Look, nobody likes a bad review. Not even the cool types who post every published review on their social media to make a statement about how cool they are. Bad and even mixed reviews tend to fluster, frustrate or sting the feelings, or the egos, of creatives. That’s perfectly natural. As far as outward responses go, non-acknowledgment is standard protocol (although these days, a slytweet or two slipping out is also common and largely acceptable), even if privately one is sore or sour. In public settings, one may seat or stand oneself strategically at a distance from one’s detractor, be cordial, feign ignorance about their opinions or even be open without necessarily being sparring. One may also, let’s be real, be a little sparring. But nowhere in the tacit manuals of artist-critic etiquette is it permissible to smear dog faeces on the face of someone who doesn’t like one’s work.
Marco Goenke, the director of Hanover State Opera’s ballet company, did not acknowledge this memo, because he most certainly received it. Everyone does; it’s sort of intrinsic to simple decency. Maybe he plonked himself strategically at a distance and out of earshot at all the basic decorum lessons one experiences in life, in class, in rehearsal, onstage and anywhere off it. On the day that critic Wiebke Hüster’s displeased newspaper review of a production he had staged was published, he accosted her at a different performance of his work. Hüster says in the press that Goenke was furious that she had been allowed into the show, and smeared the faeces into her face mid-confrontation. He had been carrying it in a bag, and it is believed to have been from his pet dachshund, Gustav. The critic is pressing charges.
Some reviews are indeed vitriolic, and below the belt. Hüster’s may have been in this category (a translation available online of one line says that audiences may “go insane and be killed by boredom while watching” Goenke’s show). But Goenke’s review of her review was, err, pretty batshit.
The review as a form of entertainment is one of those topics that makes moral relativists out of many an artist. Have I found certain brickbats to be delicious reading or listening? Oh yes. Have I felt indignant when they’ve been aimed at work I enjoy, by people I love or respect, or made by me? If I was a too cool to care type, I’d say No. If I was a frosty and furtive type, I’d say I neither deny nor confirm. But I’m limpidly lukewarm, and so the answer is, yet again, oh yes.
Not everyone’s opinion matters, though. That’s still and always will be the final word on critique as an exercise. In my opinion, of course.
And some opinions, well, really are just a crock of you know what.
Still, Goenke’s violence toward Hüster is unjustified, even though the incident is admittedly a tiny bit funny upon first encountering it – not because of the revolting physical act but because of the kind of comic villainy he comes off as being filled with. Theatrical, indeed. He has rightfully been fired by the Hanover State Opera.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in February 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.