July 31, 2003
We who cannot doA reader writes:
Obviously, a critic should be rigorous, honest, and forthright, but how far is not too far? When the critic likes the work, there's not much problem, but what if the work is deemed flawed or worse (an all too common situation in my experience)? Living artists, even those without significant talent, are still human and apt to be hurt. Furthermore, it's always possible for a critic to be wrong, however honestly. It's been said that Art is ruthless and only cares for its own goodness or quality. Should a critic simply serve Art, and artists be damned?
Whenever I think about that question--and any critic who doesn't lose sleep over it from time to time is a boor and a cad--I think of this couplet by Alexander Pope: "Yes, I am proud! I must be proud to see/Men, not afraid of God, afraid of me."
Terrible words, aren't they? They say a great deal about Pope, and what they say, I don't like. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that they have the rank smell of pathology--that they speak of a man whose ego was badly twisted, and who took it out on the people about whom he wrote. But I'm not going to try to tell you that they don't hit the target: I know a lot of critics, and some of them are just like that. I also know a lot of critics who are incompetent, by which I mean they don't know enough about their chosen art form to responsibly pass judgment on the things they review. Such critics make artists miserable, confuse audiences, and generally add to the sum total of unhappiness on this earth.
It's not a popular view among my colleagues, but I think most of the best critics--not all, but most--have had at least some professional experience in at least one of the arts about which they write. I know I try to write not as a lofty figure from on high, smashing stone tablets over the heads of ballerinas and prima donnas, but as someone who has spent his entire adult life immersed in the world of art, both as a critic and as a practitioner. I was also fortunate to have served my apprenticeship as a critic in a middle-sized city, because it taught me that criticism is not written in a vacuum. It touches real people, people of flesh and blood, and sometimes it hurts them. If you don't know that--and I mean really know it--you shouldn't be a critic. And you're more likely to know it when you've lived and worked in a city small enough that there's a better-than-even chance of your meeting the people you write about at intermission.
Writing for the Kansas City Star taught me that lesson, and it also taught me that critical standards have to be appropriate. You don't review a college opera production the same way you review the Met. That's another reason why critics should ideally have hands-on experience in the areas about which they write: It teaches them proper respect for what Wilfrid Sheed calls "the simple miracle of getting the curtain up every night." It's hard to sing Tatyana in Yevgeny Onegin, or to dance in Concerto Barocco. It's scary to go out in front of a thousand people in a dumb-looking costume and put your heart and soul on the line. Unless you have some personal experience of what that feels like--of the problems, both psychological and practical, that stand in the way of getting the curtain up--then you may err on the side of an unrealistic perfectionism, and your reviews will be sterile and uncomprehending as a result.
None of this is to say that criticism should be bland and toothless. Sometimes it's your duty--your responsibility--to drop the big one. But you shouldn't enjoy it, not ever. And you should always make an effort to be modest when writing about people who can do something you can't, even when you don't think they do it very well.
You will find a contrary view in today's almanac entry, written by Ernest Newman, one of the most distinguished music critics of the 20th century. I take his point--which doesn't mean I agree with it.
Posted July 31, 2003 12:05 PM