Thursday, 10 November 2011

Criticism under fire: the comment's challenge to authority

Here's a brief position paper I gave at a conference at Oxford Brookes earlier in the Autumn, which I thought might be worth sharing. The conference, called 'Beyond the Press Cuttings: New Approaches to Reception in Opera Studies', was organised by the OBERTO research unit at Brookes (OBERTO's website is here; the conference's here) and asked some interesting questions about what operatic reception studies was these days and whether, in a more holistic musicological world, there was indeed any need to separate it from the rest of the discipline. My paper was part of a round-table session entitled 'The Audience as Critic' and the discussion covered the role of the critic in the Internet age. My paper raises some preliminary thoughts about this in relation to some ideas from Audience Studies. (Helen Freshwater's little book, Theatre and Audience, provided some extremely useful background in this regard). 

The aim in my ten minutes is to offer some thoughts on a particular example of the ‘Audience as Critic’, or, perhaps more specifically, of the ‘Audience as Critic, and Critic of the Critic’. This is the comment section that now routinely accompanies any review – or indeed most news stories and comment pieces – published on a newspaper’s website: a fascinating virtual front-line set up between the traditionally unimpeachable arbiter of taste – the critic – and the traditionally passive reader, whose dissent was once restricted to irate interval banter and impotent disgusted-from-Tunbridge-Wells missives. It represents a strange clash between old-world critical hierarchies, formerly preserved in the fixed permanence of the printed word, and the Internet age’s dream of open communication leading to a self-righting critical consensus (explored rather brilliantly in Adam Curtis’s recent three-part BBC documentary: All watched over by Machines of Loving Grace).
And it’s possible to detect a certain utopian ideal behind the comment itself, reflected in the Guardian newspaper’s motto for its own deliberately comment-inciting blogs page: ‘Comment is free’. But that motto quotes only the first half of a statement, made in 1921, by former Guardian editor, CP Scott. ‘Comment is free’ is emblazoned pride of place on the Guardian’s main blog page, while a photograph of Scott appears on the left, and next to it, in significantly smaller font, the second part of his sentence: ‘but facts are sacred’. There’s a finger-wagging implication here, it seems to me, that this idle chit-chat from the hoi poloi is all very well; but let’s leave the facts to the big boys – and I doubt the reassuringly bearded Scott, in 1921, would have been above gendering ‘comment’ and ‘fact’ in that sort of way, either.
Anyway, let’s agree for one moment that opera criticism might represent a small proportion of fact mixed with a great deal of subjective judgement; but the question remains as to whether or not ‘comment’ can feasibly and usefully be incorporated into reception history – as informal audience jottings in the margins of the ‘Press Cuttings’ we’re looking to go beyond in this conference. I suspect the answer will have to be yes – ish – within reason, and taking into account the usual questions regarding authority and reliability that any responsible historian has to ask of a source. I suspect, too, that this and similar questions will be raised by my colleagues, and get covered by our subsequent discussion. So I’m going to continue by mapping Scott’s implicit value judgment onto discourses on the audience and the role of the critic, with the hope that we might be able to provide some useful context by uncovering some of the ingrained attitudes to the audience that still dominate.
The authority of the critic has traditionally resided in his (and it still is, in the majority of cases, his) being supported by the machinery of the press. But there is also a certain left-wing discourse that, as far as I read it, characterises the critic’s role as that of a corrective. When one takes into account views of the audience such as Brecht’s idea of it as an unthinking mass too easily co-opted into whatever cause a play or opera might be espousing, the critic has a moral obligation to be antagonistic. The critic is a fire fighter, pouring water on flames fanned – if you’ll excuse the pun – by an audience’s unchecked enthusiasm. One might say that the small-c critic writing in a newspaper is expected still to carry the sense of responsibility of the big-c Critic, whose job it is to unveil and unpick ideologies. It’s a lot to ask of a couple of hundred words produced to a tight deadline. Nevertheless, left-leaning theatre scholars tend to shudder at the idea of the passive audience, whilst simultaneously perpetuating the idea that the audience sitting in silence is inherently passive, or, for example, that the act of applause, as Baz Kershaw has suggested, breaks us down in readiness for hegemonic submission (to borrow Freshwater's neat paraphrase). It’s an attitude that has been traced back as far as Plato – who sought to banish theatre from his Republic. And, as often, Wagner provides another  pertinent historical example. We think of Nietzsche’s characterisation of him as an old magician to be resisted and, of course, see the effect of his all-encompassing Music Dramas lazily blended with that of the Gesamtkunstwerk that was the Nazi propaganda machine. Musicology itself, too, long preached resistance to the physical pleasures of the performance, encouraging cerebral engagement with the score instead. Indeed, the language applied to great performances carries dangerous-sounding traces of submission: one is swept away or bowled over by convincing or persuasive performances.
But musicology now has embraced all these effects, as well as the especially irrational side of opera fandom. Theatre historian Neil Blackadder has promoted an idea of audience protest as creative rather than antipathetic, noting that ‘by describing virtually any protest in a theatre auditorium as a riot, theatre historians depict spectators’ oppositional practices as primarily disorderly’ – that is, easily dismissed as unthinking and ignorant. And Jacques Rancière has argued against the assumption that the audience is an uncritical, unthinking mob. In his The Emancipated Spectator he writes: ‘in a theatre, in front of a performance, just as in a museum, school or street, there are only ever individuals plotting their own paths in the forest of things, acts and signs that confront or surround them’. Being a spectator, he states later, is ‘not some passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal situation’. And opera is, arguably, more bound to maintain this normal situation than any other form of theatre, given its delicate balance between elements, demanding both ‘spectating’ spectators and a closely ‘auditing’ audience.
Nevertheless, attempts to shake up this status quo, such as those pub-based performances by the widely publicised Opera Up Close, are also rooted in hoary assumptions regarding the passive audience, as well as ideas regarding elitism, as the company’s combative founder-director Adam Spreadbury-Maher makes clear in an interview from a year ago: ‘Opera has died and we need to perform CPR on it; there is a massive everyman audience out there and we have got to take it to them’. He goes on to describe a ‘traditional’ opera performance: ‘At worst, it can be almost like going to a wedding, with everyone sitting still. It is a charade. Audiences need a kick in the guts, or at least a thump on the heart. Otherwise they should just stay at home and listen to a CD’. This article was published in the Guardian, and its online version, appropriately enough, quickly encouraged a far-from-passive audience to give him a kick in the guts back. And comments on reviews similarly give the lie, of course, to assumptions regarding the passive audience.
But let me return, after my slightly theoretical diversion, to the 'value' (for want of a better word) of these comments, which are to be archived by the International Internet Preservation Consortium, beyond their being simply evidence of a certain level of audience engagement. Reception history has always relied on being able to gauge authority and reliability, and it is sometimes difficult to assign such characteristics to some comments: many take the form of a rant, clearly fuelled by a resentment towards a critic, or are obviously ill-informed. Others, apparently ignoring the fact that few critics would claim to be expressing anything but a subjective judgment, make their own claim to objective truth – ‘Critic A clearly wasn’t at the same performance that I was’, one might read, ‘because I found it x, y, and z’. However, is it possible, I wonder, to suggest, cynically perhaps, that it is opera’s indelible taint of elitism that inspires us to even consider admitting this sort of evidence into musicological court – that the erosion of critical hierarchies seemingly brought about by the comment is an illusion created by a desire to assuage guilt regarding the fact that only the wealthy can afford a ticket in the stalls at Covent Garden or Glyndebourne? Are we even right to assume that professional critics – their numbers and word counts slashed to a minimum over the part decade – will even have a value to future historiography when we have aural and visual records of most productions?

It's very difficult to know. 

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