Future theater critics?

Learning to love arts criticism

Criticism

Editor's note: This piece was originally published in Playlist in March of 2012. With our recent renewed focus on arts criticism, I thought it was a fine time to revisit some of the points Alan brings up here.

Years ago, at a dorm room party, I remember talking with an elegant young art history major. Cool major, I said, So do you want to work in a museum? "No," she said, "I'm not going to work in a museum." O. You're going to get your PhD and teach? I said. "No," she said. Are you an artist really, on the side, or something? "No," she said. "I'm going to be a critic."

Though I was too young to have any personal experience with critics, I loved artists enough to know that I hated critics. I remember the author of A Separate Peace casually noting in a lecture I attended that the critics had JD Salinger "cowering under his toilet for the last 30 years." At best, critics were to artists, I thought, what fleas were to dogs: parasitic irritants with no useful purpose. At worst, they were bombs; they did real damage.

Reading my face, she said, "You think you're an artist, don't you?"

Wow, I thought, she's already judging me inadequate, and she hasn't even seen my work. She'll be a great critic. I'm a writer, I said.

"You know," she replied, defensiveness creeping into her voice, "Faulkner would be unknown without"—and then she named someone whose name I had never heard—"and Picasso wouldn't be Picasso without"—another person whose name was foreign to me. "Critics are just as important—and even sometimes as famous—as artists!" she said.

I walked away from her then, but remember that she was very attractive. Thus began my love-hate relationships with critics.

Are critics as important as artists?

A quick google search will tell you that Faulkner would be all but forgotten if not for the critic Malcolm Cowley, who inspired a international re-evaluation of Faulkner's work after World War II that lead to the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Faulkner's books were out-of-print until Cowley republished a new, edited compilation. The Wikipedia entry on Picasso and cubism says that Picasso and Braque invented it but only one paragraph down credits the critic Louis Vauxcelles with coining the term "cubism" even though Picasso and Braque did not adopt it themselves.

In the contemporary theater, Frank Rich, John Lahr, and Kenneth Tynan are names as familiar to most theater artists as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O'Neill. In Chicago, the former Chicago Tribune theater critic Richard Christenson is given as much credit as Steppenwolf for anchoring the famous Chicago theater scene.

I almost hate to admit it but critics are, for many people, the way into their love for art. I wouldn't know about or appreciate Luigi Pirandello or Bertolt Brecht if not for the critic Eric Bentley. In this MinnesotaPlaylist article from 2009, Melodie Behan argued that Frank Rich opened up the theater world to her as a girl in rural Illinois. "Without my ever having seen a professional production," she writes, "they[Rich's writing] illuminated the work with their words in a way that helped me understand it and long to see it done well."

Yet, I don't personally know anyone (including critics) who is happy with the state of theater criticism in Minnesota, or New York, or anywhere in this country.

What's the problem?

These days, everyone is talking about the death of the "professional" critic. Around the country, most newspapers have cut back on arts coverage, eliminated staff positions, and shrunk the number of words they print on any given art. Audience surveys at theaters reveal that less and less people are motivated by a review to come see a show. The internet allows anyone with fingers and a connection to post their opinion, informed or not, officially critical or not.

Professional critics are fewer in number than ever before. They have less space in most newspapers to write their reviews. And less people follow their advice about shows.

What role is left for the critic to play?

If you ask a conventional theater journalist, they will argue that their job is to summarize the event for a general audience and provide a quick judgment about whether that event is worth an audiences' time and money. Consumer reports journalism. In this interview, you can hear some local critics (and former critics) describe how they try to empty themselves of opinions before entering a show, so they can be a conduit for the "typical" audience experience.

If you ask the marketing department at a theater, they will tell you that reviews are little more than free press. Just give me a good quote; I don't care what else it says. Just give me one phrase I can put in an email or an advertisement.

If you ask an artist, however, they'll argue passionately that critics need to aspire to higher ideals than simply thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgment about a work of art and quotable lines. Among the people I know, the failure of theater critics to engage with a work of art on a deep level—the failure to understand the work, the reason for the work, and explore the work's potential impact on the audience, or the field—drives them crazy.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: Artists are not objective critics of the work of arts critics. For one, they do not understand that the agendas of newspapers are vastly different from the agendas of cultural institutions. Second, they have trouble with reviews that are not complimentary. Do you really dislike that review or do you dislike that the review seems to dislike you?

But third, and perhaps most importantly, published criticism is the only public record of an ephemeral art like theater. When artists strive to make connection, often one of the only ways to measure whether that connection has been made is through the musing of a critic. Artists may know objectively that a critic only speaks for him or herself alone, that it is just one person's opinion, etc., etc., the things we tell ourselves to sleep at night, but in reality, we want to know what people are thinking about our work, and the only place to consistently find opinions that at least purport to be authoritative and objective is with published criticism.

Is there any ideal situation?

I wish I hadn't walked away from the Art Major at that party. She sat with her legs perfectly crossed in a way that made her calves look as though they had been airbrushed. She cradled a red plastic cup of beer in her palm as though it were champagne. I mean that she clearly had thought about beauty more than I had, and I wonder whether I would have learned something if I had stayed to talk to her.

The best arts critics, the useful arts critics, the lovely arts critics, do not act as though they are just like any other audience member. They share knowledge, experience, love of beauty—or dissonance or postmodernism or whatever floats their critical boat—to enhance the ability of general audiences to enjoy more artistic work more—and thereby help enhance the audience's enjoyment of life.

Their ability to pass judgment is only one tool in the shed.

I do not mean that critics should simply be cheerleaders for the art form. Reporting that a piece of theater is good when it isn't will not help anyone enjoy their life more, nor will it help the theater. However, helping an audience understand the potential of a complex piece of work in a way that makes it more accessible is worthwhile.

I also don't mean that a critic condescend to the audience, telling them what they should or shouldn't like based on a supposedly superior wealth of pretentious knowledge. Like "Waiting for Godot prefigures post-modernism and absurdism both." Tossing around academic labels rarely does anyone any good either. However, provide the audience with context, history, and insight that they wouldn’t otherwise know is worthwhile.

Neither critics nor audiences are empty vessels waiting to be filled by art when they walk into a theater. We bring stuff to the work; we're supposed to. A critic should help prepare the audience for a good night in the theater.

Like: "A consistent theme of this playwright is the interplay between our public and private personas." Or, "This actor is regularly cast in the role of ditzy sorority girl but somehow, with this performance, she has transcended the cliché to create a fully human portrait of a child who wants to become a woman by any means necessary." Or even, if you must be negative, "The light designer is trying to use shadows to create a sense of claustrophobia, especially in the scenes between the sisters. She may succeed too well." Or "What the company doesn't seem to know about politics could fill another play. If you want to enjoy this piece of work, look for the comedy, ignore the message. To learn more about politics in this vein, read ________ which addresses the same issues but with an equally funny yet more insightful approach to who is making key decisions and why."

Sports writers enhance appreciation of a game by explaining the behind the scenes drama or setting into relief the subtle decisions that athletes make on the spur of the moment. They also criticize errors, but they rarely use that criticism to argue about the merit of the game itself. They don't do consumer reports journalism; they do commentary that adds color to the experience for everyone.

Food critics advise people about where to spend their money, yes, yet rarely do you find a food critic generalize as much as a theater critic does. Food critics visit a restaurant more than one time, sample a variety of dishes and go into the details of how the food was prepared, which food was unique and interesting, which was conventional but exceptional, which should be avoided, which you will enjoy, and how best you can enjoy it.

Good food criticism is complex, sensuous writing that helps people do more with their meal than just avoid it. The food critic doesn't simply say that they liked or disliked a dish, they share their refined ability to enjoy beauty with us by dissecting the elements that make up the meal.

All critics also spread the word—about a restaurant, a car, a minor league ball player, or a piece of art. They need to have credible independent opinions, certainly; I know that means they don't have to listen to me. (And, I know a little of the pressures at daily newspapers and periodicals that make more insightful analysis of art extremely difficult.)

Still I think that if they could see their job as enhancing the artistic experience for the audience rather than simply judging it, it would make a difference to everyone. Because audience members do not themselves go into a show judging whether it will be good or bad. Audiences want to enjoy themselves. So do critics. Why not help everyone get what they want?

As an added benefit, artists would be as satisfied as they can be with this approach, and critics would have a better time defending their jobs. Artists want the work to be explored and entered into at a deep level, and we deflate when we read words that simply pass judgment and over-generalize. Critics want to defend their position against a legion of bloggers with no credentials. By subverting their sense of judgment into the act of appreciation and discussion, they will help audiences enter into complicated work more easily; they will engage artists on a level that artists will take more seriously; and they will justify that they do have a professionalism that cannot be faked by a dude with a wordpress template and a ticket to the first show of his life.