Who reviews the reviewers?

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

This is one of my favourite phrases in Latin. Most often traced back to Roman poet Juvenal from Satires, nobody really seems to know its origins, but it’s been picked up by everyone from Plato to Socrates to Alan Moore, whose graphic novel Watchmen roots its themes within that phrase. It translates to “who will guard the guards themselves?” or “who watches the watchmen?”

While its meaning has shifted in context from marriage to government to vigilante superhero justice, I’ve always internalized it within the arts.

I imagine any artist would proudly say that reviews don’t matter, or they don’t read reviews, or that it’s the response of the audience that matters. In a perfect world, this is a great policy. But in the real world, most artists are also their own publicists, and publicists need to read reviews.

As one of these artist/publicists, and as an occasional reviewer myself, I think reviews are enormously valuable when done well. Feedback is important, and well-articulated feedback – both complimentary and critical – is an enormous gift.

The problem is that there’s no real definition for what defines a good review, no system in place to ensure that reviewers have the credentials to evaluate an art form, or the lived experience to speak critically about certain subject matter. There is no one who reviews the reviewers. And that’s a problem.

In my five-year collection of reviews that span 10 plays I’ve either written or directed, I average a star rating of three. About 75 per cent of the reviews of plays I have written are written by men (despite the fact that my protagonists have exclusively been women), and zero per cent are written by people who identify as being from any minority group (despite the fact that my work often focuses, indirectly or directly, on a lived experience of marginalization).

What is the duty of artists to hold reviewers accountable? How can we demand accurate, educated and empathetic evaluations of our work? Why is that even our job?

Last fall, Kim Harvey Senklip’s play Kamloopa ran at The Cultch in Vancouver. A director, writer and actor from the Syilx, Tsilhqot'in, Ktunaxa and Dakelh Nations, her play was a powerful work celebrating Indigenous matriarchs – and was also notable for the following statement regarding reviews:

“‘Kamloopa’ is an Indigenous artistic ceremony, and with that, the protocols for this ceremony state that no written reviews occur. Reviewers are more than welcome to come as community witnesses, but are asked to refrain from creating formal critiques of the work.”

I admire Kim’s protection of her artistic team, her work and her community protocols. Going forward, I’ve begun to realize the importance of adopting similar practices to take care of my own ideas, collaborators and culture, and using those protocols to inform my critiques of the work of my peers.

I’ve also begun to realize the importance of reviewing the reviewer. Because until reviewers start holding themselves accountable to be educated, informed and aware, we need to do it for ourselves.

Frances Koncan is a writer, director and producer of mixed Anishinaabe and Slovene descent. As the artistic director of Vault Projects, she is committed to creating work that is accessible, intersectional and presented in welcoming spaces!

Published in Volume 73, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 14, 2019)

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