The Thin Line Between Artistic Expression, Press Freedom and Animal Feces

At a packed Hannover state opera house, German newspaper critic Wiebke Hüster had dog feces smeared on her face by award-winning ballet director Marco Goecke, who apparently took offence at her review of a production he staged in The Hague. The state opera house apologized for the incident and has suspended Goecke.

Goecke reportedly took exception, accusing the dance critic of being responsible for people canceling season tickets before pulling out a paper bag of his dog’s excrement and smearing her face with the contents before walking through the packed theatre foyer. The opera house has condemned Goecke’s actions, saying that “he caused massive damage to the Hannover State Opera and State Ballet”.

According to an interview with NDR, Goecke admitted that he was “a bit shocked at [himself]” and while the “choice of means wasn’t super”, having his work “soiled for years” had forced him to “a certain point”. The matter is now under investigation with Goecke barred from entering the opera house.

In the wake of high profile incidents such as an Iraqi journalist throwing his shoes at US President, George W. Bush and Will Smith openly slapping Chris Rock because of his joke, it seems as though impulsive public violent outbursts are becoming a thing. As the freedom of the press comes into focus, forcing us to re-evaluate the role of the media and its ever-changing digital landscape, it seems as though the artist in the public eye wants to give the shielded critic an appreciation for their apparent humiliation.

A double-edged sword, it’s the struggling artist who wants the attention, publicity and acknowledgement, but the established artists with accolades and rewards that have so much further to fall when they receive bad press. This is unfortunately the uncomfortable tension of being in the public eye, leaving yourself open to scrutiny and receiving negative comment from critics.

As a film critic, I have some sympathy for Goecke, who resorted to one of the most primitive forms of protest available to man. While deemed impulsive, it must have taken some premeditation to think to prepack or fetch dog feces in the middle of an opera house affair. In the moment of what each us is able to convince ourselves is a completely legitimate response, a self-righteous anger can infuriate us so deep within, we can “go ape”. There’s a degree of revenge to this stunt because it’s so public, intending to defame and humiliate.

In the film Cloud Atlas, an angry author throws a critic out of a window, possibly an opportunity for the Wachowskis to exact their own form of revenge with artistic license. There must be countless examples of artist’s taking offence at reviews of their work – you can’t please everyone and when you divide audiences, chances are you’re pushing the boundaries of art, which is usually a good thing. The very nature of art makes it a rather subjective experience and where would we be if everyone just liked everything.

As a film critic, I’ve received a wide array of reactions from my reviews over the last 15 years. I offer constructive criticism, so I point out how films can improve and aim to leave cast and crew aiming higher or with some useful feedback rather than wanting to exit stage left. I realise the miracle that is filmmaking, so I know how challenging it is to create illusions that transport audiences to another world. It’s a massive undertaking. So I broadcast and write reviews that build up rather than break down, which means there aren’t many artists who are baying for blood or waiting with a paper bag in the cinema foyer or car park. It’s the reason many filmmakers seek my script consultancy services when it comes to screenwriting or creative problem-solving.

As the adage goes, no one ever built a statue for a critic, so it can be tough for journalists to be friends with creatives in just about any arts industry without ruffling a few feathers. I have had filmmakers, who unfriended and unfollowed me because of a review and a member of the audience heckle me when I was trying to facilitate a special screening. Although having said that, another director who contacted me personally to tell me how wrong I was, tried to persuade me that the awards and festival circuit selections and ratings his film was receiving made my unfavourable review of his movie wrong and misinformed. After a back-and-forth where I explained he needed to have some people who said ‘no’ in his life, we’re now following one another. So it’s really a mixed bag.

The hard truth is that the artist and journalist need each other and are codependent. Without art, there’s no story to fill the arts and culture pages, which means that both entities need to find a way to co-exist. This kind of reporting can become abusive with feuds developing… who can forget Mark Kermode’s complete and utter disdain for Michael Bay movies? So, it comes down to balance and relevance because while journalists do wield great power with their words, this responsibility shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Artists can shun critics, writers can belittle artists… but the game works so much better for both when there’s a healthy respect and well-balanced working relationship. Some say there’s no such thing as bad publicity but while Marco Goecke may have made his name synonymous with this unfortunate incident across the globe, it will take some considerable effort to reclaim his reputation.