Features Essays Published 6 May 2015

Criticism and the Political

A provocation written for Exeunt's Performance, Politics, Participation event at The Yard.
Diana Damian Martin

I come from a culture in which criticism has, for the past hundred or so years, either been in explicit conflict with the political, or assimilated by it. Perhaps because in Eastern Europe, the infrastructure for criticism is differently precarious than here; it’s displaced, torn between the academic and the journalistic, whilst still enmeshed in a kind of exclusivity. This has been a defence mechanism, I suppose, because we’ve never been able to have trust in art discourse without trying to figure out the ideological underpinnings that shape it. There’s a reason Eastern Europeans are so intent on proving conspiracy theories; we love them, no matter how irrational they might be. So criticism, where I come from, has never been particularly comfortable with legitimation. It’s had to fight for its life. To some extent, that’s true everywhere I think. 

And when I speak of politics, I refer both to the structures that govern and legislate, and to the power dynamics, visible or invisible, that shape the way we are able to speak about art, the manner and language of those conversations, and the ways in which they include or exclude.

For the past four years I’ve been trying to understand the overlap between particular political philosophies that deal with aesthetics and participation, and criticism. I’ve been trying to examine just what these particular political philosophies might be able to bring to the disparate practices of criticism.

And I am thinking here about the relationships that come to shape a piece of criticism, and questions about participation, inclusion and subjectivity. I am interested in understanding what legislates the very position from which we speak about theatre and performance; the pressures that shape our engagements, the competition that seems to sometimes govern engagement, and the problems around diversity and accessibility that we constantly return to.

Because ultimately, to speak of criticism is to speak about our ability to engage critically with something; this is as pertinent when we consider who we will vote for in the general election, as it is when we think about what we have to say about a performance.

Or let me put it a different way: political regimes are concerned with modes of governance, establishing what constitutes a people’s rights and responsibilities, and how public offices might be distributed and function. Criticism seems to straddle this fine line between seeking to legislate and interpret, shape conversation or be part of it. And these are all positions, and they affect the work directly. We need to think a lot more about what configures these positions. In this way, I propose that criticism enacts processes that are analogical to those of governance: it positions, constructs, destroys and evaluates. And I think if we look carefully at what we delineate and define as criticism, a whole new set of relationships might become possible, and visible, that can confront this idea of governance. I think politics can teach us a lot about how we conceptualise and consider authority in criticism – and I think we need to let go of this, not maintain this exclusive position of privilege.

Theatre already comes with a political structure, though I don’t believe that is innate to it; the machinations that make it happen, the temporary commons created as part of it, the thinking processes enmeshed in our encounter with it; in the same manner, I think more and more, we need to fight for a kind of intellectual freedom to be able to speak from a position that is not already legislated by factors unknown to us. And I am not speaking here about any grand-narratives, but about how emotions are tied to ideologies, about how our own precarity as writers and artists affects our ability to speak; about the fact that bringing visibility to art and untangling the conversations that it fuels is a more difficult task than we might think.

I suppose I’ve been thinking about criticism not as a practice of cultural legislation, but as a set of approaches to speaking, writing and thinking about performance; I’ve never held dear to the belief that it takes an expert to take part in criticism, only that good criticism is there to open things up and as such, it requires commitment and responsibility.

It seems that still, there is a fear amongst certain critics that criticism’s democratisation equates to its downfall; I find it hard to believe that plurality creates anything but a positive intellectual culture, and I don’t see how a desire for cultural participation and debate is a threat. Sure, it might pose a threat to an institution that prides itself on authority, but actually, more and more, that institution of criticism has much more meagre ambitions than the myriad of artists, thinkers, writers and others who wish to take ownership over the terms of the discussion. That’s really important, I think – re-addressing the terms before entering the debate in the first place.

A lot of this reluctance has come down to a demonization of the internet, as if it were a value judgment in and of itself, instead of a context. The internet does not render certain critical practices better than others, and it does not distinguish between professional and amateur, legislative or interpretive. That’s such a relief; it means we can do this ourselves. And the internet, it also comes with a whole political apparatus- it is also a legislated space, more and more.

I think the conflict of legitimacy that’s been occurring over the past ten years in the UK is really positive; calling into question who speaks and why, from what position and to what end. Perhaps now, we can be more ambitious with how we want critical practices to be, about what we want them to encompass, and the taxonomies through which they do so. This participation that so many critics have feared, it’s an exciting thing.

One of the philosophers that I work with a lot is Hannah Arendt; she speaks a lot about action and plurality; about how with every deed we do, we insert ourselves into a world of appearances- we take part in the conversation. At the same time, she says, when we think, we do so remotely but also collectively; thinking, she proposes, involves an act of withdrawing from the present, even for a fraction of a second. But it is made better, strengthened, through deliberation and debate. So we need to be able to do both of those things.

So maybe, to think of the intersection between criticism and politics, we must first think about criticism as a matter of attitude, and remember there is context to everything; that what happens in the theatre is important precisely because of what happens outside of the theatre; that’s why taking away those boundaries weaves theatre into the everyday so effectively. It teaches us to think and do by thinking and doing with actuality and urgency.

I speak of this critical attitude without any weight given to anything legislative; criticism in the way in which I speak of it, is a gesture of and commitment to participation. And I think more so than ever, public discourse and participation are affected by factors that are intangible, yet powerful; bodies that gather together are often undermined and criminalised. And discussions are rendered invisible by the refusal to accept their premise. So we’ve got a lot of work to do, I think.

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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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