Who needs theatre reviews?

In the aftermath of the discussion about theatre criticism following the dog excrement attack on dance critic Wiebke Hüster, Thomas Rothschild asked about the justification of theatre criticism in a Nachtkritik commentary on an essay by Christine Wahl:

“What I miss is an explanation why actors, directors, choreographers have to endure what most professions are spared of. The fact that the arts have to face criticism is not a law of nature. It is a historically developed tradition that can be welcomed, but not necessarily.”

The following is a kind of attempt at justification of theatre criticism:

There is no criticism of rubbish collection and no applause for it. But the  fashion of ranking  is spreading everywhere, to coffee machines, software, doctors, novels, films and so on. Andreas Reckwitz has analysed this as a symptom of the society of singularities. The genre of the review is also spreading from literature into all areas. (There are teacher reviews in every high school newspaper.) But there are other reasons for theatre criticism, independent of the current change in communication structures through the internet.

For one thing, theatre criticism is art criticism. Art reception provokes aesthetic judgements. You don’t come out of an art exhibition without having found it good or bad or somehow. Aesthetic judgements (there’s no getting around Kant) are not universally valid judgements about facts, they only pretend to be universally valid, they only “sense approval”. They challenge contradiction and discussion.

On the other hand, theatre criticism is the criticism of a collectively experienced public event. One does not walk singly at one’s own pace in a space of art objects, but experiences the simultaneous presence of actors crammed in alongside other spectators. This increases the need for conversation compared to other art forms. Audiences occasionally decide on a possible theatre visit based on reviews, but they also compare their experience of a theatre visit with the evaluation by a professional critic. Making theatre performances discussable is also a rationale for theatre criticism. That is the service it provides for spectators.

It is understandable that theatre-makers, like all artists, dislike pejorative judgements about their works. Art wants affirmation. But the insight that art only has meaning when it enters into open social discourse should also be clear to every artist, even if he or she is not guided by it in the creative process. There must also be pejorative aesthetic judgements. If there were only approving judgements in public discourse, the discourse-initiating function of criticism would be limited. One can heed the old rule, slurs short, anthems long, but respect for artists should not be completely supplanted by the experiential component (i.e. the reviewer’s anger).

Incidentally, Rebekka Kricheldorf’s play„Homo empathicus“ provided an entertaining satire of the “positive society” back in 2014.

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