Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ok, everybody's a critic - only Michael Kaiser is a really bad one! (And you can be a better one.)

Sorry, I know it's wrong to make fun of people with mental challenges, but I can't resist the temptation to pile onto Michael Kaiser (who is, I can barely believe, a graduate of my own alma mater, MIT!), after he has been all but buried under a heap of ridicule for this truly block-headed cri de coeur on the Huffington Post. In that by-now-infamous whine, Kaiser lamented the demise of the professional critic, and found the rise of reviewing on the Internet "a scary trend."  (Included in that trend were not only bloggers like moi, but also frequenters of chat rooms, people who write for "professional" websites like Broadway World, and even folks who praise or diss shows they've seen on the producing theatres' own websites.)  In essence, Kaiser worried that without paid critics offering the public guidance, "art that appeals to the lowest common denominator will always be deemed the best."

And you know, at first glance, that sounds like an argument, I suppose.  But only at first glance.  The fact that it has been posted on a website that does not pay its authors should, I think, be the first amusing signal that all's not right with Kaiser's analysis.  (For in effect, he's arguing against his own forum, isn't he?)  And then one has to wonder - exactly what Golden Age of Professional Criticism is he referring to?  There has never been a moment (in my lifetime, at least) in which print critics in Boston were leading any kind of intellectual charge for any kind of theatre - much less proffering complex arguments of any real artistic discernment.  In New York - yes, a bit; but honestly only from a handful of people, who were wrong almost as often as they were right.  I suppose there were a few glimmers of critical ability in Chicago and on the West Coast over the years; and I know some folks cling to Theatre of Revolt as an example of engaged criticism - although to me, Robert Brustein's own checkered theatrical career kind of undermines that argument; but hey, I'll throw his fans a bone - one book, fifty years ago.   And Frank Rich was a smart guy with a sharp, upper-middle-brow eye.  But all in all, I'm inclined to say:

Big fucking deal.

And I can't help but note the underside of Kaiser's wistfulness.  He's the president of the Kennedy Center, of course - a major producer of the arts - and one thing he's not honest enough to admit is that professional print critics are in many ways much more easily controlled by producers than Internet critics are.  [As I've been both a print critic and an Internet critic, I'm in a good position to critique Kaiser's argument - and I'll say up front, writing for the Internet is far more intellectually satisfying than writing for print.] I know for a fact, for instance, that during my stint at the Globe, a major theatre in these parts went to my editor and demanded that I never be allowed to review their productions (based on my rather acerbic style, I suppose).  Just in case you're wondering, the editor reportedly acquiesced to the demand.  And let's just say that would never happen on the Internet - after a blog has established its audience, I should say; until then, some bloggers do find themselves cutting ethical corners for the sake of free tickets.

Which may be what gives some producers the idea they can run the rest of the Web with the same iron hand they apply to print outlets.  I've just faced down a years-long attempt, for instance, by the A.R.T. to silence me  - which I'm not pretending wasn't a pitched battle; I had to rely on my own earned reputation for content, as well as the respect and support of other Internet critics, to hold my own. But the point is that said battle never would have even happened at the Globe.  Things would have never gotten to the bare-knuckles stage; it would have been handled behind the scenes.  With advertising dollars, as well as various business, political, and personal relationships in the balance, no critic who savaged the A.R.T. as relentlessly as I have would ever have lasted at the Globe.

Let's look at a related claim by Kaiser; he coos that professional critics are "vetted by their employers."  To which I can only say - oh, really?  Don Aucoin, the Globe's chief critic, was simply rotated in from the city desk, I believe.  And wasn't Ed Siegel, his predecessor, a television critic?  And who the hell was Terry Byrne, anyway, before the Herald hired her?  And isn't Jenna Scherer (admittedly the brightest of this crew) only about 16?  I hate to tell ya, Mike, but it's hard to parse an intellectual standard from this motley field.  Even looking to New York, I don't find the "vetting" too edifying - Charles Isherwood used to gush about porn stars when he wasn't reviewing for Variety, and didn't Ben Brantley write for Women's Wear Daily?  Whew - almost too lofty, huh.

But of course in a way these critics are vetted; they are judged by how closely their taste matches that of their paper's audience, and perhaps more importantly, how accurately they can assess the power structure within which a theatrical production has been mounted.  Questions of artistic judgment are incidental to these concerns.  In Boston, for example, we're faced by an obvious contradiction between theatrical achievement and social prominence: Harvard, the leading institution in the area on practically every level, regularly produces burlesque and titty shows on its stages - that is when the world's greatest university isn't aggressively dumbing down the classics into rock extravaganzas and the like.  To be blunt, Harvard is the top of the social heap, but the bottom of the artistic heap: in fact it proudly produces art that appeals to (in Kaiser's words) the lowest common denominator.  No real theatre critic could ever square that particular circle.  Hence - Don Aucoin and Terry Byrne.

So it's obvious where Kaiser's model of criticism can lead.  But is his nostalgic dream the only model for substantive criticism?  Do we have to look backward for a vision of great criticism?  The evidence argues otherwise. Kaiser actually doesn't seem particularly conversant with the state of discourse on the Internet, or the passionate debates that have often been waged on various sites over various works of art.  He doesn't note that analyses are often published on the Web that are far longer than those ever allowed into newsprint - even in the heyday of the Times.  (I myself have published three-part articles on some theatrical events, and a 3,000-word review is not unusual on this site.)   In short, he doesn't grapple with the sheer abundance of commentary on the Web, and he doesn't attempt to divide the digital wheat from the chaff.  Indeed, he even admits that it's difficult "to distinguish the professional critic from the amateur as one reads on-line reviews and critiques"!

Only - whoa, Mike - doesn't that actually undo your entire argument?

Okay, like I said, it's not fair to make fun! But it's completely fair to argue that the real problem with Internet reviewing is that it's still too much like print reviewing.  Indeed, bloggers often ape the emasculated tea-room tone of the print crowd in some pathetic attempt to be "taken seriously," and people often foolishly declare that I don't follow the "standards" of print criticism - to which I can only say, honey, that's the whole idea!  I can write as much as I want to about what I want to; I can draw connections between art forms that no print outlet would allow; I can indulge in extended conversations with other critics and artists; and of course, I can hammer away at various miscreants as long as I have the strength.  In short, I can tailor my criticism to what I believe are the needs of the moment; I'm not shackled by my paycheck, or any inability to reach the public.  These advantages may shock Michael Kaiser, of course, because they amount to a sustained assault on what he imagines are his own prerogatives - and the prerogatives of his class - over criticism.  But there's the rub, Mike - you're no longer in charge.

I know, I know, standards aren't what they used to be, and sometimes it all looks like a race to the bottom (with newspapers leading the way!) and blah blah fucking blah.  Only the standards were never real, buddy, and you were always being flattered beyond your actual critical ability, and only now do we perhaps  have a chance to re-make theatre criticism into what it always should have been all along. In fact, if you look closely, you'll find criticism on the Web that is as good or better than anything you'll find in print.  Yes, it's too bad we aren't paid for it - and probably never will be.  But if the pay became a reality, without the meddling editors, would you still feel the same way? And frankly, if money is the reason you're in the game, maybe you need to find another game . . .


  1. Thomas,

    As always, well done. A great read. -twl

  2. Michael Kaiser and Howard Sherman lately have pretty much blamed everyone for the supposed decline of the theatre - the artists, audience, the bloggers - except themselves. Sherman's rant a few months ago was laughable; he chided the working and middle classes for being ignorant of their cultural obligation to shell out $120 or so per ticket (in an economic crisis, no less) for symphony, opera, ballet and theatre, and chided the educational system for failing to instill this cultural imperative to prise open their wallets in their students. "I don't get it," he seems to say, "the kids today will pay $100 for a sporting event or a rock concert, but don't they realize how much BETTER the opera is for them?"