Criticism As Creative Non-Fiction

One of Counter Critic’s first fans, writer/creator/teacher/thinker Jonathan David Jackson, emailed us this awesome question:

“At what point does performing arts criticism (dance, music, and theater in particular) become creative nonfiction?

And here are the nesting questions:

  1. What can be said to be creative about some criticism of performing arts?
  2. Is it the inclusion of self-references, personal values, and personal experiences?
  3. Is it the employment of novelistic or poetic strategies (like descriptive scene-setting and metaphorical evocation)?
  4. Are their other strategies?
  5. Are there dangerous fault lines between making the criticism an artistic experience and reporting honorably and fairly (and objectively, however contested this may be) about the performance?
  6. Is it also problematic to consider a critical text as an act of performance–as a presentation that competes, perhaps, with staged work?”

My comments follow. Please chime in yourselves in the comments field!!!

Well…I’m of the mind that all non-fiction is creative non-fiction. I think “non-fiction” is aptly named: it is not necessarily the opposite of fiction (as in “truth”), it is simply not fiction. But there is always a level of creativity (be it style, storytelling, or simply an ability to pick out noteworthy subjects) in any kind of writing.

I’m also of the mind to think that we can only separate ourselves from our subjective experiences to a very small degree. That’s why people are so cool, and so infuriating.

A critic does three things: They tell What. They tell How. And they tell Why.

The first is documentary. A performance/art critic–hopefully–writes clearly about what actually happened within as narrow of an objective scope as he/she can muster.  I think it’s important that a critic’s documentary skills be sharp.  Think of a witness at the scene of a crime; one understands that there will be some flaws in their account of what happened, but one can hope that the person will be able to give accurate details about what went down.  For and example: A solo dancer lept over a plastic water bottle that laid empty on the stage floor. I would hope that whoever wrote that sentence was accurately able to identify a dancer, indicate the nature of the movement (in this case, a leap, as opposed to a hop or jump), and account accurately for the other subject mentioned (here, a water bottle lying on the stage floor).  That is all arguably objective language.  I like to think of it as “showing”, as photographic, or an accurate “idea” of something.  Non-evaluative.  This is probably the least developed skill of most critics, and the one that so often gets overridden by poetic licence.

Now our sentence in the context of a larger text may have another, different, and decidedly subjective meaning.  What if the preceding sentence had been: But the end of the piece seemed anticlimactic. Here is where the critics ability to describe kicks in: the “How.”  Think of the question you might hear from a friend after you tell them you’ve been to a performane: How was it?  This is where most critics get really comfortable.  They start describing things and the adjectives come flying out.  Again, this is all to say how the critic felt everything was.  From live performances to the brush strokes on a canvas, this is where most critics find their voice, and often, do the most damage.  This also seems to be where they hang out when they have little to contribute theoretically, so they resort to authorotative opinionating laced with academic outer tones.

The final thing a critic does happens in two ways.  The first, is to try to explicitly write Why a performance or work of art is or is not important culturally.  We see this a lot in Alastair Macaulay’s writing. 

However, there is also a way that a performance or a work of art is established as important (even if it gets a bad review) simply for that fact that it appears in a review.  Much like, as Sontag argued, the photograph bestows upon its subject an intrinsic quality of sexiness, the review bestows upon its subject an intrinsic quality of importance.  That is why The Times’ ballet-heavy dance section is so dangerous, because, whether or not the reviews of the ballets are favorable, they suggest a dominance in the cultural conversation by their very (ever)presence in the newspaper.  In all media, the subject’s importance is elevated above the things not mentioned; otherwise, why would it be a subject at all?  In fact, I’ll go further to say that the pornographic quality with which a photograph infuses its subject is actually a symptom of the subjective elevation anything achieves by being featured in the media.  Think, “there’s no such ting as bad press.”

 All this is to say that when a critic writes a review of something, there are certain things that are out of control; the erotic subjectivities the media outlet implicitly bestows upon its subjects; the subjectivity of their own experience.  And there are some things we should expect them to be able to account for as free as they can be from subjective, personal biases.  It is this last part that is most difficult to do, and perhaps would benefit the world of the arts more than any academic opinion.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you, Counter Critic, for weighing in on this question. I’ve fallen sick (sniffle) which is awful in the summertime and have no critical faculties or I’d respond in more detail. I loved your three critical domains. They raise all sorts of questions. I like the “why” domain because part of our work should truly be to share why it is important to witness the work before us–or what it is doing to advance the art form and our human understanding.


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