Monday 26 January 2009

On taste and "truth"

Following the last post, I got into a bit of a discussion with a friend on Facebook and I thought I’d share my side of the discussion here. In fact, I’ve been meaning to post it for a while but never seemed to get around to it. Partly because of a growing planned blog of links and updates which is now getting stupidly unwieldy. Anyway, the friend in question got the ball rolling with: “I'm really sorry to see you fielding the traditional critics’ position of running down people who respond to reviews.”...

I'm sorry it comes across as if I'm "running down people who respond to reviews" in general. I'm running down some specific people for the way they have responded, but I absolutely don't think artists and theatre workers, not to mention members of the public, *don't* have a right to respond.

I do wish, though, that the responses didn't so frequently fall into the "you're deaf/blind/mad", "you weren't there", "you're a disgrace" categories.

I also agree that the artists/people/whoever have the right to be respectfully heard. However, once they've been respectfully heard, digested and mulled over, they also have to face the fact (just as critics do) that they might not be agreed with, and indeed may well be passionately disagreed with. I'm always interested when someone disagrees with my view of something, although I'll admit that "my view" probably took much less time to come up with than the thing of which it is a view of - i.e. I'm not going to claim that my review was anything like as hard to write as a play (damn these character limits on comment boxes).

It's mostly witless invective and stubborn refusal (or apparently incapability) to comprehend another point of view that gets my goat. You've probably read me on, oh, let's say Katie Mitchell's Attempts on Her Life, for old time's sake - I really struggled to understand the viewpoint of those who hadn't loved it as much as me. But I was always prepared to at least see that it was possible not to like it.

There's a slightly different thing when one objects to the *premises* on which someone's objections are based - if it feels like there's a tick-box-type criteria already in place which has come between the critic/opinion-holder and the work in question. I guess I do strongly object to prejudices colouring judgement - I do worry, for example, that because I also do a fair bit of banner waving for the old postdramatic thing (which one of my Slovakian colleagues recently decided was so over, you might be amused to hear) and “director's theatre” people might assume/decide that if something isn't in that vein, then I'm going to be so against it ideologically that I won't be able to enjoy it for what it is.

It’s a complex old argument - where does taste stop and prejudice kick in? Are tastes not a sort of prejudice anyway? I dunno. All I can do in my defence is point to my reviews of things like, say, the Donmar-in-the-West-End's superlative Ivanov or, say, Now or Later at the Court and say, these don't fit the criteria which I'd be being accused of having, and yet I liked them both an awful lot. Hell, the show I'm most looking forward to next week is Private Lives at Hampstead, and I'm really not expecting any innovative staging whatsoever. In fact I'd probably be alarmed if there was any; literalist, let-the-script-speak-for-itself reactionary that I am.

My interlocutor then apropos the postdramatic/”director’s theatre” thing said something about “honouring” Ibsen and “shared sense of the truth”:

Suffice it to say, I'm basically with the post-structuralists on truth up to the point where they get all impenetrable and start claiming that something like WWI isn't verifiable - which I guess makes me a bad post-structuralist, but at least stops me being a useful idiot for Holocaust deniers. And makes crossing the road a good deal simpler.

But, as far as texts go, I do think “truth” is subjective and “serving the text” doubly so. I think to an extent texts can only tell you what you already know, or at least that you can only understand them through your understand of the world, even if they subtly or wholesale-y alter that understanding of the world. I think, in this context, "truth" is a slightly disingenuous label for a (perfectly valid and frequently successful and enjoyable) aesthetic choice. I just don't like it being called "truth". That said, I do know what you mean, and I don't have anything against you carrying on doing things that way - big of me, I know :-). It's just the philosophical side that worries me - if one way is "truth" it makes it possible to call different aesthetic choices “wrong”.


Meanwhile at roughly the same time, David Jays wrote an excellent piece coming at sort of the same question from a different angle, which is well worth reading.

Hopefully in the next day or so, my massively overdue review of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour will come together, along with the unwieldy linktastic post. Then there might even be a bit of new and original thinking online before too long.

Today’s cover image comes from here. The artist, Robert The, has this to say about it: “Obsession with the semiotic erosion of meaning and reality led me to create objects that evangelize their own relevance by a direct fusion of word and form. Books (many culled from dumpsters and thrift store bins) are lovingly vandalized back to life so they can assert themselves against the culture which turned them into debris.”


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Andrew - you could look at the - well - lively thread that follows my review of AC Grayling and Mick Gordon's play GRACE (on now in Melbourne) for some illumination on why discussion is not necessarily, per se, an unadulterated good.

I am a critic who encourages debate. I have it on constant record for four years now. And I've had some fascinating and enjoyable conversations with people with whom I basically just disgree. That's the up side. The down side is what you're complaining about here.

I just wish people would learn how to disagree. Isn't that a mark of civilisation? What I often get is a kind of outrage that I should dare to state a point of view that is at odds with someone else's. It is possible to disagree with someone and yet still to respect their argument but, sadly, some people seem to find this hard to negotiate. What you get instead is basically personal insults, the questioning of one's character and professional discipline/skills/right to think/write/be alive on the same planet. And, frankly, it's dull, dull, dull.

Andrew Haydon said...

It's interesting that you alight on the "On Religion" debate - as it was originally titled.

Full disclosure - I'm pretty good friends with Chris Haydon (no relative) who co-wrote the piece... - I liked it a lot. And not for crap reasons...

Anonymous said...

If you take a Kantian line on artistic disagreements, we disagree because artistic judgments have a universalist character. They're not just subjective in the way that, say, having a headache is subjective. They aspire to general acceptance. Which is why we have conversations about theatre (and make compilation CDs for people, and why reviewers exist). And Kant does seem to think this isn't an illusion (we really are disagreeing meaningfully when we disagree about our artistic judgments) but it also does seem to imply that when two people disagree about art, one of them must be mistaken in some way.

No reason why you should take a Kantian line though.

On another point: "I'm basically with the post-structuralists on truth up to the point where they get all impenetrable and start claiming that something like WWI isn't verifiable". I'm not sure what that point is. If it's self-evidently true that WWI (or maybe the Holocaust is a better, more ferocious example) happened, why can't it be self-evidently the case that lots of other things are true too?

And then you get into the curly problem that if you think truth is purely subjective what does it mean to say "I'm basically with the post-structuralists on truth"? Is that statement true? Is it true that the post-structuralists have a position on truth?

I'm all for recognising the complexity of the world and that the things that seem self-evident to us can be refreshingly challenged by taking other people's views seriously, but I fear there's a dodgy rhetorical strategy at work here: (a) define truth in some inordinately metaphysical way (absolute, eternal, unchanging truth), and then (b) point out we can't have access to that sort of truth because we're always inserted in culture, (c) pronounce truth as relative.

Just thought I'd get that off my chest. Great piece, lovely debate.

Alison Croggon said...

I think you can make distinctions between what is incorrigible subjective experience (basically, whether one enjoys a play or not, which is something that simply can't be argued with) and other judgments that are more about looking at what it is and palcing it in contexts of various inds. The second (critical engagement, I guess) is more interesting; the first is what Brustein, I think, called "Himalaya criticism". They are always going to be confused, and the line is admittedly fuzzy; but there is a perceptible difference. In that review, I dramatised a bit of the second kind of judgment with a fillip of the first. Which seems perfectly fine to me.

The difference is basically whether there are "crap reasons" or not for saying what one says. I'd love to hear your reasons for liking that play one day. Hindsight has not made it any less mediocre for me.

Anonymous said...

The distinction between Himalayan criticism and the incorrigibly subjective is really helpful and suggestive. But the way you describe them sound like one is evaluation (did I think it was good) and understanding (placing it in various contexts). This seems to suggests that saying whether a show is good or not is 'purely' subjective. Given that reviews tend to be evaluative, why write them? It would be like writing articles on whether I have a headache or not.

When I read a review, I tend to assume that there's something I can share in, that it's not purely the randomness of their opinion, but I might be able to agree with them (or, if I know more about their prejudices, understand why I won't agree with them). Which is why I bring up Kant, because he wouldn't accept the distinctive between private/subjective/evaluation and public/objective/understanding, and argues that evaluation has a subjective component but an objective and universal component as well.

I liked On Religion in some ways. Not because I thought it was an artistically fully realized show, but I liked the idea of a show like that and was prepared to go with the good intentions. This may be a crap reason, of course.