I first became captivated by the notion of "critical generosity" when reading my friend and colleague David Román's (1998) Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS. David not only engaged performances about HIV/AIDS and the politics of gay male and queer culture but also modeled how such engagement might benefit the artists and productions about whom he wrote as well as the spectators and audiences who saw their work. I remember keenly reading David's account of seeing Tony Kushner's Angels in America with his friends in Los Angeles, several of whom were HIV positive. He described with love and concern how they took care of themselves while watching a marathon showing of the two-part, epic play. The way David detailed their viewing context made manifest and material how our bodies sit in front of performance, with friends, lovers, and strangers, and the attention they require to be sustained. David's friends kept an eye on their medication schedules and hydration and nutrition levels, maintaining their corporeal realities as the performance nurtured their hearts and minds. Critical generosity, then, extended not only to the production but also to David's reception context, in all its specific materiality.
David's formulation of critical generosity became integral to my own thinking about how to give back to the performance cultures about which I write and about how to draw out their borders, boundaries, and beauty as evocatively as I could. When I led the Performance as Public Practice graduate program at the University of Texas at Austin, I worked with Paul Bonin-Rodriguez and Jaclyn Pryor to extend and develop our own riff on the practice. We called this "colleague criticism" and suggested a process more like dramaturgy, in which critics and artists would clarify for readers their knowledge of one another's work and comment with a deeper understanding of where it comes from and how it arrives onstage. Our thoughts came partly from living in a relatively small city where artists and critics tend to know one another. In other words, we suggested demystifying critical engagement and productively mining the complex and often intimate relationships that inevitably develop between critics and artists. Pretending that we don't have ongoing professional relationships seemed to us hypocritical, while investigating and trying to sort out and honor those connections pointed toward a work ethic that might be widely useful.
I continue to find critical generosity an ethical rubric through which to think and write about performance. As a feminist critic, I confront a number of stereotypes. "Feminist," of course, always needs renovation and justification, precariously poised as it is against the mass-media hysteria that strategically denigrates it. But "critic," too, bears its own history of negative presumption. The deleterious effects of criticism are underscored by mainstream writers such as Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, who revel in their power to destroy productions they don't like for reasons that are always political, as well as aesthetic, and always masked by the "objectivity" that power bestows on their work.
Against such entrenched practices and stereotypes, critical generosity stands as a refreshing and, I hope, principled alternative. When I describe the more generous critical practices to which I commit for my blog, The Feminist Spectator (www.TheFeministSpectator.com), people invariably laugh with surprise (and I hope delight); hearing that a critic wants to be generous sounds counterintuitive. I save whatever critical vitriol I sometimes muster for mainstream pop culture that other critics laud without seeing its sexism, racism, or homophobia. Because my time and energy for blog writing is limited, I mostly write about productions and performances (or films and television shows) that I liked. To write positively about what you see and still call yourself a critic seems contradictory. What a sad state of affairs for arts discourse.
At the same time, I don't consider critical generosity boosterism. Critical generosity can be useful for those of us committed to the arts as social engagement, with deep beliefs in its ability to reach people, change minds, affirm alternate visions of how we live in the world, and deliver hope in the potential of a different, more universally equitable future. Our critical engagement in such cases needs to be precise, productive, and generative, rather than blandly cheerleading for anything that seems to fit a progressive political agenda. In The Feminist Spectator in Action: Feminist Criticism for the Stage and Screen (Dolan 2013), I offer a "how-to" guide that atomizes critical generosity. Why does a production work? How does it seem to reach its audience? How can we tell that an audience was moved? How do we think about efficacy outside the theater or the performance, even as we propose that something tangibly moving (emotionally and politically) happened within it? In other words, critical generosity doesn't devolve into nonspecific "It was good" pablum but tries to parse how and why a performance seemed to work in a way that generated a productive kind of political hope through its aesthetic strategies.
In Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre (Dolan 2005), I wrote about performances at which I felt the audience and I were moved to see what I described as a fleeting vision of a better world, one we could experience together, in the moment of performance. Most readers recognized that feeling of empowerment and hope, while at the same time, they wondered along with me how that structure of feeling might be profitably moved outside the theater into the public sphere. The relationship between what we experience at the theater and how we practice our politics, between the world-changing potential of performance and the world changing we might want to do in our communities, remains a site of experimentation at which those relationships are formed and reformed performance by performance, community by community. But I feel keenly that critical generosity is a necessary gesture in how we see the relationship of performance (and the arts in general) to the project of world building, as it allows us to think specifically beyond the present of reception into the near future of potential activism and engagement. Generous criticism, then, also considers how we imagine the afterlife of performance.
Critical generosity can extend to the whole meaning-making apparatus that comprises the arts. I try to form relationships with the people about whom I write, especially if they work in subcultures without access to rich resources. I try to balance advocacy with engagement, so that in whatever small way, I might help move their work forward aesthetically as I try to call attention to it politically. My colleague Alisa Solomon recently suggested that pointing out what doesn't work in a performance you care about can be as critically generous as describing what does. From this perspective, critical engagement becomes a strategy for dialogue, not just between the critic and the artist but also hopefully among a community of spectators and writers and arts makers who see themselves as part of a larger project of world making in which every production, every piece of art, matters.Work Cited
Dolan, Jill. 2005. Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
–––. 2013. The Feminist Spectator in Action: Feminist Criticism for the Stage and Screen. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Román, David. 1998. Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.