Critical condition

My friend Inna Heasley asked me to write an essay about the role of criticism in the arts & I thought I would repost here because as a statement of my philosophy in arts reporting as we go into the next Philadelphia season. For what it’s worth, this is my approach as an arts journalist.

Get the fuck out

As an arts journalist I try to be mindful of the real role critics and criticism should play in the world of arts. I think of the essential primer found in Oscar Wilde’s classic The Picture of Dorian Gray where one of the characters instructs that “diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.”

This truism is unfortunately ignored by audiences who follow lofty opinions, not to mention the dictates of the commerce of art. It is perhaps colder comfort for the playwright, choreographer, conductor, composer or artist who is at the financial mercy of professional critics, fairly or unfairly, not to mention hostile audiences.

Wilde also proclaimed that, in the scheme of things ‘All art is useless,’ so, by association, critics should be considered even more expendable. The irony here is that Wilde, of course, lived for art and actually went to jail just as much for his artistic criticism of Victorian hypocrisies, as he did for consorting with male prostitutes.

My other favorite line about critics in from Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead, Revisited. When the young Oxford student tells his father that he wants to be an artist, his father responds with this thinly veiled missile from Waugh: “I won’t have undraped models all over the house…or critics with their horrible jargon.”

Whenever I read those breathless blurbs on posters of movies, plays and operas I always think of that phrase – horrible jargon – and try to itemize, without dwelling, when I have been guilty of said jargon myself.

Unfortunately, horrible jargon and the fallout buzz can steer the course of art and careers.

The list of important plays, operas, ballets and symphonies that were trashed, misunderstood and closed down because of bad reviews is astounding. A few examples of the prevailing critics being pathetically wrong:   

  • Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, the site of a theater riot, with dissenting critics actually doubling their venom by thrashing Igor Stravinsky‘s score.
  • Georges Bizet’s Carmen was rejected by critics because it was the first hybrid opera to incorporate comic and tragic aesthetic.
  • West Side Story limped along in tryout towns, drawing venomous coverage from theater writers. 

Well, Nijinsky went mad and Bizet had a heart attack before they knew that they had changed their respective arts forever. The “fab four” of West Side – Lenny, Jerome, Arthur and Stephen – collectively made the critics eat their words as the show became a cultural phenomenon and each of the creators went on to dominate two generations of American musical theater.

In his book Look, I Made the Hat Sondheim adroitly defines the difference between critics and reviewers~ “Reviewers are reporters, their function is to describe and evaluate, on first encounter, a specific event,” they are “victims of deadlines…They are of necessity drive-by shooters.”  Sondheim writes, in contrast, critics have the luxury of time, which “affords them distance, they can take in the whole range of the art and the artist.” Sondheim also notes deftly that “over time even the better reviews become desensitized, and atrophy sets in.”

Ouch! But think of what he could have said and how many examples could he have given, starting with the first very negative critical response he received for his masterpiece musical Company.

Of course, the other side of the spectrum is a writer who is completely drunk on his own laudatory opinions. Pauline Kael’s review of the artsy potboiler Last Tango in Paris springs lustily to mind. Clammy film, clammier review. Kael may have had an artistic epiphany that it would change film forever, but even its legendary star, Marlon Brando, claimed he had no clue as to what it was about. The fallout was that even though Tango was an international hit, it aided in creating a backlash against films with less arcane, but more relevant, sexual content.

I bring up Kael and the movies to make a key point in criticism as it is practiced now:  movie reviewing has all but ruined the reviewing of live performance. People expect tag line assessments – the typical Meryl Streep IS Margaret Thatcher hyperbole that is so common. Or worse, the thumbs up/down condemnations of Caligula in the Coliseum.

The jargon used for movies is lacking in the extreme when you are reporting what occurs live on a performance stage – with living, breathing actors, musicians, and dancers who are collaborating in real time with a technical crew after working daily with a creative team. The production budgets alone make them completely different enterprises.

Choreographer Twyla Tharp punctures reviews by branding them ‘abstracts.’ Indeed, dance and instrumental music present the most challenges for a writer to translate into lay terms and, if done well, can have the most benefits, since by nature, these art forms are languages in themselves.

My preference is to be stealth as much as possible and write a review heavy on concrete technical analysis then have fun with the rest. But for various reasons that is not always possible. To make a critical point and move on, not to dwell on moments the audience should discover themselves.

The actor Richard Burton made the salient point in an interview with Dick Cavett in 1980s, that  praise-lavishing critics can ruin an otherwise magical moment and ruin it for everybody including the performer. 

It is best to read reviews that hit all of the major bases, without being formulaic, petty or cheap. It is a balancing act of rhetorical devises. Editors consistently prefer more casual, chatty observations.

The great dance scholar and critic Gary Parks’ credo was“Report what you see on stage and the rest will fall into place.”  This is, for me, a guiding principle.  Reviewing is in fact an intense reporter’s assignment and at its best it calls on many journalistic skills that can illuminate.

Actual reportage can be especially valuable in dance and music, more abstract forms which, unlike movies and plays, generally have much less exposure than other more mainstream entertainments.

Then there are coded reviews, which in the past occurred most frequently in dance, a point by point description of a performance carrying the unstated message that the critic disapproves of the performance, but is too polite to spell it out. I think it is healthier to state your view cleanly –  pro, con or mixed – just so you back it up. And always without piling on. Make a substantiated critical point and move on to the next journalistic point.

Authoritative criticism and certainly the more valuable craft of actual reporting can be a useful tool in navigating the arts and where you want your money and time to go. Especially helpful in hard economic times. But it is my view that no one should follow a critic’s opinion, you should follow your viewer instincts and allow the experience of arts in all of their potential forms.