Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Debra Cash replies . . .

I received the following e-mail from Debra Cash (at left), in response to my "The future will not be monetized" posting of two days ago:

Hi Tom, Debra Cash here.

Although I appreciate the neologism “criticist” for a role that does, indeed, cross boundaries between traditional criticism and promotion, when I do program notes and preconcert talks for World Music/CRASHarts, Jacob's Pillow or, this coming summer, Bates College where I'll be a scholar in residence (teaching a class in addition to my presentation duties) I do not think I'm acting as a critic. And nor do my employers.

I am acting as a contextualizer (another neologism, perhaps). My work is akin to those one-phone-call previews I often wrote for the Boston Globe. My goal is to create comfort and awareness of aspects of the work that are especially worth paying attention to, and some sense of where the work came from, historically and aesthetically. This is no different than “wall labels” put up in museums. You can’t tell me that museum visitors believe those labels are completely dispassionate; they are clearly a product of the institution. But that doesn’t make them illegitimate. And of course, those who want their experience unfiltered by such scholarly or marketing "cues" can avoid them.

I love doing this kind of work. Audiences seem to relish the opportunity to hear this information and ask questions afterwards. Hey, I like to hear such lectures. I go to the BSO to hear scholarly lectures about artists like, say, Sibelius, who are hardly new to most concertgoers but about whom I can still pick up some illuminating information.

I still do write criticism per se, including for the Phoenix, Ballet Review and, a site in Jerusalem, (see where my own strong, and often oppositional, opinions are made clear.

It's all about wearing more than one hat, and when have most of the people committed to contributing their talents to the arts community been allowed to wear only one?

My reply to Ms. Cash is as follows:

First, Debra, let me say I've always been an admirer of your writing; I think you know that. After all, as I'm sure you recall, I once invited you to post on The Hub Review (an offer I can't recall making to anyone else, offhand). You declined, as I remember it, because I couldn't offer any pay.

And the problem I was discussing is right there. You were trying "very hard" to be paid for your work, you wrote - which I completely understand! - and that apparently meant becoming, if you'll pardon my neologism once again, a "criticist" (or, as you prefer, a "contextualizer"). I'm sure that role can be rewarding; I'm sure people learn a great deal about dance from you and enjoy hearing what you have to say. And I'm sorry if I gave the impression in my earlier post that I felt you were intentionally pretending to be something you're not on your blog. I can see how you could have read it that way, but that wasn't my intent.

My real point was the one you make yourself: your new role is not that of a critic. It's true you still write outside your World Music/Crash Arts blog, in the forums you cite - but I wonder, are you able there to discuss critically the dance work that you're also blogging about? Perhaps, but somehow I doubt it. And indeed, the greater success World Music/Crash Arts has, it seems the more acts it will be managing and promoting, and so the fewer dance groups you'll be able to write about with "strong, oppositional opinions." Isn't that correct? It seems to me it has to be. And of course criticism is bound up in comparison; it's not merely self-contained analysis.

So in the end I question whether you can be a "criticist" for certain dance troupes, and then truly assume the role of an unfettered critic somewhere else. You can write critically elsewhere within constraints, it's true, and that can be valuable. But it's important to remember those constraints are always there. And as your situation is replicated all over the Web, similar constraints will form their own web across and around the criticism available to the public. To me, that remains troubling, and slightly more troubling than the more common problem (which I've had to deal with myself) of being a sometime practitioner of an art as well as one of its critics. Because I worked at one time with a particular theatre company, for instance, which led to a very public falling-out with its artistic director, I feel I can't really review his work; negative reviews could always be construed as personally biased (and indeed they might be!). That puts a limit on my own criticism. Not a tight or important limit, I think. But still one that should be owned up to, and considered thoughtfully (and of course disclosed in any future reviews, if they should ever occur). The difference, of course, is that I wasn't paid by that group, nor am I involved in promoting a growing roster of theater companies.

And then there's the larger, admittedly "softer," question, of just how criticism begins to be seen in the public mind. I have to say I notice again and again a wide-spread acceptance of commercial speech as "free speech." Indeed, an insistence on a conceptual separation between the two is often met with an irritated response, as if such a confusion could only be made by the naïve (which of course begs the question, why not make it anyway?). And as publicity becomes more sophisticated, and becomes penned by critics as talented as you are, I worry about it slowly encroaching on whatever territory is left to actual "criticism." Indeed, the replacement of critics by "criticists" seems to me a possibility - at least when it comes to paying gigs. And the paying gigs, promoted by producers, and even perhaps by other bloggers hoping to land a paying gig themselves, could someday begin to crowd out the rest of us.


  1. Yes, I've decided to open the comments function on the blog again, at Debra Cash's request. But I warn you, I'll shut it down in a minute if things get out of hand!

  2. Debra also sent me the following comment, which I felt was worth posting. - TG

    This conversation is fascinating. As a Boston - based choreographer, recently relocated from NYC, I have been generally annoyed with pre-concert 'talks' about work that is about to be seen. I am a lover of art criticism, indeed as an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design in the mid-90's (a compatriot of Shephard Fairey's -- and I don't like his work much either) my education as a painter was equally framed by training in art history and criticism as it was in the studio disciplines. However as an artist, I have always wanted to first experience work phenomenologically before I am told what to think, or even to have a contextualization offered to me. In my mind, each work of art is temporal, aesthetic phenomenon, and audiences must be allowed the opportunity to first experience them as such, before linguistic and other ordering principles are brought in to deepen the experience on other levels. If this makes audiences uncomfortable (without a way to locate meaning) temporarily, so the better in my mind. There is time enough for explications. Our pre-verbal experiences are so few and far-between.

    Currently, I earn a living as a clinical researcher and am a former professional science writer. This is an odd career turn to have taken at this point in my life, but one that has provided me with a valuable perspective on the legal concept of 'conflict of interest.' Many examples abound in the modern world, but as you point out in your blog: And then there's the larger, admittedly "softer," question, of just how criticism begins to be seen in the public mind. I have to say I notice again and again a wide-spread acceptance of commercial speech as "free speech." In my line of work, I have often critiqued the practice of using rhetoric developed by pharmaceutical companies embedded within descriptions of illnesses and processes of treatment. This is de rigueur, these days in doctor's offices, as well as in well-read publications. And while comparing these practices to the Debra Cash's practice of a dual-role may seem far-fetched, there are kernels of similarity. If I don't like having artwork explicated for me in the first place, I certainly don't want it explicated by someone who plays a role as producer as well. There is something ferocious and appealing about a critic who is standing apart from work in a way. This other context seems middling to me, less interesting, more suspect.

    Finally, to earn money as a critic, criticist, writer/journalist etc…well all that hype about the web being the new horizon of opportunity on that front has been largely invalidated as you point out. I recently looked at my bookshelf and realized (with a kind of horror) that I had not purchased a new book in over 6 months. As an avid collector, I felt somewhat ashamed until I realized that I consume massive amounts of information, and in an entirely different manner than I had in the past. I don't print this information out, as all of the exchanges involved, the interactions that make this new form of communication and learning possible, are not reproduce-able or save-able in my mind. I concur with your general sentiment that criticism can still be a pure art on its own, but not necessarily for money.

    - Ellen Godena