Thursday, June 28, 2012

Interviews and Reviews

I'm glad I don't usually have to interview and review the same artist re: the same show. Interviewing artists naturally makes me sympathize with them. I see all the work and thought and vulnerability they put into their art. They are no longer just professionals whose work I review at a distance; they become fully fleshed out human beings who could get stung or buoyed by every word I write.

Of course, the artists are real human beings before I interview them (unless I'm actually as important as I think I am). But when I write criticism, I'm not reviewing people; I'm reviewing artwork. Interviewing can make me confuse the two.

In the past month, I interviewed two artists before seeing their work -- Eve Ensler re: Emotional Creature, as I previously wrote about, and Alison Whittaker re: Vital Signs, her solo show about her work as a nurse, which is at the Marsh. I saw pieces of the writers in their shows -- Ensler with her unfaltering confidence, her free-flowing syntax, her penchant for listing three or four synonyms for one idea, Whittaker with her unabashed genuineness, her focused presence in whatever she's doing, her warmth and kindness. Both women see their art partly as activism, Ensler for girls around the world, Whittaker for victims of the healthcare system, both patients and employees. I couldn't do what they do. I have neither the confidence nor the passion to take myself and my misson that seriously. I deeply admire both artists in that respect.

(One of the many girl power-y moments in Emotional Creature. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

But I also saw flaws in both productions. Emotional Creature had a few stirring monologues. But they were about topics that, with a strong actress, couldn't help but stir: a raped and enslaved girl in the Congo who escapes and tells her story in the form of advice to the audience; a Barbie factory worker in China who sends mental messages of compassion to both Barbie and Barbie buyers and who only refers to her own plight after first lamenting everyone else's; an Eastern European girl who is forced into prostitution. The staging, the music, and the inter-monologue patter, however, were better suited to a middle school assembly than to a professional stage. One lyric goes, "I wanna touch you in real time, not poke you on facebook, face-book!"

(Doesn't this make you want Alison Whittaker to take your Vital Signs? Photo by David Allen.)

With Vital Signs, I was deeply impressed by Whittaker's writing, which was full of complex structures and astute observations, as well as her impressions of her patients and coworkers, which were brave and vivid. It's not easy, if you're a small-boned white nurse, to create a morbidly obese African-American drug addict, especially if you're relatively new to performing. But she lived so fully in her characterizations that I was able to picture an entire cast of characters that, a week later, have stuck with me. I see clearly one colleague's glistening gold tooth and another's bouncy shuffle, as if rather than working he were "cruising for dates in the Castro." In fact, the only character I didn't see was Alison herself, the narrator. She's meant to serve as a comic straight woman, the better to highlight her surrounding characters' eccentricities. But she's almost like a blank slate, reacting so neutrally to the events around her that not only did I not know who she was; I didn't like her enough to care about her story.

Had I been asked to write a "real" review (i.e., for the Weekly) of either of these shows, it would have been a struggle. I'm still at a stage of my criticism in which I must carefully manage how close I get to the artists I review, whether that means limiting how many interviews I do or how many artist acquaintances I have. One day, I hope to have the maturity and professionalism I see in other critics, who smile and chat with artists one moment and then go home to write trenchant reviews of them the next. But I'm not there yet. So for now, I'll be continuing my not-so-glorious theatergoing modus operandi: speaking to no one, making as little eye contact as possible, then, the moment the lights go down, scurrying into the night, trying to keep pure the laurels or the venom on my tongue.

Emotional Creature continues through July 15 at Berkeley Rep; info here.

Vital Signs continues through July 21 at the Marsh SF; info here.


  1. Lily, what has me checking in with your blog from time to time is exactly what you do here, which is rare for critics: putting out into the world an ongoing critical investigation of yourself and your own work. I find it legitimately refreshing that as a critic you share with us your own critical journey, rather than maintaining the stance of absolute certainty that so many reviewers seem to do by default.

    In these regards, if by "trenchant" you mean its use as "forceful, effective, and vigorous," then I would agree this is something to strive for as your circle of artist colleagues continues to grow. If you at all mean "trenchant" in its use as "caustic" or "cutting," which I imagine you don't despite your reference to "venom," then I would suggest that, no, such trenchancy is not a sign of either maturity or professionalism in a critic who counts artists among her colleagues, acquaintances, or friends.

    In any case, I'd also add that seeing artists as human beings, and recognizing that their art is in fact NOT separate from either them, their humanity, or humanity in general, but rather that they are inextricably linked, is a point of view that makes a fine example of professionalism and maturity in any critic, or artist -- despite the NY Times' separatist policies on these matters. Critics who maintain that they review only the art and not the artist are living a lie. No artist would ever see it this way, of course. I've never gotten the sense that the general readership see it this way either. It's a fallacy that critics sometimes uphold in order to help themselves deal with the inherently personal nature of what they write about not just art but people, and for people -- critics likewise being people themselves, which some artists also wrongfully forget.

    Thanks for your ongoing, and truly critical, work.

    Mark J

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for reading and for this great response. Sometimes I think of this blog as a second face. In my articles for the Weekly, I have to sound as certain as everyone else; here, I can turn around and indulge all the qualms that lie beneath the facade!

    Sometime, I'd love to see examples of what you mean by "forceful" vs. "caustic." Say there are two negative reviews - what makes one vigorous and the other cutting? I have my own sense of what these terms mean, but I think sometimes in discussing criticism folks bandy them about without being precise.

    That being said, I think there is a place for caustic reviews, if only because I enjoy reading them and because much great criticism - Shaw, Tynan, etc. - is caustic. I guess that just means Shaw and Tynan probably couldn't have it both ways and also have artist amigos.

    Speaking of being precise, I should have been more specific in discussing reviewing art vs. reviewing artists. For me what that means is that criticism is not a review of how nice a person is or a testament to our friendship. I haven't yet found the right balance of how to avoid that trap while also not being cold and savage. Maybe I will if I live as long as Shaw did.

  3. Lily,

    Must you always sound certain in your SF Weekly reviews? A good open question can be infinitely more stimulating than even a well-put answer's finality. If a work of art brings up multiple, especially conflicting, perspectives within a reviewer's experience of it, that in itself is a legitimate response and something well worth talking about. This business of finality of assessment, by which reviewers sometimes declare what a work of art "is," as if the impact of an artwork were an objective and not subjective matter, has always seemed to me rather antithetical to art, which at least in part exists to inspire and open up possibilities, not to reduce or limit them.

    By "forceful" or "vigorous" verses "caustic" or "cutting" I mean making a comment with an engaged, articulate, well considered, strong point of view, hopefully also with the intent to converse, as opposed to anything involving either sarcasm, careless flippancy, meanness, or declarations not intended for debate but for the endgame-spectacle of the verbal cutting-down itself. The latter turns a review into a gossip column, which is another endeavor.

    Speaking not just as an artist but also as someone who sometimes myself contributes to print and online magazines, my own feeling is that if I couldn't also say what I wrote to a person's face, I probably shouldn't write it that way either. It's entirely possible to disagree, debate, even argue, with vigor and force and without ever stooping to sarcasm or meanness.

    People have walked up to me even right after a show of mine and spoken to things they did NOT like about it in a way that was fair and considered, and I take what these people say in and consider it myself. Same goes for what such people may write. Others walk up and say, or scuttle away and write, impulsive, sarcastic, flippant things, sometimes making a point of "clever" turns of phrase, and to be frank I dismiss these people as self-serving.

    I'm very, very interested in a conversation with someone, preferably in person but also in print. That's why I make art and also why I go to see it: to participate in a conversation. I'm not interested in anyone monologuing at me and expecting me to remain silent when they've opted to render their monologue caustically. That's selfish of them, and in a civil society such people should be taken to task. The spectacle of a caustic comment can indeed be entertaining, especially when written with the wit of Shaw. But Shaw's wit is rare. It's not incidental that Shaw was also an artist himself, with practical experience with the broad subject of what he critiqued. Harold Clurman was likewise an artist, but more so one of the great American critics who never wrote caustically, but always critically. His review of STREETCAR is masterful, truly critical, and never caustic.

    So now I'm at risk of monologuing myself. Hopefully vigorously, at least, and in the service of conversation for certain. Thanks for the e-conversation, Lily.

    Mark J