But Who Will Criticize the Critics?

All right, so today I’m violating one of my editorial rules and writing about performing arts criticism. I try to avoid this because I think it’s ridiculously navel-gazing for people to write about what they do, particularly when the field itself is so ridiculously impoverished (as I’ll explain in a moment). Surely all us critics could be writing about better things than what we do. But critic and playwright George Hunka recently wrote something that irritated me just that much that I had to respond.

The quick backstory is that the Times‘ Jason Zinoman recently wrote a nice post (well worth reading) on ArtsBeat about the value of writing bad reviews. Parabasis followed up, and you should glance that over, too, and it was that which led me to Hunka. I’ve never met Hunka, but he seems nice enough, and though I don’t agree with everything he writes, he’s undeniable smart, insightful, and passionate about theater. However, quoting himself from the comments on Zinoman’s article, he wrote this:

“It’s not so much a matter of whether a critic who gives a bad review to a show has a vendetta or seems to engage in abuse. It is, however, a matter of whether or not the reviewer has the thoughtfulness or the knowledgability to render such a review valid. Especially with plays that seek to extend the form, the critic should be able to differentiate between a bad play and those which do not yield their pleasures as easily as others.” The contentious and rude review often enough calls attention to itself and the reviewer, not the play and the artist, which does a disservice to reader and artist alike. It also might serve as a cover for ignorance. The same can be said for rude and contentious political arguments, for that matter, whether from Noam Chomsky or Ann Coulter. True, sometimes readers find these reviews fun — but that’s only to cater to the lowest common denominator. Perhaps in a world of 140-character Tweets and Facebook status updates, this is to be expected, but the serious reader should want more than this, the serious critic or reviewer should want to write it, and the serious arts editor should want to publish it. That such criticism and reviews can be provocatively and entertainingly written is proven by the writings of critics from George Bernard Shaw to Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, and many many others.

Ok. Insofar as the first part makes an argument (the middle is just a bunch of suppositions, and the end a list of critics who conveniently no longer write), it’s complete bollocks. With all due respect. And furthermore–and this is why it really irritated me–it actually argues against good criticism. Read the quote within the quote again. Now let me paraphrase. This is nothing more than a verbose version of the complaint I’ve gotten from everyone I ever wrote a bad review of who thought to argue with me: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Needless to say, the artists I give good reviews to, particularly those I notice coming up in their careers, at least occasionally think I’m a rather insightful critic. One can, apparently, be both at once, if my own experience is to be believed. But for those on the receiving end, who I’m concerned with now, I’m not properly educated (as Hunka provides for) to pass judgment on their oh-so-visionary work, the brilliance of which I failed to note due to my benighted ignorance. This particularly occurs when I write about dance, because I studied theater and comparative literature, not dance (as has been pointed out to me more than once). My standard response to this sort of drivel, in short, is: “Exactly how educated in the form do you expect your audiences to be to enjoy or experience the work?”

In the case of dance, for instance, while I don’t have formal training as a dancer nor an academic background in it, I do talk with choreographers about the form regularly, I read about it as much possible, and in the past year, by my rough count, I’ve seen between 50 and 60 distinct pieces of choreography. If all of that actually left me still unqualified to offer a personal impression of whether or not a given piece is interesting or demonstrates some form of accomplishment, who in God’s name is your target audience? And furthermore, if dance is actually only something that can be understood through personal participation and/or academic work in the field, I have to tell you, the art form has bigger problems than a couple bad reviews.

All of this applies equally well to theater, which, as it happens, I did study. But for Hunka, that may still leave me unqualified to critique work that seeks “to extend the form.” Fundamentally I don’t dispute that there’s a big difference between Art Theater, experimental work, devising, etc., and your standard Broadway or mainstream fare, but as a yardstick for policing the police, as it were, this is stupid. If “extending the form” is the definition of success, than I’d say the work actually has to do so in practice, by actually influencing and inspiring work in the future. Short of being a seer, only time will tell. And furthermore, there are always multiple traditions of work at any point in time. There are plenty of works in the past that did “expand the form” that I’d still argue are not good, not a good influence, and better forgotten or consigned to the pages of a theater history textbook. Influence alone is not a sign of quality; breaking new ground is not always a sign you’ve done something well, or important.

And finally, I want to make one last point. In the world of books or music–which have much healthier critical fields than performing arts–critics are not seen as arbiters of taste or quality who can speak with god-like authority. True, plenty of writers complain that certain critics, like Michiko Kakutani, have too much influence on the buying public, but fundamentally, book criticism isn’t a matter of passing judgment, it’s a form of intellectual discourse and engagement. The essay, as a form, is dead in American publishing. Aside from literary magazines, the only mainstream publication that features them that I can think of is Harper‘s. Otherwise, we’re left with book reviews in which to discuss and engage with ideas in substantive form shorter than an actual published book.

The performing arts, on the other hand, seems to yearn for the sort of recognition a god-like critic can supposedly confer (solace or consolation, perhaps, for a sad lack of other sorts of rewards in the field, such as money or meaningful support). Whereas writers of books (novels or non-fiction) see themselves as equals of their critics (possibly even superior) and think nothing of writing essays and reviews themselves, performing artists seem to prefer a separation between the two fields, and refuse to engage. For them, writing about the form is usually the aforementioned matter of conferring value, not part of a broader discourse about the art. That’s sad, because it actual retards meaningful discussion. It’s not that artists don’t have opinions, mind you; two drinks and even the cheeriest booster of the idea of community will let loose with a fusillade of complaints and criticisms of his or her fellow artists, faulting ideas, aesthetic, execution, whatever. But all too rarely do artists themselves choose to even voice them, even mildly, in a public forum, let alone overcome their own sense of victimization enough to take part in a broader discussion as an interested party, rather than just to rebut this or that thing someone else said that they didn’t like.

So my advice is first, don’t listen to George Hunka (in this circumstance, at least); second, treat yourself with the dignity and respect to air your own arguments and thicken up your skin enough to be able to deal with the fact not everyone will agree with you (like Hunka does); and third, stop trying to convince yourself that a critic’s acceptance or rejection is the end-all, be-all, and accept that criticism and reviews are, at best, part of a broader discourse about arts and society. In short, read this from Zinoman and take it to heart; your work is worthy of being talked about as part of something bigger than itself, and you should help by being part of that conversation:

Of course, fairness is important in criticism. Critics are human and a negative review can go off the rails and veer into cruelty and personal attacks. The temptations of the witty put-down are real, and when it comes to the Fringe, seeing five shows in a day can also play a role. We should take our responsibility seriously. But I would rather live in a theater culture where discussions about plays can get as contentious (and occasionally rude) as those about politics. Theater may be known as the fabulous invalid, but artists and critics who go into this low-paying, highly competitive field are tougher than you think.

8 Comments

on “But Who Will Criticize the Critics?
8 Comments on “But Who Will Criticize the Critics?
  1. "There are plenty of works in the past that did “expand the form” that I’d still argue are not good, not a good influence, and better forgotten or consigned to the pages of a theater history textbook. Influence alone is not a sign of quality; breaking new ground is not always a sign you’ve done something well, or important."

    i would love to hear even a little sampling of what you consider part of this party. breaking new ground may not speak to quality (as you gesture to), but…general importance? that is a big statement, and i don't know if there is anything that expands form that i think is "better" forgotten…

  2. Well, I'm a bit flattered that you took what was an observation and opinion as "advice," as if I were in a position to give anybody advice that would be accepted or rejected, as the case may be. It wasn't my intention (oh, that word) to offer a "How to" guide to reviewing — Isaac's post resembles that far more than my own.

    I was simply arguing for a more informed criticism and review, based not only in the shows that one sees (which really just gives you the lay of the current landscape, rather than its context and development from past work) but also in the knowledge that one brings to it. I don't believe you're arguing that it's better for a reviewer to lack this knowledge than to possess it, so I do hope that's not the case.

    The reviewer's primary responsibility (at least, in the daily and weekly press, if not in journals and other publications) is to the general public, not necessarily to the artist. In this, yes, it is a part of the broader discourse about arts and society, no disagreement there.

    The rave uninformed review can be just as damaging to the reception of a new work, just as invalid as a piece of criticism, as a rude uninformed review. More than a review that is written by a knowledgable source, that uninformed review, whether it's snarky or sincere, runs more of a risk of misrepresenting the work. Editors seem quite willing to run that risk, unfortunately. Is that risk worth the candle, though, if, as you argue, if criticism and reviewing is to be a part of that social discourse? Is snarky, contentious noise really a contribution to that discourse, or is it just a means of self-validation?

    In regard to your last point, I fully agree with you regarding the status of performing arts criticism as compared to that of books and the plastic arts. Perhaps, in an ideal world, we would not have god-like critics, only those whose opinions we might respect. The Times has both daily book reviews and the Sunday book review: the daily reviewers are like Brantley and Isherwood, while the book review more resembles those artists, historians and writers talking amongst themselves. At the very least, if theatre is as important to society as everybody says it is, we might have a Sunday theatre section that features those longer-form critics with expertise in their fields: Jonathan Kalb on the latest Endgame revival, Bonnie Marranca and Peggy Phelan on Meredith Monk or Laurie Anderson, Randy Gener on Erik Ehn's Soulographie, (All of these critics are still writing, by the way.)

    I am sorry that some artists have dismissed your work with "You just don't get it." As a dramatist myself I tend to be very patient with negative reviews both publicly and privately offered. What I may do with them or think of them is a private affair, but I hold no grudges against these quite sincere opinions. But that's another issue that's only tangentially related to my original point.

  3. George–

    Thanks for responding. It doesn't bother me when artists choose to dismiss my response to their work. That's fine, part of a fine game and a long tradition of artists claiming their critics are ignorant. Sometimes they're right, and sometimes their wrong. What worries me and bothers me is the impression that attitude can leave on the general public, though. I understand you mean to argue in favor of better review practices; that I don't disagree with. But what you said is that some critics are not knowledgeable enough to tell the difference between a good play and a bad one in the field of progressive theater. Intentionally or not (and I doubt it's intentional) that sounds incredibly arrogant and condescending. If being a theater doesn't prepare you for this work, how is the average person ever supposed to get it? And then why would they bother? Conversely, if the work is in fact appreciable to non experts, than surely the response of a professional theater critic of whatever stripe has some validity.

    The entire problem with "bad reviews" is that it's clear as mud. In theory it's easy to say that, of course, reviewers should be knowledgeable, informed, even handed, and rarely wrong. In practice, actually making those determinations is complex and almost impossible to do in objective terms. You're uninformed and unqualified critic is someone else's courageous truthsayer, who comes in, refuses to have the wool pulled over his eyes by the established art set, calls BS on their exhausted forms, and plucks the next generation out of the obscurity they'd been confined by the slow death of their elders. People argue about this all the time, and to what end? We can either idealize a world that doesn't exist, or deal with the one we live in, in which all reviews and all reviewers are not created equal.

  4. Jeremy —

    I'm not sure who you mean by that "average person" who sits next to the critic or reviewer in the theatre. At venues like PS122 or The Kitchen (if we want to call what they offer "progressive theater"), it might even be presumed that this "average person," who is not there to review the show, is just as knowledgable, or even moreso, than myself — otherwise they wouldn't be there. I would think that it's more arrogant and condescending to assume that the average person is in fact not knowledgable or informed. Which is why, in my original post, I said, "the serious reader should want more than [superficial and uninformed criticism], the serious critic or reviewer should want to write it, and the serious arts editor should want to publish it." If, as you say in another post, "in the end, the critic is just a member of that audience, too," then your true peers aren't other critics or artists, but those audience members — who are then your equals.

  5. I totally agree that a critic’s job is to lead intellectual discourse and engagement and not to provide answers. “Average person” can have very different views toward the same play. Each average person can have his and her own unique responses to a performance, and there can be hundreds different opinions after an evening show. Why should anyone expect a paid professional critic to choose the “best correct opinion” and to tell the public what is good and what is bad? A critic should tell something only when it is felt from the heart, and that s/he must share with the public. To write is is based on the earnest to share and to inspire instead of meeting the high expectation of providing the ultimate insight.

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