Excerpt: ‘The Critic in the Episode “The Criticism”’, by Jana Perković

1. in which Edwin Barnes is a man to be reckoned with

Tony Collingwood, whose London-based animation studio would later be responsible for Dennis the Menace, launched his career on the unexpected international success of a tiny 23-minute independent cartoon he made in 1988 about a place called Rarg.

Rarg is an idyllic land based on harmony and scientific inquiry, so perfect that “not even the sun rises until it is absolutely sure that everyone is awake.” That is, until one discovery shatters the very foundation of the Rargian society. Looking to answer the question of where Rarg lies and what is beyond the known world, scientists discover that Rarg, as it were, exists in the dream of one Edwin Barnes, whose morning alarm, just by the by, is about to ring.

Faced with the threat of imminent extinction, the first general summit in 8,000 years is called. Rargians make a daring decision to create a portal between worlds and transport their dreaming overlord into his own dream, where he will be placed in a soundproof chamber and his sleep forever preserved. After much hair-raising suspense and adventuring, intrepid Rargians bring Edwin (cum bed) inside Rarg, lock him into a soundless tower with thick headphones, and breathe a sigh of relief.

And then,
right as that happens,
Edwin Barnes
starts dreaming
of something else.

And as all the Rargians, their buildings and scientific tomes transform into flamingos, as the perfect land of Rarg dissolves into a pink flock, the mood is only briefly one of consternation before the senator of Rarg enthuses: This is the best discovery of all.

2. in which it is raining outside the Melbourne Recital Centre

For complex reasons,1 the Critic had cleansed her social media presence, instated an internet silence, and had now only the faintest sense of her professional standing in the world. So, it was particularly nice to be invited to make a few public appearances to speak on criticism.

3. in which fortunes are won and lost

The Critic took her job very seriously, even though it could never have really been called a job. The profession of criticism lived in limbo between financial viability and professional legitimacy, without quite conquering either. This, however, wasn’t always clear to everyone. On paper, no one seemed confused about criticism: it was that thing you read in the newspapers the morning after the opening of a show, a piece of writing that tells you if what you saw was good. Some critics (Lyn Garner, Michiko Kakutani, Alison Croggon) are brilliant. Some critics (Cameron Woodhead, Michael Billington, Quentin Letts) are terrible. What set a good critic apart was a well-turned phrase and, above all, impartiality.

None of this was how it worked.

Here is how it worked instead: that newspapers were fortresses of unchecked opinions and falsity was quite apparent to anyone who was reading them in the nineties, though the twenty-somethings of today might find it hard to imagine just what it meant to have nothing but printed media to read. There was a sense of being held hostage by a media monolith populated entirely by old men who shared a taste in everything, from films to socks — a sense that having one’s own thoughts was a desperate quest. Listen to this description of young people’s lives: “Fiercely suspicious of being lumped together as an advertiser’s target market, they have quit dreary careers and cut themselves adrift in the California desert. Unsure of their futures, they immerse themselves in a regime of heavy drinking and working at no-future McJobs in the service industry.” That’s Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, and that’s how it was.

By the time the Critic got her first PC, Douglas Rushkoff was already writing that the early internet culture was a kind of open opposition to mass media. An improbably large percentage of this handcrafted internet, the message boards and the LiveJournals and web-shrines, was dedicated to the appreciation of anime, vampire novels, Scandinavian metal, homoerotic fanfiction, and Björk. A vast web of people across continents, sharing pixelated images and MIDI files and explaining to one another why Hideaki Anno was the Shakespeare of our time: a defiant grand coalition against the mainstream. And then, for a brief and entirely unexpected moment, this culture of digital zinemakers spilled over into the mainstream and completely engulfed it. A perfect storm of new computers, faster internet, the invention of Facebook, the war in Iraq, a loss of confidence in old men with matching socks, some sort of once-in-a-lifetime lionisation of the hacker (Assange!), the internet-maker (Zuckerberg!), the blogger (Tavi!) as the prophets of the new age, and a generation of kids who argued on the internet about obscure cultural artefacts, were suddenly embraced by actual, trained professionals as having something important to say.2

Thrust into the realm of ‘professional criticism,’ the Critic found a strange place: a few men with no qualifications in theatre kept on tiny wages and freelancing contracts with crumbling media empires, with neither editorial nor professional clout. There were publications like RealTime, that straddled the two financially unviable worlds of samizdats and academic publishing. Some of the most heroic critics, those with aesthetic integrity, were so ill-fitted to news media that they now operated only as independent bloggers writing long, informed essays for no pay. And in tiny basement and attic spaces, in laneways and pubs, there was a fierce theatre counterculture connected purely through word of mouth, for which the informal yet deeply passionate blogging community was the perfect communications network. It was a system in collapse or the dawn of the new, depending upon your vantage point.

The fact that they could now see this era with clarity was the surest sign that it had ended. But while it lasted, it manoeuvred an enormous shift. At a certain point, it dawned on the Critic that there were no normal jobs to be had: that the normal jobs in criticism simply didn’t exist anymore. This ecosystem of underpaid writers and underpaid artists had very little to do with how Kenneth Tynan or Michael Billington had made their careers, to say nothing of Susan Sontag or Edward Said. It was now unclear who was professional and who wasn’t: newspaper editors that were supposed to train them often knew little about grammar, less about criticism, and nothing about theatre. Sponsorship dictated newspaper reviews, while small shows — however groundbreaking — relied on blogs for critical feedback. A review paid $300, $200, then increasingly $100 or $80, and that meant two jobs, three jobs, writing at night, five days a week. Increasingly, responsible gigs followed: speaking here, moderating a talk there, a jury membership, a lecture, an advisory board. Then they found themselves dramaturging, lecturing, editing scripts — working closely with the very same artists they were meant to avoid having direct contact with for fear of losing professional objectivity. And they still weren’t getting paid. The pilgrimages to London and Berlin to be the only Australian critic to have seen Castorf or Pollesch, or to have done You Me Bum Bum Train or one of Ontroerend Goed’s one-on-one shows, were entirely self-funded. By this time, they were bumping into Melbourne artists in London and Berlin, partying in warehouses together; the notion of critical distance seemed impracticably quaint.

The right frame of reference for this DIY, opinionated, entirely self-envisioned critical enterprise was not Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times in 2005, but NME in London in 1978. It was about forming a community and creating a scene, a wave, using words to articulate the spirit of a time as manifest in the works of so many different artists. What it was not about was getting paid. Or building a professional career.

4. in which it is autumn in more than one sense

Glyn was in town for some business related to Castlemaine Festival, which he was now running.

“When I got my first ‘real’ job, in an office, working for a proper theatre company, I realised I didn’t know how to use Excel,” he said, as they walked down Grattan Street looking for lunch. “That was when I understood that there were two parallel theatre realms, completely unconnected to one another: a world of normal business rules, alongside which we existed in our money-less scenester economy.”

It was late March, but the sky was still a powerful blue, and long sleeves had only just entered the picture. “It’s so over, isn’t it?” said the Critic, watching their two pairs of Doc Martens make steps side by side, legs in pairs of very black, very skinny jeans. Monocle totes. A semiotic constellation.

“You know what?” he spoke up again, “No one ever asks me how I did it. The moment I get an email from a 20-year-old, asking how I put on eight shows a year with no money, I will know that the next generation is here. That that guy — or girl, hopefully girl of colour — is the beginning of the next wave.”

“How did you do it?”

Glyn smirked.

“Every year, at the beginning of the season, I borrowed $3,000 from Eugyeene Teh,3 and at the end of the season I paid him back to the cent. The whole season cost $500 per play. And often I paid Eugyeene from it, too.”

5. in which it is still raining outside the Melbourne Recital Centre

So much internet ink had been spilled over the question of what exactly was criticism, during those years. The newspaper critics maligning the bloggers; the bloggers defending the digital realm. The question of craft, of a well-turned phrase, came up less than expected; but almost criminally infrequent was any mention of needing to know your shit, needing to have seen the work and read the books about the work that came before. Criticism was all of that and more, and as a dialogue was woven between them — Alison Croggon, Andrew Fuhrmann, Carl Nilsson-Polias, Chris Boyd, James Waites, Jane Howard, Cameron Woodhead — they kept each other in check. But haven’t you read…? they asked. Haven’t you seen…? Don’t you know…? You can’t just say…

It is easy to think that writing criticism means giving your opinion on the quality of somebody’s art, but that is so rarely the point. At its heart, criticism is an act of translation of art into words, and of bridging the private world of an artist, an artwork, an event, into the wider world of society, generation, moment. Criticism is everything involved in amplifying art into a Zeitgeist. It is, at its heart, an interpretive gesture.

“I mean,” she said, in front of some young people on a rainy afternoon, “who cares what I think about a work of art? My own opinion, my own taste, is profoundly uninteresting. What matters is this: what does it say about the world that this work has been created? And in trying to answer that question, you are required to put in place all the elements of criticism: judgement, contextualisation, description, rhetoric.”

“But what I am interested in,” said one of the young people in retort, “is experimental criticism that blurs the line between the personal and the objective. Roxane Gay. Maggie Nelson. Hilton Als. A response which is in itself a creative act, not just analysis of someone else’s work.”

They looked at each other across the table, and in that long silence the Critic suddenly felt very, very old. The young person continued:

“Like what you do with The Critic.”

1 It will be explained.

2 For an introduction into the local manifestation of this global shift, see episode 12 of ‘The Critic’, in which our protagonist tries and fails to justify bad theatre by recourse to nostalgia for the heroic era of Melbourne theatre.

3 See previous episode of ‘The Critic’, in which costume designer Eugyeene Teh has a speaking part, unlike here.

This is an excerpt of a piece that originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #38. Get your copy here.

Jana Perković is a theatre nerd. Her writings on theatre and dance appear in The Guardian, RealTime, The Conversation and on guerrillasemiotics.com