Blog Post: It’s Not the Critic Who Counts
There is a piece of Art work, more specifically a set of four pieces of embroided richly coloured and strikingly large scale Art in The National Art Gallery in Edinburgh by Phoebe Traquair called The Progress of a Soul. Each one with it’s own title; The Entrance, TheStress, Despair, Victory. The human soul is represented by an young man dressed in animal skin and in harmony with the natural world around him in the forest.
In The Entrance (completed 1895), he is full of hope and enthusiasm, blissfully unaware of the heaviness of life.
In The Stress, the man has grown older and wiser to life’s challenges. Nature is now ‘red in tooth and claw’ and a reptile wrapped around his legs slows him down.
In Despair, he is exhausted and defeated, hanging from the branches. Even the birds on the branch look worn out.
In The Victory he is reborn, blessed with the kiss of a red winged seraph, but interestingly there is still some kind of reptile, mouth wide open at his feet, suggesting he is hovering someplace between heaven and hell, death and rebirth.
Now take this as you like – Art is a deeply personal journey whether it is old paintings on walls or listening to music or poetry or watching experimental free performance art in a shabby Pub in the fringe, but for me this series of works always has an impact on me and forms a beautifully eloquent expression of all human endeavours. All human striving. I won’t go into the first time I saw these in Edinburgh Art gallery, but I will say that I stood there and cried, overwhelmed by seeing my life in front of me. So every year I make the pilgrimage to the gallery to see this work, to remind me of of my own journey and to see if new thoughts arise. This year and last I was disappointed to learn they are in storage, with hopes to bring out next year when refurbishment is complete.
I feel that I see this narrative again and again in myself and others when going through the challenges that stimulate profound growth and transformation and it feels apt to compare to the development of the makers up here in Edinburgh and the journey they go on trying ot bring into being a spotlight on their work. This four pronged progress also seems to tie in nicely with the four weeks of Edinburgh Fringe.
Week 1 The Entrance
Performers, reviewers, production teams, Fringe staff and more, arrive full of excitement and nerves and that shiny new feeling of the first day of school. Everything is a novelty. They have high hopes for themselves, walking around the cobbled streets with confident declarations such as “Well I am going to be in bed every night by 10”….”I won’t eat ANY food from the food trucks, I shall make salads and homemade pastas and save money and feel good for it”……”I shall walk everywhere and not get Taxis.”…..”I won’t get drunk….much”……”I shall see 10 shows, I will write the reviews in the 30 minutes between shows and have them up and published that evening…it will be easy! (This is reviewers of course)”……”I shall climb Arthurs seat at least once (everyone says this)”…..”I will have a day out of Edinburgh and visit Roslyn Chapel and go to Berwick beach (who did this)….”Most importantly I won’t get overwhelmed, I shall be in control and calm and make the most of being up here…I shall meet new people and be inspired creatively”…..”I won’t get Fringe Flu….I will take lots of Napier’s potions and drink green smoothies every morning and go to the gym/yoga class 3-4 times a week at least”.
Etc. You get my point. Feel free to add your own to this list!
Week 2: The Stress
There’s a little bit of mania here, the many seductive pulls and the overwhelming possibilities start to send everyone into a high speed frenzy. People speed up when walking around the streets, start to tut with irritation through the crowds. There is a bad review, a bad Tech incident, it pours with rain and Flyering becomes some kind of endurance feat of its own. Standing in queues to see shows and then being herded in like cattle starts to show the strain and there is literally no where quiet to go and reflect and take a breathe. Lunchtime shots of Tequila and huge portions cheesy chips gulped breathlessly under a Tree in Assembly gardens becomes the new normal. Your liver squeaks a bit and you just tell it to be quiet. You get a coffee and mini sugary Donuts at the Underbelly for £8. You don’t know why and hand the money over numbly. You also have some incredible highs – these are tiring in themselves. A show that leaves you crying and shaking. a standing ovation that reminds you of why you are here. New friends made in glum seating areas that put a smile on your face for the rest of the day.
Week 3: Despair
This is when the nervous system really wants to give up. Bags under the eyes, a chronic feeling of sleep deprivation. A longing to go home. Felling broken by it all, feeling the weight of this Kilt wearing, bagpipe wearing, money leaching beast. You check your bank balance stomach churning and then wish you hadn’t. If you haven’t already been ill, this is the week it will happen, you feel it threatening the edge of your sanity and you frantically dose up on berroca. You think about going to Tesco and stocking up on healthy food but you can’t face the walk back to the overpriced flat through the horrendous crowds – how can SO many people possibly be here in one place? Nothing fills you with joy any more, the critics don’t get you, you suspect you made a horrible mistake coming up here, your body hurts, your eyelids hurts, you lost your sense of humour and now there is a big fat boil right in the middle of your chin. You are so tired, but still you can’t sleep. There are stars to staple to flyers. Your fingers hurt so much that you can’t even open your breakfast – cheese and onion crisp. Never mind. The show must go on.
Week 4: The Victory
There’s lots of ways to look at this final piece, this last week. For some they trudge through it reluctantly just counting every show, every minute until it finally ends and they can go home. For some, this might be a breakthrough week. They might have met that producer who wants to invest and tour their work. They might have gained some star reviews. They have listened to reviewers, to the audiences and made changes in the show and fine tuned their Tech and suddenly there is a beautiful flow of everything coming together. Some are already planning what they will bring back next year, some will perhaps never come back (or maybe they just say that now). For some, they will feel broken beyond repair, for some that breaking is a beautiful unravelling, a step forward in their growth and development. Experiences shape us, and if we are willing to learn from them and surrender to what we can’t control, there is a possibility of renewal. There is a delicate balance in great Art to stay humble to the divine source of creativity – whatever that looks like to you (and no of course it doesn’t have to look like a Winged Angel), and to remember that beast snapping at our feet. That beast could be Ego, it could be time running out to take the creative leap (if not now, when?), it could be self sabotage, it could be one of the seven deadly sins, it could just be those cheesy chips.
I thought a lot about Berne Brown during my Edinburgh stay, specifically her section in Daring Greatly (Netflix) about social media and the fact that means that everyone has cheap seats to the ‘Arena’. That anyone can comment online down about anything you put out in the public domain. And this is probably very true in Edinburgh when everyone can now tweet their responses to a show, there are more and more online review publications popping up, and a review can make or break a show (that’s the urban legend anyway). Lots of chatter and lots of voices, more than those actually creating work and being brave enough to put it out there. I tried to be really mindful of this as I went to see shows, even if I didn’t really like what I was watching, or I was a bit bored. I tried to be objective (I did even reread Mr Fringereview’s guidance on objectively reviewing) and I stepped out of my reactivity and really looked at the work in front of me.
In her Netflix special Berne Brown reads out Theodore Roosevelt’s extract from a speech he delivered in the Sorbonne, and I think it is SO relevant in Edinburgh for the creatives and the makers, the ones who stand up raw and give it everything, the ones whose stories burn to be told, the ones who knows theatre, comedy, art, can heal and transform humanity. The ones who have passion at the heart of everything they do.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
It’s not the critic who counts.