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September 30, 2007

A question about reviewing

John Stoehr

More than a month ago, we asked this question: What accounts for the minimal role of value-judgments in contemporary reviews? Perhaps it was an unfair question as it suggested a state-of-mind I see in reviewing. That is, a tendency to describe rather than proscribe in our critical assessments. Maybe it's done for personal, practical or ideological reasons. Maybe it's not done at all and it's just my imagination. To my delight, readers recognized this and brought an array of interpretations to the questions to come up with some interesting conclusions. They are worth revisiting and I hope the conversation continues.


Hot air?


Since the first rule of criticism is, "if you're gonna dish it out, you'd better be able to take it," I'd assume that some percentage of reviewers spare the lash and overdo the rehash because they can't stand the backlash.

Or even if they're game for the fray, perhaps their editors are not. But sometimes, given space constraints, rendering and effectively supporting a judgment can be extremely difficult, if not downright foolhardy.

Visual arts critics seem to have it especially hard on that score, having to describe key individual objects and how they fit into the larger show, then deal with matters of interpretation and art-historical context, while also assessing purely visual appeal. Lacking 20+ inches, that's asking a lot, especially for a mixed review that needs to explain pros and cons. Maybe that's why visual arts reviews seem more prone than performing arts reviews to describe and contextualize, without rendering a judgment.

Critics who can be consistently provocative and informative, while communicating their love for an art and avoiding excessive cruelty and arrogance, are among the wonders of the world. I don't think there's any dishonor for those who make an honest try and get it partly right.

But ultimately the point of a review is to make a point, in the form of an opinion. Maybe critics who shy from making judgments just need to be reminded of that and supported a bit, and given a sense that somebody's got their back.


I VALUE "THIS!" Does the artwork have "this"? Does the artwork execute "this" to maximize its intensity and clarity?

Clearly, every critic performs the task above. So what do you mean by value-judgement? Do you mean a set of social values that the critic applies to the artwork even if the artist does not address those values? Or you mean advancing an artistic agenda by selecting works of art that provide the best examples to clarify the artistic agenda and its contribution to art or society?

As the discussion leader, please clarity?

In regards to the classic "value-judgement" thing, it does not happen in the journals that "we" are reading. It is happening everywhere else. The answer to the classic thing is that a certain thoughtful element of world culture wants to be open and free to all concepts and ideas. We love to see where the ideas travel. Restriction by an overlay of exteral values limits the posibilities.

This world culture group is very strong in a variety of museums, publications, universities, etc. If you want to play with this group, then you adopt their values - the value of openness. If not, many other groups with different values exist to join.

In terms of my values, I encourage our best and brightest to join or to form different groups around values. How else can we have a diversity of human experience with the coming global end to traditional geographic diversity? If we don't form more groups, then we may be left only with economic diversity.

Perhaps the better question. What accounts for the fear of critics to declare themselves part of a different group? Are you willing to face the rejection of your city's contemporary art museum and the links to the broader club of that universe? Or do values exists that allow the critic to float in a few groups, including the MOCA of ____________?


In maintaining my blog, Two Coats of Paints, I've read a great many art reviews and noticed a pronounced scarcity of explicit, differential value judgments - i.e., "this is good" or "this is bad." I have developed a couple of ideas as to why this is so.

In practice, the role of the art reviewer depends substantially on the target audience and social context. In smaller communities far from cosmopolitan arts centers, the reviewer is more likely to be a booster than a critic.

In local newspapers and regional general-interest magazines, art reviews often consist of little more than rehashed press releases. With no designated art critic on staff, the arts-writing portfolio is up for grabs. Writers unfamiliar with either art history or contemporary art shy away from making value judgments because their frame of reference is - quite understandably - small.

Since serious art criticism plays an important role in career advancement, however, the artists themselves suffer. A good review from a well-respected critic can establish an artist's reputation. Their art work sells, their prices rise, and better exhibition opportunities present themselves the next time around. Without reasonably sophisticated art criticism, the cycle breaks down, or at least slows considerably.

This dynamic may also keep serious critics from writing negative reviews: if a critic can help make a career, he or she can certainly break one, too. For this reason, critics tend to wait until an artist has reached a certain level of demonstrable professional achievement before they will consider writing about their work.

Eminent critics like the New York Times's Roberta Smith generally examine the artist's work in relationship to the artists' stated goals and past projects, and through the dual lenses of history and contemporary art.

With a multitude of shows open at any given time, and so few art critics to write about them, it makes sense that the best critics want to write about the shows they deem the most accomplished.

Thus, while artists may understand critical silence as a tacitly negative value judgment, the actual content of informed art criticism is predominantly positive. The more entrenched this standard becomes, the smaller the role that explicitly discriminating value judgments will have in reviews.


From my review of Gail Pool's book, Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, which is on book/daddy's blog as well as on the National Book Critics Circle's Critical Mass website:

"It's one of several misconceptions about reviewing that Ms. Pool kicks down: that anyone can do it, for example, or that "objectivity" is always desirable or even expressly sought by periodicals or readers. The "match" between reviewer and book, she believes, is the most important choice an editor makes. If that editor were to winnow out any reviewer who has argued against a book's thesis as well as any reviewer who has championed it, he may be left with no knowledgeable critics at all. Yet aren't reviewers hired, Ms. Pool asks, because they have passionate opinions?

It's in the American tradition to seek "objectivity" in reviewers (meaning "no obvious conflicts of interest") and not in the British tradition, where a smaller pool of writers contributing to far more review outlets encourages political sniping, rousing crossfires and unabashed promotion of one's chums and allies. Witness Christopher Hitchens' merrily unrepentant declaration on a recent BookExpo panel about criticism that he was the best person to write an Atlantic Monthly review of his friend Ian McEwan's new novel, On Chesil Beach and he didn't care who thought otherwise.

The American tradition of objectivity is partly due to the principle of "journalistic balance" developed by The New York Times and other papers, which became the press' calling card to white-collar respectability and professionalism after World War II. In other words, as Ms. Pool notes, it's a journalistic principle, not a literary one. It's also a principle, she doesn't note, that has been buttressed by the post-war tendency toward monopolies in city newspapers. When you're the Big Voice in town, there are pressures from all sides to remain "balanced," although in practice this generally means not accuracy so much as a safe status quo. This monopoly set-up is one reason that I -- and many other readers -- don't mind reviews such as Mr. Hitchens' (and even eagerly seek them out) in a periodical like the Atlantic while in a town's Only Daily, we'd find the same review and Mr. Hitchens' personal ties to his subject a somewhat more irksome issue.

Significantly, "objectivity" in reviews is also an American legal decision that was never laid out in Britain. The James Fenimore Cooper libel cases were a little-known quarrel (Ms. Pool's is the only extensive discussion of them that I've seen -- bravo to her for digging it up) that had the author of The Last of the Mohicans seeking redress against reviews that had stepped beyond literary comment into personal attacks on a property issue. He won, and "fair comment" became an American principle: "The privilege of criticism cannot warrantably be perverted to the purpose of willfully and falsely assailling the moral character of the author."

Fine and noble. But in the end, American editors and reviewers still supposedly seek objectivity -- a kind of above-the-fray neutrality that can suck the life out of a review -- when what we need, Ms. Pool writes, is "fairness": disagreeing with a book but giving the author his due, acknowledging our own biases, not being blinded by them.

Yet it's the blandly positive that prevails. Although Ms. Pool doesn't explicitly mention Heidi Julavits' famous, misguided attack on "snarky" writing, she does make a convincing case that mushy praise is a much more common failing among American reviews, and those journals, like Ms. Julavits' Believer that espouse "positive" reviews out of highmindedness (or squeamishness) are not really doing anyone any favors -- except booksellers and publishers. By default, many newspaper book pages take precisely the same stand -- "no unhappy news" -- for less noble reasons but to much the same cheerleading and book-peddling effect. The editors fear readers won't read many hit jobs. They worry their own bosses will ask, why waste space on worthless books? So then ... why do we report losing baseball games? Why cover failed candidacies?

Magazine reviews aren't much better: I've been told by glossy magazine editors that their business is to provide readers with choices of what to buy. And as for the disappearance of book reviews from men's magazines, I was jokingly informed that they've declined because "knowing about books won't get you laid." Women remain the prime market for most kinds of books, but long gone is Hugh Hefner's air of supposed sophistication, his fantasy of the bachelor "putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion" about Nietzsche. Considering many young males today -- and their magazines -- this looks like some golden-age ideal of literary discourse.

The prevalence of happy reviews holds true even on the Web, regardless of its reputation for being more honest, more personal, more brutal. If one discounts any site powered by political animosities or calculations, it should be plain that the great mass of blogs out there are motivated by the fan's eager dedication, while many substantial Websites are mostly promo vehicles. Google a favorite author's name and see what you get: The slashing attacks will likely number in the low single digits.

A critic can make a stir, can make himself the center of attention with a savage pen. But it's hard to sustain, hard to make a living at it. Americans, Ms. Pool makes clear, really do not abide much negative thinking. Dale Peck has already said he's quit writing his infamous "hatchet jobs," although they were Hallmark Valentines compared to what made Edgar Allan Poe the best known literary critic of his age. He warmed up by calling Longfellow a plagiarist and got ugly and personal from there. But Poe never could get the funding for his own literary journal off the ground -- and his was America's first great age of literary journals. Most publishers, especially in the tight-knit, commercially incestuous world of New York periodicals, will not pay writers to piss off influential people (Ms. Pool provides examples of the eager and unethical backscratching among our writer-reviewers -- what Spy magazine used to label "Logrolling in Our Time")."

Posted by John Stoehr at September 30, 2007 1:32 PM


Interesting question, John, though I'm not sure the premise is correct; is there really less actual *criticism* out there? (But perhaps I only read reviews that have a lot of value-based criticism; I'm not inclined to care about the others.)

I just blogged on this topic last week, almost as a defensive move because I was giving a less than positive review to our only Equity company's season-opening play. (Upon rereading the review, I see that I qualified my objections time and time again. Damn ... although we did just now get a letter from a woman who complains that I didn't "see the same play" as the daily paper reviewer [who called it a "don't miss" while I called it "not a bad night out after the slow first act"], so hey, I guess I didn't qualify them as much as I thought.) Mike Boehm is right about the trauma of taking it as well as dishing it out -- it can be a challenge to deal with people like that letter-writer (though I'm happy to have a letter about theater critcism! Awesome!) as well as friends who think it's my job to be nice and to honor the hard work and creativity of the good people doing the work (not kidding about that feedback).

It's true that I also have to write the previews of the season and the articles about the plays, which means I need access to the theater people, which does make me worry about the negative reviews. But I try to remind myself that, as the reporting book I taught from last term says, just because these people are on my beat doesn't make them my buddies. They're great people, and maybe if I move to the nearby city, I can be friendly with the theater people in this town. But they're not my friends now, and I don't socialize with them (though when I watched Pollock, finally, a few months ago, I thought long and hard about how Clement Greenberg was going to all the cool art parties; it's not like that detracted from his cultural influence ... ).

I started writing criticism as someone who had a lot of practice writing academic papers (art history and history along with the journalism thing) and a weekly column at a different paper. I think when one comes out of grad school life with its surprisingly vicious though academic attacks, one might not feel so bound to be generous. And it's true that in a small town (such as mine) or even in a medium-sized city (such as the one I grew up in), there's a pressure to boost everything. I want the theaters to succeed, sure -- but I want them to succeed because they're good, not because they're run by smart, fun, decent people (it's nice when those two things converge, however).

On to plot summary for books and theater: I have a tendency to leave the plot almost entirely out of my reviews and talk about the historical context of the play/book, the author/playwright's other work, how the actors do, how the play fits into our time, and how the director chose to present the play. If I'm reviewing something like Romeo and Juliet, I am not wasting my paltry word count on plot. This week, I'm reviewing a production of The Pillowman (I'd love to talk with other theater reviewers about how to review this play! Group discussion?), and I'm just not giving any info about the plot beyond that Katurian is in the custody of two detectives. There's so much to say about this play and there's so much analysis I want to write, but I don't want to destroy the surprises for the people who go. Perhaps I'll write a much longer blog about the entire thing.

But I've gotten distracted from the value judgment discussion. I wrote an email to my theater freelancers before the season began saying that they needed less plot, more judgment and more incisive critical thought, or I'd have to toss 'em (not in so many words, but similar). My viz art guy (the calendar editor, who is an artist and has a degree in fine arts) and I (degrees in art history) both feel free to make value judgments about viz art, but I hardly ever review a show I simply don't like unless it's massively overhyped and needs to be taken down a peg.

Finally, I think that if I am honest about when a production is lacking, then others will take me more seriously when I praise something. There's nothing worse than reading a laudatory review, going to the movie/play/musical/concert/art show (or reading the book) and being massively disappointed. What an empty feeling.

I do not want to be the cause of that empty feeling. That's why I make value judgments.

Posted by: Suzi at October 1, 2007 12:04 PM

A serendipitous quote from the "Quote of the Day" atop today's Wisconsin Arts News list: "Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere."--G.K. Chesterton. Debatable, of course, but worth considering.

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at October 1, 2007 1:02 PM