Final Project Abstract – An Appraisal of Critical Appraisals: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Arts Criticism

In 2016, in an effort to devote more time and contemplation to the films I was watching, I started writing short movie reviews and sharing them to social media. I was hoping to both improve my own understanding of the medium and start conversations with others who were interested in film. I never considered myself a “film critic” – Arts Criticism was something formal, capitalized, and professional in my head. But every critic needs to start somewhere right? The more I contemplate the practice of arts criticism, the more elusive it seems to me. I think I naively hoped to discover a template, a solid understanding of what criticism should look like or focus on. I wanted to know how or if it was something loftier than what I was doing with my online reviews – if there was some kind of evolution or trajectory to follow from movie goer to cinephile to reviewer to film critic. I’m not sure why I ever thought there would be consensus in a sector driven by analysis and the expression of one’s opinion. There have been debates for centuries on arts criticism, and even though film is a comparatively young medium, those debates have informed thinking on film criticism as well. What is criticism? What are its functions? Who are critics speaking to – the general public, niche audiences, the artists, themselves? Who has the authority to be a critic and from where is that authority derived? And finally, is there a crisis in arts criticism – do the current crisis in print media and resulting job losses really signal the death of the critic?
To refine and hone my own approach to arts criticism, this paper explores these questions and their ensuing debates. Along the way, I explore the tendency towards elitism in art and arts criticism – a feature I find problematic. I note that current discussions and debates over whether criticism is in crisis and in danger of being “dumbed down” actually reflect the same rhetoric used at other pivotal moments in arts history, and may have more to do with asserting or re-asserting critical authority. I attempt to identify the functions of art criticism, many of which were born out of the major debates of those pivotal moments and “crises,” in the hopes of finding models to employ in my own work. And finally, I celebrate arts criticism as an artform in and of itself, an act of creation inspired by the creative work of others. In the end, I find myself still grappling with defining my own voice and approach to criticism, but better prepared for the work ahead.

Now: Move

Dialogue Wen Wei Dance;  The Dance Centre;  2017, May 25th

Whether ‘Dialogue’ by Wen Wei Dance was exactly a dance theatre or was not, is irrelevant. What matters is that it was quite unique case of a truly meaningful creation in difficult, extremely personalized domain of movement theatre, that actually touched and moved: the audience.

The performance’s title, as well as artist statement in the program’s brochure specified, that in his work choreographer focused on this so distinctively human drive to bond with others through constant exchange of information on present, expected or past state of emotions. In sheep, with all due respect to those fascinating creatures, is probably not that significant, what a particular sheep has experienced in life, not to mention expectations: it will be most likely instinct, and sheep rush, that determine its future behavior. Humans are deeply dependent on their experience and how they behave is so much influenced by what they had gone through; Wen Wei Wang’s choreography was just about this, I suppose.

The show consisted of a series of impressions on communication and understanding – or lack of it. Everyone in audience experienced it individually, I guess; for me three scenes resonated particularly strongly: 1. A cartoon-ish impression on weapons and violence; 2. A tango-like scene about need for commitment and dependence; 3. A ‘black hole’ segment (a tag explanation to follow).

Let’s begin with the middle, simplest to categorize and label: a pair of performers, witnessed by rest of non-participating cast, staged emotionally tense and intense relationship of dependence between two individuals: an uncommitted, indifferent and passive character, although obviously in a dominant position of power, and a weak one: active, committed and initiating, clearly in pursuit of dependence and bonding with the dominant. Sounds like nothing new but in Wen Wei performers’ interpretation it looked astonishingly: a weak/female character crossing limits of devotion to attract attention of a strong/male figure, barely capable of noticing partner – or perhaps the weak one was actual intruder and predator? That segment’s choreography, which was not a tango, seemed strongly influenced by tango style and idiom. Also, it gained unexpected context by setting against cheese L. Cohens’ hit music from before decades – an overwhelming, thrilling effect, not easily forgotten.

The other memorable scene from Wen Wei’s ‘Dialogue’ was a funny on surface but in fact alarming reflection on idealization of force and violence – when the very fact of weapon position, amplified by cartoonish liturgy of displaying it, becomes a vehicle for power. This divides the men into the powerful: armed and using arms, just for sake of that; and the powerless: victimized by weaponry games of the strong. In Wen Wei’s interpretation it looked like an episode of TV cartoon show, but unfortunately was so close to what actually happens in too many parts of the world.

Next segment of the night was a rare example of choreographer and performers’ joint creativity, a team movement perfection, as well as ultimate commitment in execution of artistic goal. Over time needed to deliver the piece, performers united their stage presences into one dynamic, mesmerizing to watch, entanglement of convulsed drives and impulses, throwing itself around the stage; six bodies moving like one, with too many heads, limbs and needs inside, to achieve any direction – different from a constant inner struggle. A black hole perhaps is better term to describe this: simultaneous gravity and repulsion of particles inside, mutual support and destruction, symbiosis and predatory. It was a great image of human entanglement in life, own and of others; an effort to reach beyond and above. Witnessing it was a rare, deep and meaningful experience, evoking questions.

As this for example: how ‘Dialogue’ would look like if choreographer did not limit cast to males only? Would presence of female performers change show’s appeal? How and why? This remains unknown; hopefully Wen Wei Dance future works will bring some answers.

Adam

                                                            

Lose Threads on the Fringe of Textile

MAIWA School of Textiles;   Granville Island, Vancouver BC;  2017, May 23rd

It is surprising how little Western art has focused on fabrics – in sense that fabrics or weaving have been its object. The reason being very likely, that textiles are equipped with their own strong esthetic aspect, usually determining their mercantile value, as a merger of crafts and art. Therefore: what to talk (or write) about – if textiles sufficiently spoke for themselves? There are not too many poems about fabrics, for fabric sake, or short stories, not to mention novels or operas, although each of those is full of images or some other form of participation of textiles – as life is. Yet in art, as much as in life, despite the fact that fabrics carry so much meaning and social content, as commodity, they remain a prop, a medium, a symbol at most. And as always, people are what do matter: what they do, about props and symbols, not those objects themselves.

If one takes a look back, only Penelope in Homer brought some dramatic impact into narrative with an act of weaving, progressing with it in daylight, disentangling at night, where very nature of her occupation influenced, conditioned actually, events’ progression in story – paradoxically, because Penelope’s intent was for them to not progress. Also Nessus’ shirt, Salome’s veils and emperor’s new clothes played somehow on the nature and use of textiles – but neither Desdemona’s handkerchief or Malvolio’s stockings, or flying carpet, or Sleeping Beauty’s spindle, do not count, because textiles, clothing or chores involved were merely props, easily replaceable with anything else. In end of XIX century German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann wrote a communist-ish drama ‘The Weavers’, but profession of class exploited in the play did not really matter, they easily could be lumberjacks or railwaymen.

So, amazingly, despite their prominent role in life and history, textiles have not been somehow specifically addressed in art; on other hand, have been specifically addressed furniture, groceries or plants? – unless they formed the still lives or landscapes, in paintings? Yet even then, the composition and framing, plus fidelity (or deformation), were usually at focus, not the objects per se; and obviously the lighting.

It is probably not best idea to comment here on socio-economic role of textiles, especially clothing, since this deserves separate consideration. It is only worth noting that diversity in textiles and clothing seems to be in direct relation with freedom (and wealth of course) that individuals exercise within a society: all totalitarian ideologies of exclusion usually try to execute mind oppression, among other means, trough control of personal appearances and clothes standardization – as all organization uniforms or burkas prove. Therefore the more diversity and color in textiles, the more freedom in everyday life, presumably, although this may be a superficial impression; additionally it varies through cultures. In the West weaving and cloth making have developed as predominantly women’s occupation, while in many parts of the world it remained in male domain.

A great pathway into individual quest (and enlightenment) in complexity of textiles may lead through a place not far from home, in Granville Island, where in shadow of the big bridge lurks MAIWA School of Textiles: a fascinating space. An absolutely amazing stock of textiles from remote parts of world, mainly India, may be found there, to examine with all senses; as well as the lectures about textiles in regard of all their specifics, can be heard. While there, one has a feeling of visiting in half a warehouse, in half a designers studio, or maybe even a research and seminar lab, which in fact this space is, simultaneously, plus a store, of course, selling fabrics.

It was developed as an uncommon merger of entrepreneurship with enthusiasm and support for crafts. Owners run unique and interesting business model, based in creating their own market niche, that seems to be effective mostly due to educational action implemented, along trade, at both sides of the venture. Here, in Granville Island space, a vast array of workshops, courses and lectures is offered, that promote knowledge of unique fabrics while building base of customers, at same time. On contractors’ side in India, owners support their partners in cultivating of traditional hand-made manufacturing technics that preserve distinctive style of local textiles – although it would be much easier and profitable to purchase industrially manufactured products.

Whether it is still business or perhaps more a curating? – that should really not matter, if it works (30 years!) and everyone seems happy. At face value MAIWA operations, including School of Textiles, look like a perfect case of non-invasive exchange between cultures, literally and metaphorically enriching both sides of interaction.

Adam

 

Is That All?

Andrew Czink: piano performance; Goldcorp SFU Woodwards;  2017, May 15th

I always had a problem with minimalism in art: with all that reductionism, alleged synthesis or generalization within esthetic experience – while world, life (and that is what art is about) is a wealth and diversity, also chaos, yet complex and meaningful. An artist has at a disposal unlimited resource of sounds, hues, concepts – to establish his unique, individual experience and a relevant comment. If artist willingly gives up on that, the wealth and diversity (and chaos), in favor of the limited or restricted – usually labeled as a pursuit of purity and significance – I always wonder whether he actually reaches the essence, or in essence disables himself.

Which was the case when I witnessed recently a short piano performance by Andrew Czink, preceded by artist’s introduction into his insight in music – that immediately established that audience was about to embrace something beyond traditional experience in major and minor. According to it, if I got the introduction correctly, Mr. Czink’s focus, both as composer and performer, was on sounds’ relations in tonality, chromatic and tempo, as well as in a sensual experience, both for the audience and the musician, while music be performed. Following, the artist executed a solo piece, ca 20 min., constituted mainly of rubato of not distant chords in variable tempo, focusing on rhythmic, chromatic and harmonic in sounds progression, as promised – with no melodic aspect to it whatsoever. While I deeply admire artists’ urge to explore ideas they identify with, and usually I do try to follow and understand their efforts, from my point of view (or hearing point, actually) this particular experience seemed isolated and insulating, monotonous and not quite interesting. If music, and Mr. Czink emphasized at the beginning that he considered his proceedings as music, not barely quest in the sounds domain, so if music is, as someone observed justly, a liquid architecture, then Mr. Czink constructed a modest shack merely, it seemed, or even a shack’s fence only: limiting but lacking, beyond the limitation, any wider function, role, content or meaning. What’s the point?, I kept guessing, listening to that emotionally charged, undoubtedly, but otherwise going nowhere, I felt, performance. What is the reason to limit such a magnificent, melodic instrument that a grand piano is, to a barely rhythmic, almost percussion function? Somehow like hammering a nail with a baroque candlestick: can be done but is that the best use for candlestick, and the nail?

Restriction, limitation or exclusion may be creatively fruitful: take black and white photography, which falsifies reality, but how aesthetically revealing and significant the results happen, at times, to be? In Mr. Czink’s performance a significance was substantial, perhaps, in his own emotional expression and fulfillment, at a given time and place – which obviously is a reason and fine purpose for art, too. Not necessarily for sharing.

Adam

(dis) Harmonia Mundi

Long Division by P. Dickinson;  The Annex;  2017, April 29th

‘Long Division’ by Peter Dickinson in Pi Theatre’s rendition appears as unconventional stage attempt to comment on profound (therefore conventional) theatrical and intellectual theme: what is a reason and purpose, hopefully justification, for an absurd that life is? – in context of vain, pointless, random often, therefore horrifying, cruelty that constitutes for life’s large slice, recently so overexposed by the media. Playwright and Pi’s creative team offer a polyphonic variation on the subject; resorting to theatre means they orchestrate stage equivalent of a fugue: a dominant theme entwined with an array of motives and voices that comment, counter-point and relate to a dominant tune. Which is, or seems to be – a question, or rather a supplication – timelessly repeated by artists and philosophers: let there be some point, some rigor, some idea, a mechanism, a structure, that justifies all this.

In his take of the above P. Dickson seems to blow three major horns: 1. a narrative structure: a story, whether factual or fictional irrelevant, of a school shooting, that clearly locates stage action and subject matter in a contemporary present; 2. a coincidence: as life (and drama) device that largely rules lives of humans (and play’s characters), often bringing people at wrong times, at wrong places; 3. and an idea or symbol that is pure and strong (math): and counter-balances, perhaps arbitrary, a chaos of two former. Whether simultaneous sound of these three voices is justified and harmonious, remains P. Dickinson play’s puzzle and mystery. As well as presumption, permissible in light of play’s structure and logic, that coincidence (chaos) is in fact a necessity, lurking in infinity of numbers’ relations and the scale. Unfortunately, that has never been confirmed so far and none mathematical model, statistic nor probabilistic, has ever allowed to avoid or predict horrifying consequences of human desires, anxiety or prejudice.

So where P. Dickinson and Pi Theatre are taking all this? A question with no direct answer. Perhaps a feint cue lies there in a brief conversation, toward almost end of play, when the math teacher, shot dead during school carnage, talks to the perpetrator’s mother, suddenly bringing into the conversation a category of beauty – as teacher somehow admires, despite loosing own life, his former pupil’s ultimate reaction to bulling, as well as, much earlier, his bright, though difficult and isolated mind. Would that be – the beauty – another, unexposed, sub-superficial tune in playwright’s composition? A key to play’s mindset, although beyond simple distinction between evil and good? Great contemporary composer Karlheinz Stockhausen tagged 9/11 attacks in New York as: ‘the biggest work of art there has ever been”. Would ‘Long Division’s’ author be similarly… calm? – in the face of cruelty of absurd?

Adam