Friday, June 24, 2005

The Fate of Convention - al Critics
Bill Marx writes about arts issues in his once a week column on, and this week, he is fresh from the recent Critics Confab in California. (Any satirist playwrights feel free to savor the possibilities of a group of critics converging in sunny California for a convention.) Mr. Marx, charged up from the sun and the invigorating break-out sessions, is ready to take on the shrinking column space and the increasing capsulization culture of arts criticism:

"Over the years, commercial pressures, economic hard times, technological change, and editorial indifference have conspired to turn critics into thumb-sucking consumer guides. The savaging of elitism in the culture wars has also accelerated the downward spiral. As the circulation of newspapers and magazines declines, arts writing staff often shrinks. (The "L.A. Times" has gone without a staff theater critic for four years.) Of course, critics could have taken much better advantage of being provocative while they had the column inches. Readers are justifiably silent as puffy-as-usual reviews vaporize. They are content with Zagat-like audience polls."

I would say that the critics are just as content to have less space to fill. Thinking is hard, especially on a deadline. And Good Thinking requires a little rumination. However, one must be aware of the atrophy of the critical thinking muscle that can happen when critics only have the room for snark in their limited column space. And while I do not doubt the legitimacy of larger critical issues in the panning or snarking of certain performance, when the critic has less space to do it in, the chance that perhaps he or she hasn’t fully thought it out grows exponentially. It doesn’t educate the audience, it doesn’t help the artist, and the critic is left shambling forward, dragging the limp and hardening critical portion of his brain behind him like a caveman ready to wield a blunt club.

I remember Robert Brustein once saying that he turned down the New York Times reviewer position because he could not write a coherent review on that type of deadline. Meanwhile, his most recent submission to the New Republic, "Prosecution Plays," was a perfect imitation of the "Movie Minutes" segments of most Arts pages in the newspapers. He took, Pillowman, Thom Pain, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, etc. and rolled them up into one column. (With apologies for doing so.) However, I was disappointed to learn at the end that there was no punchline and that his column was not a satire.

I guess print will constrict even those critics who seek roomier pastures. Where are we to look then? Marx says this about the internet.

"The compelling promise of the Internet is that blogs will fill the vacuum with smart voices unafraid of angering the cultural industrial complex. There are some fine arts blogs around, but few pay the critics they use."

Here is an idea. Have you read the recent reviews of the two Tennessee Williams Plays in the New York Review Books? Ahhh. THERE is a review. Well, who has the time to read that, you ask? Well, not only will I read that, I will pay for it.

If somebody could provide an internet service that provided that level of content and scholarship, I would subscribe in a second, and I know many who would. Although, I also know many who wouldn’t.

How about pamphleteering? Highbrow critics could always run off cheap little pamphlets off MS Publisher and distribute them outside the Huntington and the ART as the audience comes out.

Marx continues:

"In addition, the lack of editorial and ethical standards can foster even more mush and stupidity than in the heyday of the mainstream media."

Mr. Marx brings up a good point, that is hard to get around. For instance, most of the better theatre blogs around are, in fact, written by artists. Playwrights like George Hunka, Actors like Spearbearer Down-Left, and Directors like Isaac Butler of Parabis provide good dialogue on arts, culture, theatre and Can we trust people like this to provide actual theatre criticism? Most of them don't, and they express their hesitancy to do so. There is a great ethical weirdness in giving reviews as an artist. I have sometimes offered quick–takes or reviews to Larry Stark’s Theatermirror, but I am always hesitant about doing so. Am I right in my feelings?

On the other hand, we artists seem to be the ones passionate enough to be trying to form some sort of independent cultural voice through a different medium. Why more critics, especially younger and smarter voices like Liza Weizztuch of the Phoenix, are not creating arts blogs, I am powerless to explain. Terry Teachout’s blog About Last Night perhaps provides an answer.

Mr. Teachout’s powerful critical faculties cannot be contained in his essays and reviews and they bleed into his online postings which are also peppered with quotes from Henry James and other classics. It is work, hard work for him to do this, but seemingly a labor of love.

Larry Stark’s Theater Mirror, started way before the blog craze of the past few years, demonstrates another hurdle for the critic. The frequency of reviewing. Larry would generally see and review far more productions than any mainstream critic, and he was closely followed by such posters to his site as Will Stackman.

Larry’s passion for criticism spilled into essays and commentary about the theatre scene, its artists and its critics. It also evolved into a community of review writers. Theatermirror is a unique type of interface that I haven’t really seen duplicated with such success anywhere else in cyberspace.

So what of the fate of criticism? Mr. Marx seems to be, not so much lamenting the death of criticism, but the fact that critics can no longer find paying gigs with health benefits. I understand your pain, Mr. Marx, but believe me, artists are already there. As anybody who reads here knows, I want good criticism.

Here and there, there are encouraging signs. As I have pointed out in past posts, the Village Voice is offering periodic review space to students of Graduate Drama Criticism programs.

But, Bill Marx concludes his column with a sobering bit of reality and empathy between graduating theatre artists and graduating critical minds:

"The National Endowment for the Arts promptly announced its plans to fund training programs at universities for cultural commentators. This is baffling. In an effort to appeal to the young and restless demographic, the "Phoenix" and other alternative papers are cutting the length of reviews. But academe will be churning out arts critics for nonexistent writing gigs. The reviewing jobs that pay will more likely than not demand spurts of opinion rather than sustained
arguments. Who needs a degree to do that?"

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