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Sometimes the Work Hurts

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES October 2007

THERE ARE all sorts of work you can do in quiet obscurity. Thereís pretty nearly no kind of creative work that fits that bill. If youíre an artist of any kind, youíre going to face public commentary on what you do. Even though that is a fact of life about virtually every kind of creative work, many artists, perhaps even most artists, develop deeply antagonistic attitudes toward those who do the commentary they face. Thatís definitely true of people who do theater and find themselves the focus of attention of those who do criticism and reviews.

When the fur flies between those two groups, all sorts of stuff flies with it. The critic isnít fair. The critic doesnít try to understand. The critic is prejudiced. The critic is stupid. The critic is narcissistic. The critic slept through it. All of which may be true, and certainly has been true at one time or another. Critics who deliver positive reviews are curiously immune to all these charges until the next time they deliver a negative review. But the bottom line is simple: the critic didnít like it.

Iíve been on both sides of this fence. As a reviewer, Iíve felt it incumbent upon me to be harsh a few . Some a spade has to be called a damn shovel, because thatís what it is, and the readers rely on me to call it as I see it. As an artist, Iíve been praised and Iíve been panned, and I learned more from the pans, because praise always says basically the same thing, while dispraise is usually very specific.

Thatís what hurts. You, the artist, put your heart and soul and guts and blood and sweat and tears and time into the thing, probably for barely enough money to live on if in fact you were so lucky to be that well-paid, and here this jerk is saying publicly that he didnít like it. How can that jerk be saying such things when all your friends, colleagues, well-wishers and even patrons are saying the opposite?

Well, all talk is cheap. But that being said, what mechanisms exist in this business for full, frank, and knowledgeable audience feedback? Criticism as practiced today is a deeply flawed business. Reviews are too short to be full, too often written by those who are not knowledgeable, and some not frank; a reviewer may be harsh or soft based on all sorts of biases. In the absence of better feedback, youíd better listen to the critic, even though it hurts.

Itís the hurt thatís really the problem. Thereís so much in this work that is not under the artistís control. Scripts, performers, designers, technicians and spaces all come with permanently attached imperfections. Thereís never enough time or money to do that job right. Audiences are also imperfect; the genuine aficionado, truly knowledgeable, truly experienced, is a rare, rare bird. The effort always more or less works; it also always more or less fails. You do what you can—and then you take the hit.

The bottom line: nobody cares what your problems were. They only care about the result. Thatís the way it is, and thatís not going to change. The hurt comes with the work. Ya gotta know the territory.

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