The ethics of arts reviewing on a small island’

This week I did an interview on ABC radio and was prompted by the producer Rachel to think about the challenges and importance of the reviewing work I do for ArtsHub.

We live and work on a small island called lutruwita (Tasmania). Most of us work in similar circles, and we know each other socially. It’s a tight ecology of supportive personal and working relationships.

Even more so here, you’ve got to balance the integrity of your analysis with the kindness of knowing what impact your words can have. The arts is one of those industries where there is a great deal of emotional investment in the work and a desire by everyone in it to build the resilience of the sector.

At times I’ve held positions that I felt were too much of a conflict of interest. One for for a venue, and also when I was working for a funding body. They were times in which my livelihood was tied directly to the success of the work or my impartiality was of prime importance.

The work of some organisations I review are ones in which I might talk with as part of my new consulting practise and this is a new ethical dilemma which I will need to balance. Sometimes you can just say ‘I would rather in this instance that someone else reviewed’.

This is trickier in a small island whose print media has ceased employing performing arts reviewers. Arts reviewing plays a vital role in generating new audiences, the viability of future touring and funding applications for companies. Without it there is a gap left most felt in regional areas and places where decision makers don’t travel too often. You feel like you want to contribute towards this goal.

Personally, I feel brave enough and have enough integrity to fairly spell out if a work hasn’t reached its potential or if a work has exceeding and reached a unique place for audiences. But I know others who have not put their hand up to review because they fear professional or social retribution if they spell out the flaws in a work.

Sometimes this reticence to provide critical analysis results in the kind of plot description reviewing that describes everything as ‘AMAZING’, ‘FIVE STARS’. Sometimes as a way of assuring the reader that the reviewer is a big supporter of that genre, their friends, or the arts in general. Which is not useful when a work comes across as truly extraordinary, because you’ve got nowhere to go.

You hope that arts reviewing isn’t all about the reductionist task of summing up a work in a star rating, but you understand both as a reviewer and practitioner who has made and produced work, that quite a lot of cast and crew will skip the words and head to the little icons at the end of the review. You understand how much that can sting or elate and how hard on themselves people can be in our industry. You know how much audiences look to it.

I’m lucky to have an editor that understands that sometimes it’s not the most useful thing to the artist or the audiences to reduce the work into a rating system and as such at times I’ve written reviews without them.

Last week I gave my first 5 star review to a local work I felt 100% confident about. It was extraordinary and masterful on every level, and I knew that I’d be happy that it represented a ceiling. It’s not often I feel that.

It was wonderful to see a handful of other people emerge who were reviewing this work also. I hope that continues, as this little island could benefit from diverse, well thought through points of view on work shared publicly.

For more information about me check out my LinkedIn profile.


*photo- Mel King in The Mares, photograph Amy Brown

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