Why “I hated it” doesn’t count as cultural criticism

By Caitlin Kelly

Early this week, a Broadside reader — thank you!! — generously gave me a ticket to see Elena’s Aria, a work from 1984 by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker at the Lincoln Center Festival, an annual event.


The auditorium was packed and I saw many dancers sitting around me, some leaning forward in their seats. The piece was an hour and 45 minutes in length, with no intermission and if you left, you would not be re-admitted.

Commit or else!

I didn’t hate it, but it was a challenging piece in a number of ways:

— It was really long

— It was very repetitive

— Much of it was performed in silence

— Much of it seemed to focus more on movement than pure dance

— It included black and white vintage film footage of buildings being dynamited to shards

I was very curious to read the New York Times’ review:

Made in 1984, it was her first dance to use spoken text and film. The program note describes it as a result of self-questioning, a search for a way forward. And on Sunday at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, when it was performed in New York for the first time since 1987, that’s what it looked like: the work of a young artist who has hit an aesthetic wall and hasn’t yet discovered how to get past it…the overall impression of the work is less of emotional implosion than of expanding boredom. At the end, the women, seated in chairs, cross their legs and run their hands through their hair as part of a Mozart piano sonata plays…As drama, the dance cuts off empathy, but as these women fidget, you know exactly how they feel.

I’m glad I saw it, even if I didn’t love it. I was around the same as the choreographer in 1984 and, like her, had had some terrific early professional success. I remembered what that felt like.

I remember 1984.

I’ve only walked out of one play, as its themes were simply too painful for me personally. And I walked out of the terrifying film The Exorcist as I couldn’t take it.

Generally, I stick around. (Not a boring or poorly-done book. That takes up too much time!)


One reason is that I know what it takes to create a work of art or literature or dance or theater — usually years of training and rehearsal and guts and time and money and ideas and financial backing. Even if the result is atrocious, and it can be, it’s also the result, in many cases, of tremendous effort.

I don’t need to love everything I read, hear, see or listen to as long as there are some useful or intriguing ideas within it. Nor does it have to be quick or short.

It just has to make me think.

How about you?

How do you respond to art or cultural works that make you uneasy, uncomfortable or bored?

17 thoughts on “Why “I hated it” doesn’t count as cultural criticism

  1. It is all art and will appeal to someone. As Marshall Mcluhan said “the medium is the message”. So I guess you have to ask yourself what is the message? Sometimes that is difficult to figure out.

  2. You make me smile in recognition. In my late teens I was invited to a Stockhausen concert. Small venue. We sat in the front row. A couple of meters away from the man himself. Directing. It was AWFUL, Caitlin. Awful. Normally, in answer to your question, I would have walked out. But I couldn’t, could I? I was taught manners. And thus I learnt that anything will pass – even Stockhausen.


  3. themodernidiot

    I don’t get hung up about it. I like it, or I don’t. I think expecting to love it all is unrealistic. Some art just sucks.

    I took my poor ex to a large, metropolitan, art museum (one if several), and I cruised through like you would window shopping in a mall. If it caught my attention, I stopped. If not, there was another room around the corner with more things to see.

    (Quick note: it was modern art, and we were in a paint-not-yet-dry exhibition. I linger longer with the classics.)

    Anyhow, a couple hours into it, and my ex was nowhere to be found. I backtracked four floors and probably twenty rooms before I found her, still on the first floor, nose pressed to the info plate, gathering all the facts. That’s when I realised she didn’t know that art is hit and miss. She thought you had to carefully invest in each piece. I felt so bad!

    I said (trying to suppress a giggle), “Honey, you don’t have to learn each one. You don’t even have to look at them. You can just pick out what you like.” I have never seen such an expression of relief on anyone’s face in my life haha. God bless her.

  4. there really is something to please, disappoint, or leave cold, everyone in the world of art. when an artist puts something out there, the option is not to see it at all, or to walk away, or to fully embrace it and find some personal connection to the work. sometimes we are taken by surprise by the direction of our response, no matter the pre-hype of someone’s work. this is a challenge for me when attending a live performance and i tend to stick it out, as a courtesy to the artist for all of the work put into it, though it can be a challenge. like you, i no longer feel i need to finish books that do not draw me in, but have difficulty walking away from a show.

  5. “It just has to make me think.” That’s really the key isn’t it? As soon as we allow ourselves to agree, disagree, or just not follow a piece or work then we can begin to enjoy art.
    My ex-husband was relieved to hear me tell our German exchange student, “You’re not required to like everything about America. If you try something, and decide it’s not for you, no is as good a response as yes. You have learned something. ”
    I had asked for symphony season tickets for my birthday, so he bought 3. I thought he made a mistake and left out our exchange daughter, but he said it was him. He tried it, didn’t like it and was relieved he could say so out loud. It just didn’t make him think. (It just made him an ex …eventually!);)

      1. I don’t have to like it, but if I see no connection, find it incomprehensible or it is badly executed – then I will walk away. I try to analyse why I don’t connect – and I try to be fair if I write about it. No, ‘I hated it’ will never cut it.

  6. Anna

    I wholeheartedly agree that a piece of art should make you think or emote. At least one of the two. I believe most people expect art to make then “feel something”…which in many cases is simply confused with them finding something aesthetically pleasing. To me, yes, art can be aesthetically pleasing, but it’s the ones that stop me in my tracks, whether because I’m incredibly drawn to them or feel uncomfortable around them, that really matter. A true piece of art can’t really make you bored if you’re asking the right questions…even just asking yourself why you are bored and what purpose the artist had in creating a seemingly boring piece can then turn it around and make it interesting. And the uncomfortable ones are juicy sources of thought…why am I feeling uneasy? Is it because of my cultural background? Personal life? And why is that person next to me reacting the way he or she is? How can our reactions differ? Gaaaaaaah so many crunchy questions! No matter what the piece.

    1. Thanks! My point exactly…things are are simply cute or fun or pretty are not likely to engage us on any deeper level…think of Goya’s war etchings (grim as hell!) or even (both at the Prado) Hieronymus Bosch’s famous vision of hell. Extraordinary stuff.

  7. Pingback: Dynamite | Proverbs 31 Wanna-be

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