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August 11, 2003

Beautiful friendships

A reader writes:

All of yr. posts where you talk abt. hanging out w/ musicians and painters raise the specter of the critic who's friendly w/ those he writes abt. I imagine I know where you stand on this, that it doesn't change how you write abt. them, but it could make for an interesting discussion.

Sure could. It's a tricky business, being in the world of art but not of it...but wait a minute. I'm not a priest, right? Nope, just a freelance journalist, and one who believes deeply that anyone who tries to write about art without knowing artists is going to make a rotten job of it.

At the same time, I should point out that I'm not at present a regular working performance critic in any field other than theater. Speaking in my official capacity as drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, I can assure you that I know a grand total of two (2) actors, both of whom are among my closest friends and both of whom I knew long before I hooked up with the Journal. I've never mentioned either one in my drama column.

Beyond that, I make no promises, nor should you expect me to. Many of my other friends are artists working in other media. I have occasion to write about some of them from time to time, and the fact that I know them personally does change what I write--for the better. Because I know certain artists well and have talked to them at length about their art, I understand it more fully, and can explain it more intelligently. In the process, I also learn more about the worlds in which they work, and that makes my writing more nuanced and comprehending. (My writing is probably also affected in much the same way by the fact that I myself used to be a professional musician once upon a time.)

I might add that it seems to me perfectly natural for a person who writes about the arts to befriend artists whom he admires, so long as they're nice. Needless to say, this isn't always the case, though it turns out to be true surprisingly often. Three or four of my best friends are artists whom I got to know in the course of writing about them, and they're very nice.

(In case you're wondering, the thought occasionally crosses my mind that this niceness might in certain cases have something to do with the fact that I've written nice things about the artists in question. Yes, it's happened once or twice, and it stings when you realize you've been snookered, but that goes with the territory. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and I've gained a whole lot more than I've lost.)

Does any of this affect my writing for the worse? Maybe. But in the end, you must judge me not by some abstract theory about my work, but by the work itself. Do you tend to agree with what I write? Even if you don't, do you find it illuminating? If so, then it doesn't really matter whether I happen to know the people who made the works of art I recommend, does it? A lot of readers, after all, seem to think I'm a trustworthy critic, and the reason why they do is because their experience has taught them to trust my taste. I've worked hard at building that trust. It's my capital. I wouldn't dream of squandering it by writing a favorable review of a bad work of art by a good friend. I never have, and I never will.

One more thing: I teach a course in criticism at Rutgers/Newark University, in which I spend a few minutes early in the semester talking about conflicts of interest. Rule No. 1 of arts journalism, I tell my students, goes like this: "Never sleep with anybody you write about." That gets their attention--especially since I put it more bluntly than that.

Either way, it's a good rule to live by.

Posted August 11, 2003 12:03 PM

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