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Biting Back At Toothless Critics

By Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan

Artists almost never publicly criticize critics anymore. “Beware of arguing with someone with a printing press at his disposal.”

But earlier this month, a letter went up on Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra website in which NSO music director Leonard Slatkin attacked Washington Post music critic Philip Kennicott, calling him “irresponsible” and “insinuating he had concocted a quote.” The Post quickly cleared Kennicott of the false quote charge. But Slatkin had evidently been riled for some time [Washingtonian] about Kennicott’s writing and finally took the extraordinary step of posting the public letter.    

Since it’s unlikely that Kennicott’s reviews of Slatkin or the National were going to get any worse, what did the conductor have to lose?

Perhaps a better question though is why don’t artist/critic disputes become public more often? Is it because the critics are so fearsome?

Last summer there was a little flurry of actors speaking out against critics – Donald Sutherland wrote a piece in The Times of London [The Times], lacerating critics and attempting to put them in their place: "The responsibility of the theatre reviewer is to the theatre audience,” he wrote. “To report how they responded to the play, to reflect the audience's reaction." But audience monitoring is not criticism but polling.

About the same time, actor Kelsey Grammer, who had been critically drubbed for his production of “Macbeth” on Broadway, took a few licks at critics [The Guardian] as the show was closing, then departed, warning: "I'm not going to moan about it. I'll cram something else down their throats in another couple of years."

But film critics can rarely slow a movie, and few seem even to try.  A year ago, Variety polled four dozen prominent filmmakers to see what they thought of critics [The Guardian]. It wasn't a happy report. Most lamented a decline in review standards, saying many critics had turned into little more than "blurbmeisters."

Then of course, there was the recent dustup between writer Dave Eggers and New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick in which Eggers objected to Kirkpatrick’s snide tone and claimed Kirkpatrick’s piece on him [NY Times] was filled with errors and comments that were supposed to be off the record. To take his case public (and exact revenge), Eggers published the e-mail correspondence [McSweeney’s] between the two on his website.

But for the most part, if artists generally leave critics alone, it is not because they fear them. In the entertainment industry, intimidation is a much more persuasive tool. Critics who write about movies or pop stars need access to be able to do their jobs. Movie studios and star handlers know that the threat of cutting off access is a formidable weapon [Columbia Journalism Review]. Thus the level of tepid reporting about the entertainment industry, where what passes for reporting [LA Times] is dutifully recording box office grosses and TV ratings that have very little to do with anything.

Even in movie reviewing, where access to the talent might seem to matter little to the reviewer, it may matter to the reviewer’s employer.  However the intimidation works, the result is that so many “reviewers” are willing to pump out blurbs for even the sorriest effort that the critical value of movie reviews has declined. For movies, at least, it doesn’t seem to matter [*spark-online] who authored a blurb as long as it’s enthusiastic, and on any number of internet sites, [RottenTomatoes.com] there are those willing to rise to the occasion.

In less blatantly commercial arenas, there are still plenty of critics willing to take on art they don’t like. But gone are the days when a bad theater review in the New York Times could close a show. In New York, no drama critic really has that power anymore.

More and more one has the feeling that reviews – while they matter intensely to artists when they’re trying to get a grant or trying to talk a producer into booking them – have little impact on larger public perceptions. 

London Telegraph music critic Norman Lebrecht suggests that one reason is that criticism has been defanged by the PC police [Culturekiosque], and that the politically correct lobby has “cordoned off large areas of the lively arts from critical observation.” If one can’t make criticism a matter of quality, he writes, then why bother at all? “What earthly point is there in attempting to describe or criticise art in any terms except nice and not-nice?”

Kennicott, in Slatkin’s view, surely falls into the “not-nice” category. The broader question is whether the Slatkin/Kennicott exchange, far from marking a decline in criticism, is not, in fact, a fleeting reminder of the days when criticism still mattered.


Last December two New York museums put up shows devoted to the art of criticism, and at least one visitor was “bowled over by the short-sightedness, contemptuousness and just just plain orneriness [Chicago Tribune] on display.” These weren’t no-namers either – John Ruskin was there with his polemics against Whistler and Michelangelo.

Still, critics like Ruskin set agendas for the artforms about which they wrote, and the power of their words helped shape the directions that art took. They were read by artists and those with power in the art world, and they had influence.

But their biggest influence wasn’t in making or breaking specific careers or plays or exhibitions. They had a sense of aesthetic mission that had little to do with the kind of consumerist service that many of today’s reviews have become. The thumbs up/down approach focuses more on report-carding reportage than it does on trying to connect lines and setting context.

Setting contexts and agendas has had something of a bad name. Popular wisdom now has it, for example, that classical music’s hard turn in the direction of the thorny serialists of the 20th Century was a result of misguided agenda-setting that resulted in serious disconnects between music and its audience.  But artists of longer memory find themselves nostalgic for the maligned agenda-setters when they consider what now passes for criticism.

These days, arts writing in many cities consists of little more than a reporting service. The show is the news hook rather than the true subject.  The “real” news is personality news, news about the stars as celebrities. Where once new or difficult artists might gain traction with the help of critics who could help build context and create regional art movements, such coalescing around an idea is now more difficult. It’s not that such stylistic movements don’t happen anymore, it’s that critics have largely ceased to be players in the process

Reporter Michael Lewis recently argued [NY Times] that the same phenomenon has hit the investment world. Where once financial analysts were imbued with a sober code of behavior and status designed to inspire confidence in the investor, the internet has changed all that.

As information formerly available only to experts has become widely disseminated over the net, investors took control over their own investment decisions. In the looser new investment world, joe739 posting a stock tip on Yahoo! has a voice at the same table as the big-time Merrill Lynch broker. Why should the investor trust the broker’s agenda (which he may or not understand) any more than joe739’s?

Why should readers trust a critic any more than they do the other general word-of-mouth they encounter? The answer is that they shouldn’t, if it’s simply a matter of thumbs up/down. The deeper answer is that the big-time broker, like the serious critic, likely has a better shot at considering the broader picture and locating an aesthetic judgment within that picture.  Investment strategy is different from the hot tip.  Agenda-setting criticism is different from thumbs up/down.

If critics have largely lost that ability to set agendas, perhaps it is because, at least in part, they have given it away. What would it take for them to reclaim it?

Additional Reading:  Our Critics archives

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