Thursday, 12 March 2015

In praise of bias


THIS TIME last month, Marathon, a dance piece choreographed by Aharona Israel, showed up in Toronto. It was presented as part of a season called Spotlight on Israeli Culture and, as the programme blurb went, was about three people "revealing the wounds of contemporary Israeli society". 

Writing for the Globe and Mail, dance critic Martha Schabas took issue with the production on two levels. One was the quality of the choreography, which she thought "could have been stronger"; the other was the political implications of "an egregiously one-sided view of Israel’s wounds". In her opinion, "even the privileged perspective gets shallow treatment". She went on to argue that a play billed as exploring "the depths of Israeli consciousness" made "a rather charged statement in what it chooses to omit".

Compared with the reception Israeli companies have been given elsewhere in the world, this was a measured argument. Last year on the Edinburgh Fringe, Jerusalem's Incubator Theatre had to cancel the entire run of The City when the presence of 150 peaceful protestors outside the venue proved too disruptive. In 2012, performances by Batsheva Dance Company in the Edinburgh International Festival were repeatedly interrupted by pro-Palestinian campaigners shouting from the auditorium. 

There was no suggestion of anything so censorious in Schabas's review – just a calm, clearly stated expression of her point of view.

Nonetheless, the Globe and Mail received a complaint that suggested her review was "politically biased". A reader had seen her make "anti-Israeli comments on Twitter and asked if someone so disposed should have been given the assignment in the first place". 

Taking such matters seriously, the newspaper investigated the claim and ran a Public Editor piece outlining the editorial process from the point when the review was commissioned to the time it was published. Schabas had made no secret of her political viewpoint, the article explained, and her editor had run the first draft of her review past another editor with expertise on Middle East politics. The article concluded that "the writer’s point of view is clear in reading the review".

But there's an aspect that troubles me in the newspaper's response (and not just the contentious assertion that "I don’t think you could describe most dance productions as political" – really ?) 

"In general," it said, "it is better to avoid a potential conflict." 

It went on to allude to the impartial standards expected of its news reporters and concluded that "the writer should temper her comments" now she was writing for the paper.

But what is the alternative to a critic with strong opinions? Would it have been less contentious for a pro-Israeli critic to have reviewed the show? Would a critic who was neutral on the Arab-Israeli conflict have offered any greater insight? In what way would the opinions of those critics have been preferable? Why would one political bias be better than another?

My point is not to argue one side or the other about Israel and Palestine. I have my own opinions, but this is a heated issue and, clearly, people have a range of equally passionate views. 

What I am arguing is that no critic, pro, anti or on the fence, writes from a politically neutral position. Schabas's opinions may be more apparent because they are in opposition to what she regarded as the implicit values of the production, but that doesn't make anyone else's opinions any less contentious. 

Supporting the status quo is as much a political statement as challenging it. The issue is more evident in the highly charged arena of Middle East politics, but the same applies to everything a critic sees. To a greater or lesser extent, all plays are political (the Globe is quite wrong to suggest otherwise) and all critics have political opinions. There's no such thing as a neutral critic.

I think Philadelphia Inquirer critic Wendy Rosenfield would agree with me on this last statement, but a couple of weeks ago, the two of us fell into a Twitter exchange about the way in which Schabas expressed her argument. Rosenfield, who happens to sit at the opposite end of the political spectrum to Schabas when it comes to the Middle East, believes it is incumbent upon any critic to be upfront about their biases.

Note that Rosenfield was not arguing that critics shouldn't be biased (which is the troubling subtext of the Globe and Mail editorial) but that they should declare their bias. If a reader is going to make sense of a critic's argument, they need to understand where the critic is coming from. She gave an example of her own: 


I think this is right. It reminds me of what Andy Horwitz has said about a type of writing that demands a "critic acknowledge their subjectivity and prejudices, be transparent about their relationships". As far as criticism is concerned, objectivity is an illusion. 

To move for a moment into less contentious territory, here is Charles Spencer making his bias apparent in a Daily Telegraph review of The Light Princess, with music and lyrics by Tori Amos, at London's National Theatre:
Even as a child I loathed fairy stories and my view hasn’t changed in middle-age. More often than not they are creepy, cruel or pretentious, and often they manage to be all three at once. 
Nevertheless I approached this musical, which has been six years in the making, with high hopes.
The honesty of this approach gave the reader a helpful perspective. Someone who loved fairy tales and hated Tori Amos would not expect to come to the same conclusions as the critic, but because Spencer had declared his bias, they could make allowances for that. By writing clearly and honestly, Spencer made his presence felt in the review, but also made space for the reader.

But back with Marathon, there is a view held by some that even to express a political viewpoint in a review is some kind of violation. Here's a tweet I received from Gerald M Steinberg, a professor teaching in the department of political studies at Bar Ilan University:

And if you read the comments beneath the Globe and Mail's Public Editor article, you'll see this from Alana Ronald:
As a former dance writer I can safely say that personal politics have no place in a dance review. It's quite simple when one realizes that one's job is to critique a performance, , rather than cynically use the opportunity to propagandize, or indulge in polemics.

Both of these claims are meaningless to me. You wouldn't ask a critic to suspend their judgements about aesthetics or technical achievement, so why demand that they should deny their political perspective? I'm not convinced that's even possible, but even if it was, to mute your political reaction would itself be a political act. 

Consider an example we could all agree on. Let's say a theatremaker put on a show that argued that women should never have been given the vote and everything had gone down hill since the suffragettes. Would we really expect a critic to keep quiet about their "personal politics", to use only their "professional qualifications", to simply accept what the theatremaker was saying and to comment only on the quality of the acting? 

Of course we wouldn't. We expect critics to question a production's ideas and assumptions with the same rigour – and, yes, the same bias – as they would apply to every aspect. Politics isn't an optional add-on. It's fundamental to who we are.

So I find it hard not to conclude that those objecting to Schabas's review are not against expressing political opinions in general. What they're against, it seems to me, is expressing these particular political opinions. By suggesting Schabas has a hidden agenda (and, by implication, that Aharona Israel and her dancers somehow have no agenda) is a way of questioning the critic's credibility and undermining her arguments. 

But we all have agendas and to pretend otherwise is futile.

The question remains about whether, in this particular instance, Schabas was sneaking an illicit agenda, Trojan horse-like, into her review. The Globe and Mail concluded that she wasn't and, personally, I'm not sure what form of words she could have used that would have made her political perspective any clearer. I can't see how any reader could have been misled into thinking the review constituted an absolute truth rather than the expression of one person's opinion. It's reasonable to assume that everyone in the audience had an opinion about Middle East politics, so why not her?

I'll sign off with some excellent words from Rosenfield herself. Writing last year in the Broad Street Review, she made the case that it is irresponsible for critics not to take into account the world in which a production exists. It strikes me this is exactly what Schabas was doing and, I would argue, the real reason behind the complaints:

Some critics don’t concern themselves with diversity or context, sticking to the subject before them. This is its own form of injustice as well as an abandonment of the critic’s role; to see exclusionary practices and not comment on them is to perpetuate them, but also, to pretend a show exists in a cultural vacuum does a disservice to the role of art. 

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About Me

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Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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