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May I politely inform you that you are wrong to like the things you like?

Friday 21st February 2014

Before we start, it is important that you know that I am a reviewer and I am an artist. Often at the same time. 

People tell me to my face and more frequently talk behind my back – people forget so easily how echo-y Wellington’s theatre bars are – about how I can’t do both. How I shouldn’t do both.

They are wrong. Most of them are people I love. Wonderful people, who I love, who are wrong. We no longer live in a world where ‘critic and ‘creator’ can be separate jobs. They are now inextricable, so it has become vital that everyone do both. Everyone should be a reviewer, and everyone should be an artist – for the good of yourselves, for the good of the arts, and for the good of the world.

Just as all the old white men using their column inches to tell us what to like would be loath to admit that they’re all the same person, expressing the same views, it is hard for us Hip, Young, With-It reviewers to admit that we have the same problem

I am not talking about every actor having to start a blog (it hasn’t stopped most of them anyway). I am not talking about every critic having to down notebooks and ‘prove themselves’ (there is nothing more toothless a gesture of impotent rage than “You couldn’t do any better!”).

Of the key moments in my life to have happened when I’ve been driving through tunnels, the most important was the text I got in 2007, while in a taxi in the Mt Victoria tunnel, from someone at Salient asking me to review a play for them. 

That moment felt huge. I had always aspired to being a reviewer. Stoic parents and a confused childhood meant that I had to spend much of the early ‘00s training myself to express feelings or opinions about anything. Through practice I became quite skilled at knowing just what I thought so quickly I began to really aspire to review, to critique. And in that moment in the Mt Vic tunnel in ’07, it was here.

I let out a whoop, startling the taxi driver. I glowed a glow. This was it. The beginning of everything. I was going to be a reviewer. I'd be in print. On the radio. People would think what I thought was important. And right. And real. It might even become my job! Oh, to be a reviewer!

I was also an idiot then. Even then, it was pretty clear that reviews didn’t really exist anymore – and while I’ve since been in print and on the radio, I don’t even know what that means anymore. Reviewing has become so wide, so disperse an idea that we can make it almost anything.

Uther Dean pictured winning Best Reviewer Award at the Aotearoa Student Press Association Awards in 2010
Uther Dean upon being named Best Reviewer at the Aotearoa Student Press Association Awards in 2010. The joy!

Rosabel Tan / Aotearoa Student Press Association

There is no one job or kind of person that is a critic or reviewer. There are so many things, so many people that fall under these umbrellas that quickly cease to serve any useful purpose as labels. Reviews are responses (sometimes, most of the times) to media, but what else unites them? Little to the point of nothing.

A monkey pissing into its own mouth is a review. The Hulk talking at length about long single takes is a review. A 90-minute surgical annihilation of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace presented by a what seems to be a woman-hating serial killer is a review. Whatever it is that Simon Sweetman thinks he is doing are still reviews. Tweets... Tweets are not reviews, no matter how hard some people may try.

This variety is a good thing. Many options and many approaches make everything better. A work can only be improved, and better publicised, by having a multitude of views on it published. But here, today, we only have one half of this equation. We have many approaches to art, but they are too disperse, too separate, to make everything better. When they do align, the result isn’t the hoped-for litany of individuals turning a work to every angle, to see it in every available light, but a feeding frenzy of approval of others’ approval or disapproval of others’ disapproval.

That’s not to imply that there’s not a lot of dense, considered, interesting criticism out there, because there is. (It feels incestuous to mention the Pantograph Punch here because I write for them too, as do many contributors to The Wireless – but them.) But they are not the majority. Just as all the old white men using their column inches to tell us what to like would be loath to admit that they’re all basically the same person, expressing the same views with only varying degrees of comb-over to differentiate them, it is hard for us Hip, Young, With-It reviewers to admit that we have the same problem. We all sound the same. And worse. We all sound like pricks.

Last year, I was one of the judges for the Best Reviewer category at the Aotearoa Student Press Association awards, which are one of those things that feel like the most important thing ever on that night and in that moment, but when you enter the real world, it becomes just another piece of paper than means nothing to anyone but you. Like a review. Or a degree.

I read entries from student reviewers from across the country, and they were all the same. Snark. Pretention. Prissiness. Purple prose. All were in the mode of the wanker scrolling through your mp3 player at a party judging everything on it except for the one Animal Collective deep-cut they then spend 20 minutes describing to anyone who will listen. What separated the winners from the losers was basic technical writing skill. Coherence. How well they could turn a phrase. I concluded my feedback for the winner with “All that being said, I still want to punch you in the face.

I felt all these potential conversations being smothered by a whole generation of reviewers who solely exist to politely inform you that you are wrong to like the things you like,  not to discuss what the work is saying and how it could better said.

As a reviewer, it’s easy to shit over everything. Worse than that, it’s fun. Tearing something apart is great to write and great to read. The stunt in that monkey-piss-video moment is sublime for everyone – but the person being reviewed. In a perfect world, the reviewers of this country wouldn’t have to consider the artists they are reviewing. But this is not a perfect world.

But people who make good work don't do it to be reviewed. They make it because they have something to say, know how they want to say it, and do a very good job at expressing the connection between those two things.To make art in this country is to know that you will get maybe one review, and even that isn’t guaranteed. Even as I type it that seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal; you don’t make work to be reviewed. Actually, scratch that. Some people do make work to be reviewed.

This can be a real problem if you’re in, say, the theatre industry and the only place that you can be reasonably sure of reviewing you is Theatreview.org.nz, a website with the mission statement of recording and archiving of the Kiwi theatre world. Though that is no doubt a noble endeavour, the only published review of your work sometimes amounts to little more than a slightly opaque plot synopsis.

I feel like I’m being harsh on Theatreview (and just when they’ve started giving me good reviews too!). They didn’t ask to be the only game in theatre town, but basically every other outlet thinned out or actively stopped publishing theatre reviews. Arts editors and producers of arts-related programmes are getting very good at mourning the lack of criticism and defending their cuts to their own output in the same breath. But the challenge for Theatreview is to hold the new weight on their shoulders better than they are doing right now. If you find yourself the only game in town, then you have to step up to that, to provide what is needed. Especially if, hypothetically, you ran a PledgeMe asking the community you review to support you.

The show went fine, and, by fine, I mean that I won. Otherwise I would have considered it a disaster. 

The point where an artist learns to measure the success of their work not by external stimulus like reviews or what their friends think or by pageviews or retweets or laughs or whatever is a really important stage in their growth. Graham Linehan, who co-created Black Books, Father Ted put it like this: “You can’t trust reviews. You can’t read them. The bad ones hurt and the good ones don’t help.”

Last year I was invited to be a guest director as a part of PlayShop Live’s Directors' Challenge series of shows. Playshop is a Hip, Young, Exciting – I capitalise those words to ease their lifting and placement on posters and funding applications – improv company that insists on wildness and liveness. The Directors’ Challenge format pitted two directors, in this case myself and Calvin Peterson, against each other. Calvin declared that he would make scenes about small town New Zealand; I declared that I would make scenes about myself.

The show went fine, and, by fine, I mean that I won. Otherwise I would have considered it a disaster. Because I made it about me – a half-hour of comedy for them, unabashedly, uniformly about myself. Had they not liked it, it wouldn’t have just been the set-ups and the ideas they didn’t like; it would have been me, and I couldn’t stand that. I cannot stand the idea of people not liking me or my work, mainly because there is not much of a line between the two. Learning to judge my work’s success on its own terms is a hard and ongoing piece of personal development.

I tell you this because there was a moment in that show where I was exposed to myself. I saw what a hold traditional reviews had not only over my work, but over me. At one point I made the cast improvise a scene based solely on lines from bad reviews I had received. It was great. The audience laughed. Which was the appropriate response.

At the end of each scene, the audience voted with applause as we stood centre stage. I took this opportunity, an island of ego within what was already a lagoon of me, to name and shame all the critics that had dared to give me bad reviews. Did they know who I was? I’d show them.

As I sat back down, I capped off my monstrosity by gloating that one of said critics now has a job not in the arts. “Who's on stage now!” The audience laughed. Which was not the appropriate response.

When I reviewed work, I wasn’t looking for what the artists had set out to do, but instead what I wanted to write about; whether I was feeling kind or not

That was such a dick move. I'd like to pretend that it didn’t happen; luckily, the show’s sole review did not mention it. But at the time I rode the high of that laughter through the evening all the way to my usual instalment of 3amcantsleepfear when I crashed, and I saw what I had done, and what that meant about the hold those reviews had over me.

They had poisoned me. I had placed so much worth on them that they had distorted me – as both an artist and a critic. When I made work I couldn’t like it, or myself, if the reviewers didn’t. When I reviewed work, I wasn’t looking for what the artists had set out to do, but instead what I wanted to write about; whether I was feeling kind or not.

I was a prick. If I had been giving myself feedback, I would have concluded with, “All that being said I still want to punch you in the face.”

I was a reviewer but I was not responding to work, like so few critics do. I was an artist but I was only making what I thought people wanted, what the reviewers wanted.

So I realised I had to be both, at the same time. I had to try to really reflect on others’ work and others’ lives, to be what a reviewer really should be in the world, even if I wasn’t doing it in print or on radio but just in ethos. A reviewer should be responsive and giving and helpful. That doesn’t mean that they have to be nice, but it does mean they do have to be thoughtful – which, a lot of the time, is the same thing.

That will help us all make better art, because then we can accept it on its own terms. We can respond and give to everything we do. Whether it be on the page, the stage, the screen, and canvas or wherever.

Everything we do is art and that is amazing.

Now we need to be reviewers too. As we turn our histories, presents and futures into stories, we need a new distance on ourselves. Good art needs good critics, and now that our lives are art, they need thoughtful, constructive, considered reviews, too. We need people to tell us what our lives are saying and how we can better say it.