In November 2011, Michael Kaiser, president of New York’s Kennedy Center for the performing arts, published an article on the Huffington Post announcing the death of criticism, murdered by the “scary trend” of arts blogs, message boards and chat rooms powered by an army of uninformed, amateur writers.
Jeremy Barker and Andy Horwitz—both of the NYC-based performance arts and culture website Culturebot—published biting responses attacking Kaiser’s dismissal of arts audiences as uneducated amateurs. “The audiences for the arts,” Horwitz wrote, “are frequently educated, knowledgeable, committed individuals who, you know, have actual jobs.”
Last month at On the Boards, Barker and Horwitz launched their Citizen Critic Project, a collaborative, conversation-based initiative to encourage critical discourse and scale the crumbling ivory tower of arts criticism. The “live critical intervention” was post-disciplinary, bending critique into performance art.
The evening began with a series of brief talks from seven local arts critics, curators, performers, patrons and administrators, illustrated by footage from the On the Boards video archive. Panelist Matthew Richter theorized that the most interesting room in any theatre is the bar. Then, to test this notion, the audience was invited onstage and encouraged to share their ideas with a side of popcorn, Jameson and PBR.
“It’s easy to overcomplicate our reactions,” said panelist Olivia Menzer, a member of the TeenTix Press Corps and senior at Roosevelt High School. But everyone has an “in” to the artistic world by virtue of being human.
The idea that humanity is a critic’s main credential is one of the guiding philosophies behind the Citizen Critic project. Unfortunately, it’s as devaluing as it is validating. If arts criticism is something everyone can do—and is doing—how do you know who’s doing it right?
For young critics in particular, including me, Culturebot’s message is a double-edged sword that stabs at our insecurities. If anyone can do it, who says I deserve to?
Citizen critics may not pollute the discourse, but they do dilute it. Is there some value in maintaining, if not an ivory tower, then at least a clapboard tree house? If not, we run the risk of creating a dynamic seen in pop culture criticism: an exhausting circular gabfest run by a pack of critical watchdogs chasing their own tails.
Any discourse about discourse (or critical essay about critique) runs the risk of being trapped in the frantic group masturbation scene from Jan Fabre/Troubleyn’s Orgy of Tolerance. (It’s no mistake that this clip was referenced multiple times over the course of the Culturebot’s evening at On the Boards). The Internet makes it easy to get carried away by the feeling that through the cyber-dissemination of our opinions we are living the artist’s dream, that we are touching everyone at once. The critical question is whether or not efforts like Culturebot are enough to prevent us from waking up alone in front of a screen, touching only ourselves.