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Theatre reviewer’s curtain call shows bare stage of criticism

Australia’s best blog devoted to theatre criticism has frozen in time. There are fewer opportunities for thoughtful arts criticism, robbing culture of important conversations.

Alison Croggon’s much-loved blog Theatre Notes is closing down. Croggon — a novelist, critic, poet and distinguished woman of letters — says she is going to stop reviewing theatre in order to concentrate on her books. In her aptly titled “Last Post” from November 28, Croggon explains some of her reasoning:

I idly thought, back in 2004, that it might be an interesting idea to begin a theatre review blog. It’s been my privilege and joy to chronicle the theatre I’ve seen over the past eight years, and to bear witness to what I am quite sure will be seen as one of the richest periods of Australia’s theatre history.

The reason is simple: I can’t sustain the work of serious theatre criticism and also be a writer, without regularly slamming into the walls of exhaustion that have bedevilled me this year (and not only this year).”

Blogs start and stop all the time. But Theatre Notes is different: something of an Australian institution, it may be the single best-known critical blog in the whole country. In a productive and insightful eight-year span, Croggon established herself as arguably Melbourne’s most influential theatre reviewer. She also built up a corpus of criticism that places her firmly in the first rank of Australian essayists and critics. All for free, and all for the pleasure of the literary act itself.

Although she sometimes worked as a critic for newspapers, Croggon pursued Theatre Notes without remuneration. It’s a monument to the fertility of her literary imagination, and a demonstration of what is possible in the blogging format.

Croggon built a blog of record that was more than just a repository of reviews. Theatre Notes could make or break shows in Melbourne, and Croggon’s imprimatur became much-sought after by main stage and independent productions aside. She even earned the true badge of critical honour: the emnity of well-known directors and playwrights. I distinctly remember, for instance, when Hannie Rayson decided to name a villain in her play The Glass Soldier with the moniker “Croggon”.

The tributes have already started flowing in, including a lovely comment left by Barrie Kosky on her blog, and a fine piece by the critic Jana Perkovic. The Malthouse Theatre even threw an impromptu party for Croggon, as a thank you gesture. Malthouse artistic boss Marion Potts told Crikey: “Theatre Notes raised the bar for all of us and improved the quality of the conversation.

It transcended a thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to theatre and reminded us that we are all — audiences, practitioners, critics — involved in an investigation of ideas. Alison has that great ability to open up a discussion rather than shut it down.”

… it’s impossible for me to look back over my own ‘career’ with anything but rueful amusement.”

Of course, the critical world being what it is, there’s also been some snark, with The Age’s critic Cameron Woodhead penning a rather confused piece that simultaneously disdains Croggon’s “intellectual vanity; her capacity, especially early on, to attack recklessly and without restraint; and various unconscious biases” while making some very useful points about the start of criticism in Australia and the “almost complete policy vacuum regarding arts criticism in this country”.

Woodhead is right about the latter. Arts criticism is the unloved stepchild of Australian cultural policy. There is precious little in the way of funding for it. Perhaps seeing reviewing and criticism as something that would generally be provided by newspapers and other for-profit media outlets, policymakers have traditionally given little attention to the artform.

But criticism is no longer being supported by the for-profit media, especially newspapers. As I’ve noted a number of times (along with others), paid gigs for critics and reviewers are becoming increasingly thin on the ground. Arts criticism in Australia can no longer be said to be a career; it has become almost completely voluntary.

When Crikey spoke to Croggon last week (the interview was sadly erased by a faulty dictaphone), the precarity of the literary life was one of the main themes of the conversation. For Croggon, writing has never been about the money. Still, the rent must be paid. As Woodhead notes:

The situation is dire. Arts coverage in print media has dwindled as newspapers struggle to survive, and over the last 18 months, the ABC has eviscerated its arts journalism on TV and radio, virtually ripping up its charter commitment to the performing arts. Online criticism has manifest advantages in this environment, but without some policy intervention, they’re likely to be squandered.”

Policymakers are starting to wake up to the gravity of the situation, but much remains to be done. Sophie Cunningham, who has recently become chair of the Australia Council’s Literature Board, says the board will meet on the issue next week.

Across all the boards, people are really concerned, because it affects everyone in the arts. It raises the general complex point, which I don’t have a clear answer to, which is how much an arts funding body gets involved in infrastructure issues surrounding industry change, versus funding individual artists,” she told Crikey.

The Literature Board does fund literary magazines which publish criticism and pay critics. And new players are emerging, including the new Sydney Review of Books set to launch soon. But, says Cunningham, “we do need to do something about the critical culture; that’s really important”.

In the meantime it’s hard to see any immediate fixes. As Cunningham says, the erosion of arts coverage in the mainstream media continues apace. “I think it’s really problematic,” she said.

As for Theatre Notes, it will remain online, an important record for the artform of theatre in Australia. Croggon herself is looking forward to working on future novels, perhaps of a more poetic variety. As she writes in a witty recent piece for Overland:

I often find it mildly hilarious when I read articles that talk of writing creatively as a ‘career’. This is purely personal: after three decades of making a precarious living through various kinds of writing, it’s impossible for me to look back over my own ‘career’ with anything but rueful amusement.”

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  • 1
    Anna Gifford
    Posted Friday, 14 December 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Alison Croggon’s blog was one of the first, and one of the best, arts criticism sites I ever encountered. That aside, it’s great to see Ben write about the dilemma/Catch 22 many arts organisations face with the under-resourcing for arts criticism. The arts are regularly pressured by funding bodies to demonstrate reach and profile - and without the input of critics, I’m not sure how the funders can measure organisations’ artistic (as opposed to economic) return on investment - without going to the often highly biased peer evaluation by other artists. It’s a bigger problem than under-resourcing criticism - it ties into how we value and support the arts.

  • 2
    jmendelssohn
    Posted Friday, 14 December 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Alison Croggon’s blog is really going to be missed, but its disappearance is part of a pattern.
    As a part of my current research into the history of Australian art exhibitions I’ve been reading collections of press cuttings from the 1970s and ’80s.
    The past is indeed another country. Many solo exhibitions at dealer galleries, and all exhibitions at public galleries, used to receive considered reviews expressing a variety of opinions.
    Now the only media coverage of art events is often orchestrated pap from the pr industry.
    There is no recognition that writing art criticism requires time, and that this time needs to be paid for.
    There are some exceptions. The kids from das Superpaper do a great job – but they are all volunteers. The Australia council does support specialist publications (eg Artlink, Photofile)but the fee for a review is about the same as the price of a meal in a reasonable restaurant. The only newspaper publishing substantial intelligent art criticism these days is the Financial Review. The reason they can afford Doug Hall’s incisive commentary is that he has other sources of income.
    The most likely source of new critical voices, junior academics in universities, is effectively silenced by the horrendous culture of penalising those who write for the popular media while promoting those who stick to conference papers and academic journals with little real impact.

  • 3
    Andrew Chalmers
    Posted Tuesday, 18 December 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    You are right to highlight the confused reporting of Cameron Woodhead. It’s a shame he doesn’t have more grace.

    No one will miss his writing when it goes.

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