of stupidities; a critic who ignores or represses this concern and contents himself with being no more than an amateur or an historian of art avoids covering himself with ridicule, but at what cost. No one reads him.
“Judging a work of art is virtually the same mental operation as judging human beings, and requires the same aptitudes: first, a real love of works of art, an inclination to praise rather than blame, and regret when a complete rejection is required; second, a vast experience of all artistic activities; and last, an awareness, openly and happily accepted, of one’s own prejudices.
“Some critics fail because they are pedants whose ideal of perfection is always offended by a concrete realization. Others fail because they are insular and hostile to what is alien to them; these critics, yielding to their prejudices without knowing they have them and sincerely offering judgments they believe to be objective, are more excusable than those who, aware of their prejudices, lack the courage to enter the lists to defend their personal tastes.
“The best literary critic is not the one whose judgments are always right but the one whose essays compel you to read and reread the works he discusses; even when he is hostile, you feel that the work attacked is important enough to be worth the effort. There are other critics who, even when they praise a book, cancel any desire you might have to read it.”
If you get these posts via email, you’re probably like, “Banging what out? Nothing’s there.” Yeah, sorry. The content exists in dropdown script for my website. What you missed is an excerpt from an essay by W. H. Auden that reads like a treatise on the Critical Ideal. The dude got so chafed he decided to tell reviewers how to do their jobs better.
It’s a cathartic read for any writer who’s ever been dinged in the press. But when Auden claims the best critics are aware and openly accepting of their own prejudices, for the most part he seems to be talking about artistic bias. Which is um…
Ok. It’s easy for those of us who have any kind of career in the arts to imagine we’ve consciously styled our aesthetic biases. And as long as we’re able and willing to put those biases aside, we feel capable of delivering a thoughtful educated impartial appraisal of a play.
But what about the influences we didn’t cultivate? The ones we don’t even know we have?
In Quiara Hudes’ keynote address for the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference last year, she said this: “I struggle increasingly with the atheist white male aesthetics I inherit.” She uses the word “inherit” to describe a sensibility that was grafted upon her, while framing her discussion in terms of her Latinx-ness. And she says this about critics:
“Even positive reviews yank my art from my hands and serve up my heart like a well-dressed ham. Even rave reviews have deposited me, post-celebration, in a disorienting depression where I feel my mouth has been slapped with duct-tape. People call and congratulate me not on the work but on the Times review.”
Because her writer sensibilities were shaped almost exclusively by the work of white men (Miller, Albee, O’Neill), she feels comfortable penning canon-friendly plays that create a safe space for the average theatre patron. But the act of creating Latinx characters who perform their brownness for mostly white audiences is humiliating to her.
So when she asks, “Can institutional theatre not hold multiple aesthetic paradigms?” she is using the language of bias to discuss both literary taste and cultural conditioning.
In my own life and career, I find it a lot easier (and much less existentially troubling) to identify my artistic biases than I do my racial ones. Primarily because I don’t recognize the latter until someone else points them out. However, I have very little problem perceiving sexism, having been its victim once or twice or a thousand times.
Ideally, a good critic will consider self-accountability a requisite, and tend to it with regularity. But what of those powerful few who, while fastidiously tuned to their artistic biases, have no awareness of the other kind? It’s certainly not unusual to have trouble locating the effects of socially sanctioned bigotry in oneself when one has never been a target of it. You can’t police something you don’t perceive.
However. As we all know. Taste is not formed in a vacuum. And it’s dangerous to believe otherwise.
When our opinions about the quality of a work are shaped by prejudices we don’t even know we have, we perpetuate a sickly narrow idea of how a play should look/sound/feel. This is damaging to artists for all the reasons Quiara mentions in her speech.
But also, it’s corrosive to the field. Our under-examined instincts become criteria for identifying what a play is, thus depriving us of the more essential question: what is it doing?
And like, isn’t that the burning question at the molten heart of any vibrant, passionate, culturally fluent discourse on art????
Unfortunately, the way we tend to address the bias of critics is to scream at them on Twitter, or scream on Facebook, or scream in the comments section of the review and hope it gets past the moderators. None of this is particularly effective. It further affirms the status of victims and reinforces the authority of power structures.
I have no answers. But I’m no cynic. I’m a broken-hearted person who wants to be in love. I’ve seen a bunch of articles lately that give me hope, like this one from Maya Phillips and this one by Kelundra Smith, both from the November 2017 issue of American Theatre. And people are still talking about Victoria Myers’ takedown of Hilton Als in The Interval for his appallingly sexist New Yorker review of Sweet Charity.
And although a precise public discussion about these issues is meaningful, we still need to act. We gotta make work that talks. We gotta support work that walks. We gotta stir up a ruckus. We gotta shine a light on one another’s blind spots. We gotta receive the same light from others with grace, even though that ego-squeeze is hella uncomfortable. We gotta do a fuckton more to bash some biases than we have in the past.
Starting with our own.