Saturday, April 30, 2011

The case for creative destruction, criticizing the audience, and other thoughts on Larry's thoughts

Should a critic never draw blood?

Earlier this week I posted thoughts from long-time critic and colleague Larry Stark (of the Theater Mirror) on "negative" reviews versus "destructive" reviews. Larry, of course, needs no introduction to the "insider" theatre crowd, but other readers, who don't get invited to opening nights, may be less familiar with him. He has been a fixture on the local scene for some four decades, and keeps up a theatre-going schedule that would make lesser men (or women) pale. He's one of the few local critics, in fact, who leave me in the dust attendance-wise - Larry regularly sees five or sometimes even six shows a week, week after week, month after month, year after year. Larry tries to catch everything from the newest community troupe's debut to the latest extravaganza downtown; there is no greater treasure trove of local theatrical lore or experience.

And he seems to be enthusiastic about all of it, although he rarely writes about his experiences anymore. Larry keeps an amazing amount of theatrical information current on his website, but his reviews are rare; and when he does write, his thoughts are almost always positive. He even signs his posts "Love, Anonymous," a signature which expresses directly one of his central concerns - to never allow his own ego to blind him to the duty to be generous. To Larry, the worst thing a reviewer can do - and he considers it a constant danger, I think - is damage the art form in question by egotistically mis-assessing a performance's true quality (while at the same time crushing the spirit and will of the artist in the process).

Larry's credo might be summed up, then, as something like the Hippocratic oath: "First, do no harm," and he pretty much typifies the nurturer par excellence - the direct antithesis of the John-Simon-style critical judge and executioner. And let me make clear at the outset that there's much to be said for Larry's point of view - probably a good deal more, in fact, than there is to be said for John Simon's, whose history of critical error and prejudice by now jangles after him like a string of battered cans.

Still, of necessity every credo has its gaps and lacunae, and it's pretty easy, in fact, to construct a consistent argument in opposition to Larry's, one that finds its justification in protection of the audience, rather than the artist. Larry, after all (like most critics), never pays to see a show; but the people who read him do. And doesn't the critic have some obligation to be honest with that audience? It seems clear that any critical theory worth its salt has to address the critic's responsibility to his readers as well as to his art form and its practitioners.

There are subtler questions at work in this debate as well, one of which is something like, "Is an art form truly best served by sparing artists' feelings?" It's hard to answer that question with an unqualified "yes," I'm afraid. For if one hopes for something like "truth" from artistic expression - and I admit that I'm one of those who do - how are we to respond to artists who operate in bad faith if we refuse to risk a little judgment? And why should we expect an artist to improve in technique if there's no critical upside in doing so? It's also worth noting, I think, that advances in art are always achieved in consonance with critical judgment - perhaps not always from print critics, it's true, but certainly other kinds of critics, people like gallery owners and collectors, or artistic directors and literary managers - all of whom (at least in part) are critics (albeit silent ones).

A critic at work.
Of course in the passage that I printed from Larry, he offers a way out of this quandary - a way to distinguish "negative" from "destructive" reviews; to Larry, the salient distinguishing feature is whether negative criticism is "explained" or not.

And again, I'd like to say up front that I agree with this premise completely. Negative criticism - actually all criticism - should be "explained." Indeed, I recall when I spoke to a college class a year or two ago about web criticism, I made something like Larry's point myself - "Your 'criticism' hasn't really begun," I told the students, "until you've begun to explain why you felt the way you did."  But there's an analytical problem buried in Larry's argument - can criticism fully be "explained" purely by reference to the performance in question alone?  (For more on that issue, read my response to Doug's comment on the original Larry post.)  I also note in passing a perhaps unconscious logical slip on Larry's part - shouldn't positive criticism be "explained" just as rigorously as negative criticism? For if we're going to be strict about things, many of the compliments that decorate reviews - claims along the lines of "His playing was superb!" - are meaningless "assertions" too, aren't they, and hence technically destructive to the art form as well. But I'm not going to press that point - reviews are often too long already!

And I have to admit that, contrary to what I think is my local reputation, in practice I'm actually in Larry's camp when it comes to performers.  I looked over my theatre reviews so far in 2011 - I've done 30 so far, fewer than in past years, but still a substantial sample.  I greeted the acting in 18 of these productions with high praise; deemed the performances in 12 more a mixed bag; and panned exactly zero.  This is partly because acting (along with design) is one of the aspects of theatre that has held up remarkably well in recent years (and probably even improved locally).  But it's also partly because, I say with a heavy sigh, deep down inside I'm actually a softie.  I know precisely what Larry means about how hard it is for a performer to have to go on stage after a really stinging review, and I admit I try to avoid putting anyone through that unless it's absolutely necessary.

Of course sometimes it is necessary. There is a case for "creative destruction," as long as it's accurate, with or without explanation.  And one might note that when it comes to criticism of authors and directors, things are very different here at the Hub Review; indeed, I often savage authors, directors, and even other critics on a regular basis,  questioning their brains, talent and ethics.  Shockingly, the more powerful the personage in question, the harsher I can be about obvious lapses.  This certainly sets me apart from the rest of my "peers"!  But what really appalls many people about the Hub Review is that I will even criticize minorities.  People of color, women, even other gay men - I criticize, and sometimes even ridicule, them all.  To these folks, for instance, my denouncing Emily Glassberg Sands' famous study on women in theatre as an intellectual fraud was simply beyond the pale - even though I demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that it was one.  But as the famously progressive climber Isaac Butler put it, stating that truth out loud "just looked ugly."

Which leads me to what I think counts as a statement of principle here at the Hub Review - I don't trim my aesthetics to suit my politics, or the politics of my audience.  I'm actually more to "the left" than most of my readers, I imagine, but that doesn't mean I'm going to practice some kind of affirmative critical action.  To my mind, people from all walks of life, all races, and both genders (as well as those in between) are equally capable of creating great art - as they always have; there's no reason to pretend things are different now, and there's no reason to claim a weak show that's "politically correct" is stronger than it actually is.  At the deepest level, this is because politics derive from aesthetics, rather than vice versa; if we attend to, and critique, our art appropriately, the "correct" politics will flow from it as a matter of course.

All this, of course, often puts me in conflict with my audience - and I think ultimately that conflict is really what's moving behind many of Larry's concerns.  But that's an essay for another day; so stay tuned for more critical navel-gazing at the Hub Review over the coming weeks.


  1. Is "ethical criticism" impossible where the critic is employed by the people who rely on theatre advertising for their existence? OK, overstated a bit for brevity but you get the idea.

  2. Well, it certainly complicates things. I think that critics today do still try to carve out an "ethical space" for themselves. But as subscription revenues have fallen for newspapers, inevitably pressure to create "synergy" with advertising sources has grown. I think the situation I'm describing - the compartmentalization of arts coverage into discrete packets of information that diffuse, or even obscure, the overall picture - has been one kind of "solution" to that impasse. In the old days, when newspapers were more flush with cash, you'd see a critic like the Globe's Richard Dyer, consistently criticize a major institution (and advertiser) like the BSO. I hate to say it, but I think that would be impossible now. Perhaps the coming wave of paywalls, like the new one around the Times, will change, or at least ameliorate, that situation.

  3. I have a mixed bag of random comments to add to the discussion. Somewhat out of nowhere, I wondered about the proportion of reviews for one-off performances in the mainstream media. The disconnect between review and box office return (other than over a longer term - which speaks to the need to connect a series of events) might lead to a bias in representation. Secondly, partially in defense of Larry, it is possible that, with the luxury of a glut of performances on which he could write a review he possibly had the option of selecting the one about which he had something positive to say. Finally, I often ponder the reasons why people even read reviews. I conclude that, perhaps, there are as many reasons as there are people. Some will read to learn, some to have their opinions validates, others to find support for their heroes, and a few who simply want to know if a particular show is worth attending. In the final analysis, perhaps the reviewer has only the option to honestly call the event as (s)he sees it and leave it to the reader to decide on the value. I must admit that I spend a significant time considering the whole review process as I am on the review board for an academic journal. As such, I have suffered pangs of conscience when I submitted a less than favourable review.