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.

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