BITING BACK AT TOOTHLESS CRITICS
Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan
almost never publicly criticize critics anymore. “Beware of
arguing with someone with a printing press at his disposal.”
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
it’s unlikely that Kennicott’s reviews of Slatkin or the National
were going to get any worse, what did the conductor have to
a better question though is why don’t artist/critic disputes
become public more often? Is it because the critics are so
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.
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."
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),
the e-mail correspondence [McSweeney’s] between
the two on his website.
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,
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.
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
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.
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?”
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.
CRITICS EVER SET ARTISTIC AGENDAS?
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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?
opinions, reactions, suggestions?
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