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July 16, 2007

TT: Hot stuff

My Wall Street Journal column about the decline of regional arts criticism has stirred up quite a bit of comment in and out of the blogosphere. Among those who've posted about it to date are Mr. Playgoer, Alex Ross, Edward Winkleman, and one of the anonymous authors of Moreover, The Economist's new artblog.

I'm also getting a fair amount of e-mail about the column, of which this letter is typical:

Thanks for the thoughtful and (as always) incisive article about regional criticism. I'm working in the arts in one of those towns, Wilmington, Delaware, that doesn't have regular arts criticism. We have a couple of good writers who cover things the best they can, but they can't cover everything.

One of the responsibilities, as I see it, of critics is not only to say what they thought of something, but also--in the most simplistic terms--to let people know it was there. It's important to build cultural pride, or at least a cultural consciousness. It's hard to create excitement in audiences when they don't even know what's been in town. When I lived in Atlanta, the paper's practice was only to review those things that had several performances, using the logic that if it was only one performance, it wouldn't help to get audiences there because it was already gone. So...you know, Isaac Stern could come and no one would ever know he was there. I think the critic's responsibility is to help excite and build the audience, as well as serve it.

Thanks for doing that.

This letter serves as a valuable reminder of something that working critics often fail to keep in mind: reviews are news. A good critic is also a reporter, and unless he gives his readers a clear idea of what happened at a performance--starting with the fact that it took place--he isn't doing his job.

I also agree with my correspondent about the need to create excitement--or, rather, to communicate it. When a show thrills me, I do my very best to get that fact across to my readers, if at all possible in the first paragraph of my review.

Here's what I sound like when I'm walking on air:

The only time I don't think Brian Friel is the best living playwright is immediately after I've seen a play by Tom Stoppard. That both men should be represented on Broadway this season is a boon, and though Mr. Stoppard's "Coast of Utopia" trilogy, being both new and spectacular, will likely get most of the ink, the Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of "Translations," directed by Garry Hynes, deserves equal time. This production of Mr. Friel's 1980 play, among the greatest written in the 20th century, is so comprehensively masterful that no critic, however enthusiastic, can do more than suggest its manifold virtues. Instead of reviewing it, I wish I could simply send you a ticket....

Was I gushing? Yeah, I guess so--but if a show like that doesn't make you want to gush, even in the sober pages of The Wall Street Journal, you're in the wrong business. Of course the trick is to call your shots: if you blow your top every week, people will stop listening to you. But a critic who isn't capable of communicating his excitement should seek some other line of work.

In the immortal words of Constant Lambert:

After some of the most memorable and breath-taking experiences in my musical life it was indeed shocking to find that the critics next day were damning it with faint pseudo-academic praise, but it was not to me surprising. For the reason that I have, in the past, had to earn my living by that melancholy trade and realise all too well that the average English critic is a don manqué, hopelessly parochial when not exaggeratedly teutonophile, over whose desk must surely hang the motto (presumably in Gothic lettering) Above all no enthusiasm.

I know I have my faults, but that's not one of them.

Posted July 16, 2007 12:00 AM

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