Bad Comments Round #3: Criticising The Arts – In Defence Of Diane Coetzer

Recently, Diane Coetzer wrote a negative review of The Parlotone’s concert Dragonflies and Astronauts. Due to her criticisms, Eban Oliver of Catalyst Entertainment responded with unnecessary vitriol on Facebook. The whole incident is painting him in an ugly light, proceeding before lawyers and the courts, and could be the first such case in which South Africa considers defamation in terms of social media. Here, I’m looking at how criticism (of the arts works) and why it’s necessary for artists themselves. Oh, and why we need to be adults about criticism, on both sides.

There appears to be a problem with criticism. As I’ve previously explained elsewhere, labeling things ‘opinions’ and ‘feelings’ are unhelpful when we are critiquing or arguing for or against something. What matters is not that what we offer is an opinion – that’s a neutral term and, besides, everybody has one. What matters is whether it’s a good opinion. By good, I mean well-argued, reasoned, ideally with evidence and so on. This, note, can be given by experts or lay people like myself. It’s just that we expect experts to be consistently providing good arguments (mainly in their field but sometimes outside, too). This is the basis for scientific explanation and understanding. Using good arguments, with evidence and so on, the best approximation of what’s true and what is nonsense.So, if we experience a terrible concert performance, we can say “I thought it was nonsense” or “I found it boring”, but if we want to persuade people to think similarly we  should provide good reasons for saying it was a bad performance. This is why we read reviews: To be simplistic, usually the reviewers pick up on objectively good or bad aspects of the arts (in film, theatre, books, etc.) and we either agree or disagree.

The difficulty in critiquing or analysing the arts, like theatre or literature, is that objectively speaking, many people will continue to adore what many experts would consider bad theatre or books. No one, it seems to me, considers The Da Vinci Code to be a book well-written or intellectually overwhelming. According to many aspects that make a good book, it does very poorly. Nonetheless, it is one of the biggest sellers of all time. I can say The Da Vinci Code is a terrible book for some reasons. It has: badly written sentences, historical and scientific inaccuracy, poorly plotted scenes, flat, uninteresting and inconsistent characters and so on. Note: Each of these is a criticism which, if applied to any book, would mean it is a bad book.

It is true that excellent books have one or two of these bad properties, but what makes a bad book is that it has (1) a particular bad property in excess or (2) several of these properties together, like The Da Vinci Code.

Furthermore, this means we don’t need to hear these points from experts. I can highlight what makes The Da Vinci Code a bad book, without being a published author. I can tell you why I think James Cameron’s Avatar is mostly nonsense, especially in terms of story: everyone picks up on the cliché of the soldier defending ‘the natives’ because he falls in love with some aspect of them, thus resulting in the idea of ‘unity’ in terms of moral beings. A very, very boring story.

What’s prompted my writing this, though, has been a ridiculous incident as reported by The Daily Maverick. Diane Coetzer, one of their writers, reviewed a Parlotones show. She found it to be, as her title indicates, “lousy theatre” but “great music”. (I think the ‘great music’ part is also wrong since I severely dislike The Parlotones myself, but that is irrelevant to this discussion.) The whole performance attempted to be a mixture of theatre and rock concert. For Coetzer, the former part failed miserably. Coetzer wrote that it was a “confused attempt at constructing a narrative around The Parlotone’s catalogue of songs.” The choreography was indicative one “amateur-hour” of display. The costumes “fell abysmally short of promises” that they would be “another character in itself”, according to the organisers. The get-ups were so bad that they made Coetzer “feel faintly squeamish”. She thought the band felt uncomfortable in their costumers, akin to neo-Fascist garb (which for anyone who’s seen pictures will know to be an accurate description).

She found “the beak-like masks of the dancers only added to [the] miserable attempt to evoke a post-apocalyptic world with some of the lamest robotic dancing this side of YouTube funnies.”

She continues to provide these views throughout the article, articulating how she felt and why. She compliments the band, saying they mostly held their own amidst the allegedly silly and amateurish performance she saw. What you won’t find in her article is a personal attack on anyone. She mentions the name Catalyst Entertainment once to point out the poor choice the production team made with regard to the costumes. Otherwise, she focuses on the multiple aspects that were put into the show and finds them wanting.

The most important thing we must do is the following: We must not say “OK, we’ll that’s her opinion”. No. Dismissing her article like that makes her writing redundant. What we should do is find out what others thought. For example, Peter Feldman at Artslink said “as a live show, it disappoints”. He explained that the stage is filled with too many arbitrary props. Even comments from fans on claimed:

Comment #12: So disappointed!Really expected more from my favourite band!

Comment #13: what a giant mistake…gigantic…what were they thinking, were they thinking at all. shattered

Comment #18:it was very disappointing really!

Many of the comments say the opposite, too. Anyway, the point is each of these had a reason to dislike the show. Coetzer is not an isolated individual but shared the views of many other people. The difference is that Coetzer provides us with some good reasons to dislike the performance. To reiterate: If any show had the properties she described, bad dancing, costumes and so on, we would find that to be a bad show. Note too she was complimentary to the music – very much so. Feldman agreed, too, that “theme was confusing”. Echoing Coetzer somewhat, Feldman noted:

“There is no discernible motivation in [the many characters’] actions. What was the purpose of this whole visual and aural spectacle when the story is not clearly communicated? It’s all very well having all those changing light patterns, smoke, image projections, and zombie-like dancers in astronaut outfits occupying valuable space, but if it detracts from the band it simply doesn’t work.”

I have not seen the show, nor will I. But that’s not important. What matters here is that we have reasons to suppose that Coetzer and Feldman were justified in their views, if this is truly how they perceived the show. If you or I felt that a show had bad costumers, was confusing, etc., we too would reach the conclusion that it was a bad show.

Eban Olivier, however, does not seem to understand that. Olivier, from Catalyst Entertainment, took to his (now defunct) Facebook account to write some fairly horrific things against Ms Coetzer. According to the new Maverick article:

Under a photograph he’d posted of a truck, Olivier wrote: “ON A HAPPIER NOTE ….I am going to build something like this! Using my Subaru as a base for the chassis and HELL as the inspiration ….then I am going to drive over Diane with it!!! Build will start on Saturday!” And next to a photograph of Coetzer, which Oliver had uploaded to his Facebook profile, he wrote: “So after this bitch pissed me off to the end degree today I decided to put a snap shot of miss happy on facebook, so should you feel the need to walk past her and give her a PK [poes klap] you know who dish it out to!”

One of the comments stated: “This bitch must get hit by a fucking 18 wheeler…and then the 18 wheeler must hit her daughter – her husband and then DIE ANTWOORD”. Wow. Excess doesn’t even express what’s wrong with these sentiments.

Coetzer was alerted to these comments, as was her daughter. On 25 July, Olivier allegedly wrote an ‘apology’. (A good way to spot an insincere apology is one that contains the word ‘but’ in the middle.)

“In honesty…. I have taken it tooo far as I am so passionate as to what I do for a living… I did not decide to not print programs… I did not engineer the shortfall if any… I did not make the opening night a media evening as it was suppose to have been a rehearsal night. I did not ask for criticism aimed at my company but I did hope for objective crit from people like DIANE in the industry that my partner and I respected. She was not even open to calling us to our 5 cents worth. We can take criticism, but her crit was a personal attack for some reasons, I obviously think – for the literal people out there – I offended her and her family – I apologise for that – it was unnecessary….. It was more an Arri Gold moment. I am just sooooo sick and tired of sideline coaches in this country that can always do something better yet they are not able to organise a piss up in a brewery! So call me an arsehole etc. But I put my bloody heart and soul into this project – if someone want do DISS and not Critt – then I can not help to stay vocal about it! [sic]”

Firstly, we might say it being a rehearsal night is actually a legitimate counter. After all, if Ms Coetzer was critiquing something that was half-finished, it’s not a judgement about the final product. What use is critiquing a performance half-done? It’s like complaining about a pie after eating raw dough. I’m uncertain whether this is true or not, but it certainly would be a powerful counter if it was.

Even if it is true, Mr Olivier’s actions and handling of the situation deserves our attention. If what he says is true, then he would have a powerful counter and would not need to threaten Ms Coetzer’s and her family’s life. He could’ve easily written a piece that nicely pointed out what was added after, what they’d been working on, etc. – but it seems weird to me considering Ms Coetzer was there with her daughter and others. Why allow so many people to see it if it’s incomplete? If you do allow for that to happen, what kind of response could you “hope” for?

Also, her criticisms still stand and were, as we noted, confirmed by others.

Secondly, I’m confused by what he means by “asking for criticism aimed at my company”. Who cares whether he asked or not? It’s irrelevant whether “he asked” for it: When you do something in the public space, especially something like the arts, you are open to criticism. That is the nature of the arts and/or the public space. If it’s not open to criticism, it usually means (1) it’s not in the public space and is either being read only by yourself and a gang of sycophants or (2) you are overcompensating because these criticisms hurt. Of course, someone can criticise and be completely wrong. This might hurt but even here is not deserving of calling for physical violence against him or her.

Thirdly, what does he mean by “objective” criticism? Whenever you see people who have been criticised calling for “objective” criticism, it usually means “no” criticism or rather a need for praises instead. It means getting a view one does not like. If ever there was a definition of what objectivity is not, it’s the previous sentence.

Fourth: He claims that “it was a personal attack for some reason”. I assume he means he can’t understand why it was an alleged personal attack from Ms Coetzer, as opposed to Mr Olivier being unable to justify why it was a personal attack in the first place. Well, in order to understand why she attacked Mr Olivier, he still needs to explain how it was a personal attack. Look over the quotations from Ms Coetzer: you won’t find personal attacks, but reasons for her dislike which can be held by anyone. There was no mention of individual people. She mentioned Catalyst once and there it was calling them out for their poor choice in costume design. How is, for example, calling someone out on a bad choice of costume a ‘personal attack’? As an audience member, Coetzer thought it was a ‘bad’ choice. That does not mean she hates Mr Olivier or his company or the production team. It means they made bad choices and she is calling them out on that.

I can understand that it might “feel” like a personal attack to Mr Olivier. If we were part of a group whose goals we were passionate about, I can very well imagine how it might feel that way. However, I would understand that the group is made up of many people, I would know who was responsible for the different aspects that are being called out on, etc. Furthermore, either Ms Coetzer is right or wrong, but we can discuss that with her and with the persons who made what she considered “poor” choices like adults. Can they justify their reasons for their choices? If so, what were they? Let’s hear them.

And again, he says he wanted a criticism not a “dis”. Ms Coetzer conveyed what she disliked and why, complimenting the band and so on. Mr Olivier needs to realise a criticism is not (1) automatically a character attack and (2) a dis. I’m not sure what he means by ‘dis’, but presumably something that attacks his work and made him feel angry. If so, then unfortunately, all criticism will probably feel that way. Then, there’s no use in calling it a ‘dis’, as opposed to saying something like ‘I take your criticism’ and say ‘You’re wrong, here’s why’ or ‘You’re right, I hope to improve’.

We’re not immune even as individuals to being called out on idiocy. Almost all of us exist in the public space in some aspects of our lives. We almost all of us produce some product – be it teaching, ideas, arts, etc. – which goes out into the public space. Recently, my boss oversaw a tutorial I gave. Later, he highlighted where I went wrong. I thought his criticism spot on – but obviously one of my initial reactions was my classes are usually more vibrant, he is intimidating my students, and so on. Basically, I thought he wasn’t getting an accurate portrayal of how I do my job. But, he knew all this. His criticisms cut beyond this into areas I’ve now improved on which has made the classroom a much better, more productive one.

The point of this anecdote is to highlight how criticism should be done. We can point out what is right and wrong, and why. We should provide good reasons for saying so, if we hope to persuade others. If we do so successfully, that which we’ve criticised ought to be given some compensation – we must not forget to talk about what we found good (if there was). We should try use non-emotional language, but sometimes, when it’s something like the arts, that might be impossible since it’s all about ‘feelings’. This doesn’t mean we are being irrational – if we can say ‘bad costumes and awkward dancing in a show that’s trying to be serious always makes me feel horrible’, then that is a well-reasoned point. That’s what Ms Coetzer did.

Mr Olivier reacted childishly. As Theresa Mallinson says in the Maverick article, Mr Olivier has actually undermined his and his company’s reputation worse through this juvenile behaviour than Ms Coetzer’s column could ever do (which, remember, wasn’t the point of her column in the first place!). He has issued further ‘insights’ and ‘apologies’ but all are severely lacking and seem to indicate an individual who still hasn’t quite understood how words can lead to action and suffering. I urge you to read the latest Maverick article for the story. Perhaps a proper defence will arise, but from the statements to iMaverick, there doesn’t appear to be a sound one.

The lesson here is how you can shoot yourself in the foot if you don’t respond properly to criticism. However, I also want to urge us all to be more willing to criticise crappy art we experience, so that we don’t get bad performances. Artists must be open to criticism: like the rest of us normal folk, they are humans and therefore fallible. Things will be good or bad, but never perfect. There is always a wound of criticism which we try to close but never can. We are endlessly plugging a sinking ship, but we try anyway since, the more we try plug it, the further the boat travels and we can progress as artists, writers and so on. As Mr Olivier has shown, we all know what happens when you pretend your holey ship is completely safe.

EDIT: I’ve changed the title since this fits into my ongoing series of Bad Comments. For the previous two, have a look at:

Bad Comments Round #1: Introduction

Bad Comments Round #2: Jacqueline Howett, Responding to Criticisms, and the (Usual) Dangers of Positive Thinking


One thought on “Bad Comments Round #3: Criticising The Arts – In Defence Of Diane Coetzer

  1. Well written, I have known Diane for over 15 years and she is one the most respectful journo’s I’ve ever worked with. Eban lost the plot and what he did is unforgivable. I will not be surprised to see this destroy his reputation and frankly he only has himself to blame. The attack on Diane’s family is shocking and for that I hope he pays to the full extent of the law. To attack a persons family like you have is a serious problem Eban get help. I hope this comes to an end soon for Di and her family.

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