The Challenge Of Critique Within Community

Note: These thoughts come from years of interactions with work and people’s responses. It is not written in relation to a specific piece.

The performing arts industries are a significantly better place to be as a creative worker of my background than they were when I first entered it. There are lots of issues still but it’s undeniable that I’m seeing work now that I could never have dreamed of. To see myself in the arts when I was growing up was to be excited about a vaguely South Asian looking name in the credits of a TV show. Now? There are three bankable leading men that share my surname. And it’s more than A Fistful of Patels – there’s a breath and variation of artists, each very much ploughing their own furrows, and a supportive, communitarian energy that makes me giddy for what’s to come. While I wouldn’t want to speak for other groups, my sense is that this is not an unfamiliar feeling to many who thought’d they’d not see an artistic world that includes them in a meaningful way.

Yet with presence comes a pause. Maybe you don’t love something that you’d hope to love. That you’re meant to love. This leaves you in a bind: Do you support something you dislike for the benefit of the broader, still brittle community or are you honest about your feelings in a way that is true to your sensibilities? It shouldn’t be a big question. But the pressure to cheerlead is intense – more so if it’s a work that could clearly do with your support. The personal cost for not doing so can be immense, even/especially if the project already has public validation and/or critical acclaim. Public critiques can easily come across more harshly than you intended and get weaponised against you and others like you – often gleefully. Silence is rarely an option either since your lack of engagement with the sort of thing folks expect you to engage with speaks volumes itself.

It’s not just the pressure from the outside sitting on you. It’s fundamentally alienating within when people are embracing something that you don’t like, especially if others are enthused about it for you. Finally! You! Represented! To reflect that joy is to be untrue to yourself. To reject it is it come off as ungenerous or embittered. There are also power dynamics at play. If you’re just coming through and you care about being a part of a community, a lot of people will not want to upset those who they feel might be able to provide them with access or assistance in a notoriously closed shop of an industry.

I promised myself early on in my career that I would resist pretending that I liked something I didn’t for the sake of social grace, no matter whose work I was watching, but sometimes that’s…so bloody hard. To figure out how to express a neutral stance is its own kind of deception. In my days as a play reader, I felt so much better when I discovered that along with “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” there was the option to say “I’m sure others will love this, but this is not for me”. This is where I try to land if it’s possible. Sometimes it isn’t. Especially if the work you’re looking at is something you believe that creates active harm or perpetuates existing damaging practices or narratives. More often than not though, it doesn’t feel worth the effort and potentially exhausting public arguments you’ll find yourself in.

So what happens is that people talk among each other instead, which often feels like the best route and everyone needs to have places where you’re safe to express your opinion or vent frustrations without judgement. I’ve often done this myself. It’s helped me form more constructive thoughts. I suppose, though, I’m writing this blog because I don’t know how healthy, long-term, it is to keep thoughts to oneself and I’m asking myself what to do about it (in a public forum). I fear rot and resentments growing that never get cleared up. My sense is that it would be better if we were able to have those conversations more candidly.

It’s easy to say that, of course. Like what if you’re the person making the work that you sense people have taken issue with, even if they won’t state it publicly? I get that you’d perhaps not want to know. Again, that’s definitely been me before. There’s such a sharp sting that comes from disapproval from your own. Especially if you feel that you’re being unfairly or inconsistently targeted. I can think of a few examples recently where creative decisions that would be considered problematic in other circumstances are more or less given a free pass because the excellence of the wider work has trumped the issues (and, for others who are more cynical, it’s something where there is greater social capital in embracing). I’m not too sure how I feel about that specifically, except to say that I veer broadly towards forgiveness (if it’s mine to give) as long as the creatives involved are willing to meaningfully engage with critiques. Others will certainly feel differently.

The sad thing is that a large part of this dynamic comes from the fact that there still isn’t enough work to find yourself in, so the little that is seeming to do it finds itself carrying the full weight of people’s hopes and expectations. The disappointments feel deeper because of this. We are definitely no longer in a place where I get so irked by how a small theatre has decided to cast its Aladdin panto (not my heritage but one of the few ‘brown’ stories I and others saw growing up and so got ascribed to me anyway) but I am more alive to how the work I hope will change the industry (and my life maybe) presents itself.

While we wait (and still push) for more of the work we’d want to see, I’m going to consider how to build a best practice for critical engagement from both artists and audiences that still supports community and fosters trust between us. As audiences, we need to retain and build our capacity to critique in good faith and perhaps resist the easy, more cathartic slams. As artists, we need to accept that we cannot expect universal adoration for what we create. Or even a fair hearing. We do, in fact, need to sit with the knowledge that work that moves with any sort of weight will inevitably cause some degree of hurt and possibly harm to others. That reckoning has to be part of our process. We have to consider what we’d say to it. We have to consider when the cost is intolerable to the benefit.

To have any community at all is a gift, one I’m more grateful for as I grow older and build up a catalogue of professional heartbreaks. I want to be able to feel like I’m interacting with it in a manner that leaves it better than when I first came into it. Growing it in the ways I want to see, sitting in the cooling shade of other’s greatness and confronting – with compassion – that which I find to be troubling. Perhaps it is simply a question of balance. I’m going to push myself to be braver in my critiques and more generous in my adoration, always reminding myself that more often than not there is a wisdom in crowds and that the answers sit a little within us all.

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