This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be writing on the topic of theater criticism. In this selection, I’ll be looking at how we think about the shows we watch and how our use of labels cam be harmful.
On March 19th, I attend Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: The 20th Century Abridged. It was an incredible performance art concert that was incredibly thought-provoking and has kept me thinking long after I left the theater.
At the beginning of the show, Mac described the performance as a “shared experience, but not a homogeneous one.” We may be watching the same show, but we aren’t all seeing it the same way. As audience members, we were encouraged to embrace whatever we felt and that there was no one correct way to react to the show. In a culture that focuses on feeling just one thing or be only one thing or another, Mac explained, it’s important to embrace “both earnestness and cynicism.”
It’s refreshing to be allowed to accept what you are experiencing, especially the range, the nuances, and the contradictions of reactions, regardless of whether it’s what the rest of the audience is feeling or what the artist wants to see. As a critic and an artist myself, it’s often difficult to figure out how to deal with such responses. All too often, “professional” criticism and conversations about shows become focused on the right or the wrong way to see a show or whether it’s good or bad. I’m far less interested in these things. I’m a highly emotional person and I’m more interested in what a performance makes me feel, what it causes me to think about, what it’s saying about the world around me and what resonates with me.
However, those reactions can’t always be put into the categories we’re used to – art that’s good or bad, art that is happy or sad, art that is simple or complex. Mac, who resists normative categorizations, especially in terms of gender and uses judy as a pronoun, is the perfect voice to support the resistance of lumping art off in the same way. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever like all parts of a show and wrong to pretend we do. It feels wrong to use words that hold a moral stance – such as good or bad – to describe performances and it seems too final to think that our opinions on shows won’t change overtime or with further thought. There are many shows I disliked at the moment and grew to like overtime and shows I enjoyed until thinking of further contexts and realized their flaws. Final judgement in reviewing a show is a difficult notion but one that is expected and one that I am drawn to resist. As we shouldn’t segment people into static categories that never change (I’m thinking in terms of labels or personality classifications here), we likewise shouldn’t segment the art they make either.
Mac stated during the performance that judy focuses on humanity rather than perfection. I aim to do that my own creative work and reviewing. For when we put perfection aside, we can begin to think about why we create art, why we watch it, and why it’s important to us. And when we ask those questions, we deepen our understanding not only of art, but of ourselves.