Tuesday, June 24, 2008

More criticism of the critics

At the suggestion of one commenter, I've decided to pull out of the comments on my "You knew this was coming" post the following response to those who wrote in urging a higher ranking for Carolyn Clay (left) of the Boston Phoenix:

Clearly Carolyn Clay has her defenders - and I'm certainly impressed by the poised, complex critical coiffures she's teased up, week in and week out now, for some thirty years. But I have to ask you folks - how would you describe her critical profile? To be a bit more pointed - do you even think she has one, beyond a need to always appear 'tasteful'? This is the problem with Clay - she writes more intelligently, I suppose, than the rest of her sorority, because she imagines the audience for the Phoenix is more educated, but is there an actual critical personality kicking around behind that calm fa├žade? I confess I've no idea what's behind all the camouflage; she often seems to be typing up an elevated gloss on what she perceives as the educated consensus, and little more.

That's okay as far as it goes, I suppose, but I always think the most useful critics are the ones you feel you understand, if only because this allows you to put their raves and pans in some sort of context (as in, "oh they hated that, but they always hate that kind of thing, and I often like it"). And then there's the problem, as I've pointed out before, that when Clay does abandon the crowd, I often find she wanders out onto some weird critical limb that not only do I not understand, but which seems utterly unconnected to the rest of her work. Consider also that after thirty years of doing something, most people become known quantities - that Clay has remained so personally elusive might almost be the result of a strategy, which is a little strange to say the least.

And then there's the problem of a larger legacy, or critical stance, formed over the course of her career - but as far as I know, there's no book, no seminal essay, no nothing from Clay. And don't imagine there's been nothing to talk about: over the last thirty years, for example, the ART arrived in an explosion of challenging hits (Six Characters in Search of an Author, The King Stag) but then staggered and slowly failed. How did America's leading critic [Robert Brustein] go so wrong as an artistic director? There's also the rise and fall of Peter Sellars to consider, the struggle between the city's "real" theatre and its academic one, and I'm sure a half dozen other topics worthy of lengthy consideration. But out of Clay, over three decades, there hasn't been a peep on any of this. I know this sounds cruel, but this gap really represents an abject failure, not just of vision but of nerve.


  1. Hey Thom,

    I just reread the comments. I am not sure who you are addressing.

    Robert pointed out that he admired some of her turns of phrase. And I merely used her as an example of variables in the formula.

    Ian did say that he had grown to depend on her, so I guess that might be who you are addressing.

    But I don't find anybody who was "urging a higher ranking."

  2. As always, I'm talking to everybody, Art. That comment was initially a response to Ian, but I've had a few other emails (as opposed to comments) on Clay, so the upgraded response is for them, too.

  3. No problem.

    You bring up an excellent point about the "feature" aspect. Alternative weeklies in other cities will often publish columns or articles about the rise, fall, collapses of theatre companies. Examine the newcomers or the scenes.

    The Phoenix and the Dig have not quite filled in that way. I was actually quite hopefull when Jenna Scherer came on the scene, that we would see more of this work in the Dig, but it hasn't quite materialized yet.

    Since the Herald never seemed interested too much, it pretty much leaves this type of writing to the Globe.

    Bill Marx would write columns about issues like those you mention.

  4. Well, if you can point out something of Bill Marx's that varies from his standard refrain of "people aren't risking their money as much as I'd like, and everyone should be nastier in their reviews," I'd be very interested to read it. That's pretty much all he's got to say, it's all he's ever said, and it really isn't much. I admit he says it in an erudite way; big deal. And I have to point out that while Clay may have been restrained from spreading her wings by the editors at the Phoenix, Marx has no one clipping his now. Yet he's still warbling the same old sour song, and while he can bring to bear in his writing sophisticated theories that he's read about, an original thinker he definitely is not. Indeed, you could argue that in her hints and asides - which she never follows up - Clay suggests a wider perspective than Marx ever did.

  5. Tom:
    The problem here, really (if it is a problem), is that you're addressing quite a few different things.

    1. John Simon (one of Bill Marx's heroes --obviously) once described a good critic as someone you learned from even if you violently disagreed with him/her. For example: I loved 'Valhalla' and Clay didn't; fine. I felt Valhalla's free-ranging sloppiness of form was the kind of throwback to the kind of wild, 1960's NYC experimental (and often gay) theatre that I totally missed out on; but for those who had some access, however fleeting, to this historical period, it's likely that it didn't hit them in quite the same way it did me.

    2. Most actors are relieved when critics start having a go at each other, because a lot of creative energy gets rerouted; and the critics don't notice our own faults quite so much for a while afterwards. (So there.) But, as the hugely underrated Otis Ferguson pointed out in his return volley to Edmund Wilson (it's hilarious; read it) "The only thing that results when critics start throwing spitballs at each other is a slight rise in circulation." Marx has wasted a lot of time this way, and Richard Schickel's latest --and mostly good-- book about books on film is ruined by his constant moaning ...over how film-book writers don't write as well as he does.

    3. Fun as it is to make cute lil' graphs about how good/effective/deep the critics are, the state of their work (I *hope*) makes such fun just that: reductive. (Yeah, I know you know that.)

    As a parallel, I started thinking of such a graph depicting Boston actors on my way to work, but started laughing as I thought of all the divisions it'd have to go through: veristic/melodramatic; effete/manly (and I'd include both sexes on that one); plays-on-the-words/plays-on-the-pauses (actually, in my quicker-is-better view that would be a good/bad category pure and simple). The end result would be less a graph ... than a pinwheel.

    By the way, I hope number 3 doesn't give you any ideas.

  6. Well, Rob, I'm sure there's a possible argument to be made against describing the local critics, well, critically, but at least so far you haven't made it. As Simon said, a good critic is someone you learn from - only you don't mention anything you've learned from this crowd, and frankly I can't think of anything I've learned from them offhand, either. Are you perhaps pulling my leg? Have you really learned anything from Carolyn Clay, much less Louise Kennedy, Jenna Scherer or Terry Byrne? As for John Simon - what we learn from him is that you can be erudite and smartly acerbic and yet still be a homophobic, sexist hack.

    You also seem to think that I'm just having "fun" by charting their relative weaknesses and minor strengths. But it's actually a sincere attempt to sort them out - I'm not sure why we shouldn't do that; indeed, analysis of the print media is by now a time-honored function of the blogosphere (if it's old enough to have any time-honored functions). So get used to it.

    I think part of your resistance to posts of this sort is that you're so used to incompetent and mediocre criticism that you're almost loyal to it, as one generally becomes loyal at a subconscious level to the status quo. But please don't pretend to yourself that Boston deserves these critics, because the Boston theatre is so, so much better than the critics hanging on it like so many leeches. I'll quote an email I sent to another correspondent on this issue, because I think I kind of nailed something here:

    Of course if all you're looking for is a recommendation for a good place to eat, then Louise Kennedy can do the job. But I'm not interested in just a good meal, I'm interested in cuisine itself. The point is that I believe that art is about more than appetite, even refined appetite, and that there can be a dialogue between an art and its criticism. And it's obvious that Louise Kennedy [and her cohorts] could never provide that dialogue. She just doesn't have the intellectual horsepower. Whenever she tries to write a think piece, it devolves into statements like "I like weird. Good weird." Or "It's good because it's real." This is less reflective than what you would expect from a sensitive high schooler. Indeed, she's only perceptive when she sees that a play (like Wendy Wasserstein's "Third") is not nailing its appropriate target audience - but isn't that really a form of market research, not critique? And if you spoke to Nicky Martin, Robert Woodruff, or even Spiro Veloudos or Rick Lombardo, and then Louise, you'd perceive the gap in the intellectual ante immediately. In fact, almost every major producer and director in this town is smarter - and a better critic - than almost any of the print critics. That's what makes the situation so ludicrous at a meta level.

  7. "Have you really learned anything from Carolyn Clay, much less Louise Kennedy, Jenna Scherer or Terry Byrne?"

    Yes, I have, and so have you, whether you want to admit it or not. In the case of Clay, she often includes information --sometimes arcane, sometimes pertinent-- about the history of the play that I didn't know before. I didn't major in theatre (and neither have most Phoenix readers), and as far as 'learning from critics' is concerned, Clay actually has taught me a few things. Of course, I could learn those things if I went to the theatre and plonked down the admission and read the blurbs in the programmes; but those blurbs don't usually have (very) critical comments about the play/wright in them.

    "As for John Simon - what we learn from him is that you can be erudite and smartly acerbic and yet still be a homophobic, sexist hack."

    Agreed, and if you look at Ned Rorem's interview with Simon (reprinted in his book "Other Entertainment") he corners Simon pretty ruthlessly --despite their friendship-- about Simon's homophobia.

    "I think part of your resistance to posts of this sort is that you're so used to incompetent and mediocre criticism that you're almost loyal to it, as one generally becomes loyal at a subconscious level to the status quo."

    Whatevah. Unfortunately, being an amateur in art, music, and theatre, I've probably done more research/reading into the opinions of artist, musicians, theatre folk, and critics, than most people, and have found that the only thing more useless than one critic's opinion of another, is one composer's/artist's opinion of another (Tchaikovsky about Brahms: "What a talentless bastard"; and Stravinsky's and Wagner's and Degas' and Gaugin's opinions about nearly every other creator under the sun.) So I do, in my own humble, small way, question your questioning my fidelity to the 'baser' writers -- as if I hadn't read Orwell and Kauffmann and Ferguson, and/or couldn't tell the difference -- and bring it 'round to my original point: we NEED MORE CRITICS in Boston, and more viewpoints. Period.

    One last point, or pointette: Shaw pointed out that the state of playwrighting was so bad when he entered into it because --and this is one reason he kept straining to have his plays published, and therefore profitable-- was because one rarely made money at it. The state of criticism is such that one could argue the same.

  8. Well, I'm sure that Clay has occasionally coughed up a factoid or two I didn't already know; if that in your mind justifies her presence in the cultural landscape, fine. It just strikes me as a very low bar.

    Your point about criticism not attracting greater talent because it pays so little is a good one, except for a few complicating factors. First, there's the problem that I'm the freest and liveliest of the bunch precisely because I am not being paid at all. This allows me to think out loud, criticize whomever I want, and in the meantime generate most of the new ideas that the print writers eventually parrot a few weeks (or months) later.

    Then there's the fact that despite the low pay, plenty of smart people vie for the print jobs anyway, and that said jobs are divvied out by editors, not by the readership. I myself didn't appreciate how much editors shadow their writers in the press until my stint at the Globe. Would the local critical scene be better off without Scott Heller at the Globe and Jeffrey Gantz at the Phoenix? Probably yes - certainly Heller keeps the Globe's cultural IQ down to his own level, I know that from experience. He'd change his M.O., of course, if the audience demanded it - and perhaps the audience would demand it, if they were aware that criticism could be interesting and exploratory in its own right. But they'll never do that until they perceive criticism as challenging, competitive, and, well, exciting. And Carolyn Clay will never be exciting, Rob. Never in a million years. Or perhaps I should say another million years.

    Of course I agree with you that we need more, not fewer, critics in Boston. But I definitely disagree with you that critics shouldn't argue and fight in public. It's hardly worthless - unless you feel that our discussion right now is worthless, which I think would be hard to justify; haven't we already considered several issues which have literally never been brought up in print in Boston?

    I also feel - although perhaps I'm wrong - a resistance from you about my contention that Boston theatre is far stronger intellectually and artistically than its critics are. Yet that seems truer to me every day, and I feel more and more that it's holding our theatre back. If you love theatre, you should not be satisfied with what passes for criticism around here. Because we'll never be a major theatre town until we have better critics.

  9. "I definitely disagree with you that critics shouldn't argue and fight in public. It's hardly worthless - unless you feel that our discussion right now is worthless, which I think would be hard to justify; haven't we already considered several issues which have literally never been brought up in print in Boston?"

    I rather doubt that -- I seem to remember a few diatribes of this sort in the Weekly Dig as it once was, long ago. Also, I said it was useless, not worthless. It's Worth Something to both of us in part because to you it's a not-bad argument for raising levels of some aspects of criticism (while ignoring other aspects of it, by the way); for me I'm just parading around what little shards of arcane knowledge I can dimly remember. Which I enjoy, though I probably shouldn't.

    But it's ..."use"?! To be honest --and even your best friends won't tell you this: the general public looks on squabbling critics with the same mild interest it displays when it sees some poor soul trying to seperate a pair of rabid dogs. (We'll leave the aesthetic similarities aside for the moment.)

    Bill Marx ranted about other [[Fill in some polysyllabic, abusive term from the thesaurus]] critics. Most of us would read it and secretly think --"Huh: slow news day."

    George Jean Nathan and B.H. Haggin's rants about their contemporaries can still be looked up in some very neglected, dusty books. I've mentioned on these pages before about the musicologist/critic Richard Taruskin, whose ravings about the 'pygmies' in his profession are a --really quite successful-- bid for attention. And Norman Lebrecht has a made a career for himself at the London Times for his 'brave' stands against his 'comtempible contemporaries,' which hide so many simple mistakes in his columns that the Viola Listserv has made a list of all the things he gets wrong in his columns each week.

    And save for Marx, none of these guys (hey! they're all guys!) are/were in Boston.

    We all have our hobbyhorses: mine --which you can shoot holes in, feel free-- is that arts organizations in Boston aren't very good about pooling their talent -- hell, they don't even pool their info: I recently met someone from the Handel & Haydn society at a party, and when I mentioned a Certain Theatre Company, she mused, "I didn't know Boston still HAD speakeasies." She wasn't pulling my leg, either.

    One reason I turn to your blog (and Matt Guerrieri and Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, and Marc Geelhoed in Chicago, and some others) is that you all have some understanding that the arts are inter-related. To people who are trying to find an 'in' to Boston culture this is vastly more important.

  10. I'll have to take a bit more time to reply, but I did want to note, Rob, that Ms. Clay, with impeccable timing, has obliged my side of this little debate with her current review of Look Back in Anger and What the Butler Saw. Incredibly, she sums up her "analysis" of Orton's masterpiece with the observation that "I’m just not sure What the Butler Saw is still worth seeing." Yes, Carolyn, and we're just not sure you're still worth reading.

  11. Okay, here goes nothing. Rob, you write that you feel that our discussion is "useless" - which only makes me wonder why you're continuing it! But I'll slog on a bit further. I feel that you're confusing the public's lack of interest in debates like this with their actual worth (or their actual effect on said public, behind the scenes). No, the general public isn't interested in "squabbling critics" - but the two or three hundred people who regularly read this blog probably are interested, as long as we're squabbling over actual intellectual material, and they're the people who matter. Also, just to be accurate, we're not "squabbling" - my targets don't respond (not because they're "above" responding - didn't Terry Byrne essentially shoot that one down? - but because they're afraid to, and also because they're all too aware themselves of the weakness of their product).

    So this is a one-way critique, and it's done not to merely slap around some okay journalists with limited analytical skills, but also to keep alive the idea of what criticism could be, what it should be. It's to keep reminding people that what they read in print is essentially restaurant reviewing - fine if you just want a good dinner once in a while, not so fine if you have an interest in cuisine itself. Note that over the course of the past quarter century, there's been no serious article written by anyone in the print media about what the actual mandate of a regional theatre sponsored by a major university should be. Zero. Zip. Even though we have two such institutions in town, gobbling down literally millions of public dollars. To judge between them, to assess the weaknesses and strengths of their opposed visions - this is criticism. To ponder the real worth of building a $500 million temple to a second-rate collection of modern art - this is criticism. To assess whether public money should be siphoned to an institution which has lost all its high-culture tenants - this is criticism. To thoroughly analyze the claims of opposed pieces of political art - this is criticism. To suggest possible solutions to our barren new public spaces downtown - this is criticism. And we don't have it, and never have. I don't care how much personal affection people may feel for this or that print critic - they have failed the city, and failed it utterly. Indeed, they literally shie away from criticism whenever and wherever they can. And while the critics aren't talking, trust me, the money in this town always is. What we have is a culture run by vice presidents and associate deans. And sorry, but I'm going to keep pointing that out. I understand your weary cynicism, but I don't yet share it.

  12. Tom:
    Well, that's much more lucid than cheap shots at Ms. C; but your argument seems centered more on the cowardly nature of our editors--which, yes, you've pointed out, and done it well-- than on Boston's critics. (I co-founded & edited my college paper and was nearly thrown out of school for it, and was once offered a classical music critic post at the Providence Journal: thus my particular interest in this dichot ...um, perhaps I should call it a trichotomy.)

    Personally, I don't expect critics to be 'braver' than actors, who have our faults pointed out to us to the tune of 50,000 copies. Sometimes it's sheer mule-headedness that keeps actors going anyway; and cometimes 'bravery' is just Vanity with a Boilerplate.

    I still feel that 'restaurant reviewing,' as you dismissively term it, is necessary to keep a culture, particularly in this media-deprived town, going; the biggest crisis for people who work in theatre was when the Tab was bought by the Herald and those individual papers pretty much stopped reviewing the 'out-of-town' (Jacksonport ... Wellesley??!!) theatre. My point, which perhaps I've not made suffiently, is that the (very real) problems you describe are not an 'INSTEAD OF'; they are an 'ALSO.' The critics you want to get rid of will only be replaced by critics of the same stripe (and worse writers, probably) ... and that's because the venue will be the same, the same people will be pressing for less theatre coverage, because the same advertising men on the same papers will be yelling, "I can't squeeze the Lyric or the New Rep to spend more money on advertising, so Let's increase the rock coverage. Yeah, I know nobody reads it, but what the hell." (Gee whiz, that sounds an awfully lot like cynicism; but do you expect me to believe that theatre critics, to a wo/man, don't fight like tigers to keep what space they have to write about what they love?)

    I'm going to sign off on a totally irrelevant note, Because I Can. The following is from P.G. Wodehouse's 1959 "America, I Like You."

    "Some people (who ought to blush for themselves) say that the reason for the tidal wave of positive book reviews is the fact that reviewers today are all novelists themselves, and this tempers their acerbity. Old Bill, they argue, is not going to jump on Old Joe's 'Sundered Souls' when he knows that his own 'Through A Mist Darkly' is coming out next week and that Joe also does a book column.

    "This, of course, is not so. (...) No, the whole trouble is that critics today are all clean-shaven. Whether [the old, 1910 critics] were bitter because they had beards or grew beards because they were bitter is beside the point. The fact remains that all the great, historic literary rows you read about were between men who looked like English sheep dogs. They used to get into fights in clubs and roll around on the floor, clawing at each other's beards, thereby increasing the gaiety of nations somewhat.

    "You only have to look about you to appreciate the truth of this. All whiskered things are testy and short-tempered -- pumas, wildcats, the late Karl Marx ..."


    He got the 'Marx' part right.

    So, what's next for us, Tom? Bar Fight? I'm only five-eight...

  13. "To ponder the real worth of building a $500 million temple to a second-rate collection of modern art - this is criticism."

    Reading again what you've written, I agree with almost everything you've said, and should clarify one thing. I may simply be incapable of understanding it completely, simply because, to take the example above, I have a BFA from RISD, and have been painting in oils for over thirty years; and I'm no closer to knowing what is and what isn't 'Good Art.' (I do try; it's supposedly my field.) Whatever my view is, it isn't "weary cynicism"; perhaps 'dialectical confusion' would be nearer the mark.

    I also have been looking, for just about the same length of time, for an (unsmug) art critic I can read with the same interest I have for music and theatre criticism. Suggestions?