Monday, November 08, 2010

Critical Responsibility?

Waffle Blogging

Several bloggers and critics have been posting briefly on the role of the critic. This is hardly new territory in the blogosphere, but if you are interested in the practice of criticism it is always an attractive subject. Some people are not interested in the practice of criticism, which is OK, - some people are not interested in major league sports or politics, either.

Isaac Butler asks, very plainly, "What is a critic's responsibility?" He raises this question after reading Ben Brantley's piece on the aesthetic challenges faced by very intimate works (Driving Miss Daisy, A Life in the Theater) when they make the move from Off-Broadway to Broadway.

Issac is "infuriated" by the piece:

There's a prime opportunity to educate the public here going completely to waste. The Death of Commercial Off-Broadway (which is what Brantley is really bemoaning here) is a topic that's been floating around in the arts journalism ether for some time . He pays some lips service to these ideas, but doesn't investigate them or think about them in any critical or interesting way. Wouldn't it be good for one of the nation's supposed foremost experts on the art form to actually discuss this issue in a way a little bit deeper than the equivalent of a tossed-off blog post?

Of course, I guess it all comes down to what a reader believes the responsibilities are of someone in Brantley's position. If one sees his job as simply seeing-something-and-then-saying-something, then really, this Critic's Notebook is just fine. But if one believes-- as I do-- that a Critic's Notebook should actually cast a critical eye on something as a way of enlightening the reader, then it's a total failure.

To me the most troubling part of the Brantley piece, (or at least the most eyebrow raising,) is that he considers Gatz to be "the great theatrical event of the season so far." (But that's a different post.)

Issac sees a missed opportunity, but isn't a critic's first responsibility to the art? Brantley concedes right up front to incontrovertible economic reasons. Like Isaac, I would have appreciated even a listing of those reasons, but is that really a critic's responsibility, even in a "critic's notebook" entry?

The trouble, it would appear, is really in shrinking column space. Theatre arts feature articles are increasingly devoted to pre-show publicity-driven profiles, so much so that when critics occasionally have room to stretch their thoughts, we all will most likely have ideas as to how they should proceed and what are worthy topics.

Bill Marx, over at the Arts Fuse, laid into Globe critic Don Acouin's review of Albee's A Delicate Balance, calling into question, Acouin's critical acumen. On this point, Tom Garvey agreed, (will wonders never cease!), but pushed the discussion further, positing that even the critics with the "chops", so to speak, usually are using them to reinforce the cultural assumptions of their readership rather than taking occasions to challenge them:

"What you think already." That really should be the tagline of the Globe's arts section. For the paper's writers are hardly engaged with the art they supposedly cover - instead they're engaged with their audience, and what they think that audience can understand and will pay to hear. In a word, they're mirrors, not windows. It's true that some of the mirrors are smarter than others - but they turn that intelligence into a sharper picture of their readers, not the art they're supposedly writing about. Because, in a word, that's where the money is.

Which brings us back to Isaac's question about a critic's responsibility. Must a critic go deeper than the art that is presented? It would appear that Isaac and Tom would both agree on that they should. But what is the line between journalist and critic? Is there one?

I know many of my readers will disagree, but I do feel fortunate, in some way, to have the Boston Globe arts pages. Without them, would we have such stories as the CitiCenter for the Performing Arts or the American Repertory Theater backstage dealings? But these are the product of reporting and some serious legwork - Arts Editor Geoff Edgers is instrumental in this. However, to Isaac's point, sometimes I have felt that the Globe's critics have seemed strangely removed from the reporting of their own arts pages.

More independent critics - Garvey, Marx, Larry Stark, Sandy MacDonald (a stringer for the Globe, but also a freelancer) - seem more ready to openly challenge the marketing frame that is set forth by the theatre institutions. Whereas, I have often felt that the Globe critics seems much more ready to engage works on the field that that the marketers have staked out - even as their paper may be penetrating some of the marketing myths. (To this I will add that Jenna Scherer at the Herald is more than ready with a pin to pop a conventional balloon as well. Though her space becomes more and more limited.)

Meanwhile John Kuntz sees this critical assessment of critics by critics to be a net win for artists!

And, frankly, while we all deny it: there is NOTHING more entertaining than a bloody, ruthless, crucifying review.

As long as it’s not about us.

So, if someone’s going to get ripped to shreds, let it be the critics!

Let ‘em eat each other!

It’s their nature, after all.

Telling a critic to stop being mean is like telling a piranha not to snack between meals.

It’s just who they ARE!

Let them be free!

While it may be true that, (as John maintains a little later in his post,) making waffles is harder than maintaining a blog, it is also true that independent critical voices may be very necessary right now. I may be a generally optimistic guy, but I hold out little hope for mainstream criticism to persist in the coming years. When WBUR summarily executed its arts pages years ago, I was convinced that there was little hope for critical discussion, as well as cultural argument in mainstream outlets.

The web presences of theatre institutions, small and large, have increased dramatically over the past few years, and this is welcome. But at this rate it will soon overpower any independent critical voices. It won't be a question anymore of whether or not an online critic (or even a mainstream one?) is right or wrong, it will be a question of whether or not they are relevant.

There may be a tendency for we theatre artists to say, "good riddance," but let's remember that just a few months ago, the drumbeat that many critics online had been pounding out about the direction of one local arts institution turned out to be the same tune many artists, some of them prominent ones, were practicing themselves in private.


isaac butler said...

Hey Art,

Interesting post (And great picture).

I think there is a difference between a review and other writing in a press organ's arts pages. I don't need Brantley to use his reviews to talk about the economics of theatre (although I kinda wish he did). But the Isherwood and Brantley "Theatre Talkbacks" and "Critics Notebooks" (or whatever the hell they're called) are meant to be an opportunity for them to think deeper about something, to assay a topic in the theatre and bring the results of that thinking back to us. To write an essay instead of a review.

It seem that Brantley is incapable of doing it. Instead he writes a series of connected 1-paragraph mini reviews that have a common theme. As a result, he spends almost 1000 words and comes back with... some shows should be in smaller spaces. This seems... how do I put this? Like a completely shallow waste of money, space and time. He doesn't have to talk about the economics of theatre, but something beyond "sometimes small spaces are good" would've been nice.

Todd Williams said...

Great post - thanks for bringing all the conversations together!

I love John Kuntz's comments, is there a play coming?

BTW - Industry rumors have it that Jenna will be finishing up at the Herald by year's end - and she may be working for which launches at the end of the month.

Thomas Garvey said...

I do just want to make what seems to me an obvious point (but which many theatre practitioners seem never to perceive).

Artistic talent can't exist without critical talent. The two are entwined more tightly than the strands of the DNA helix. They HAVE to be. By definition.

So when professional artists sneer at professional critics, or say that what they do is unnecessary, what they are implicitly saying is, "Thanks, but we can criticize ourselves just fine."

Right. It's ridiculous on its face, isn't it. Yet it's surprising how many artists really seem to believe that.

Of course artists are often right to express dismay at the level of criticism they encounter; a lot of it is terrible. But I think a kind of reverse-corallary to that earlier statement would go something like - "If there is no great criticism being written, that means there is no great art being made." In other words, if artists are consistently appalled by the quality of arts criticism, maybe it's time to look in the mirror.