Monday, April 29, 2013

Critical corruption in two keys (Part I)

The temptations of Anton Ego . . .

A few eyebrows around town rose (slightly) in reaction to a recent whine from Bill Marx on his website The Arts Fuse.  In an April 22 post titled "Why is Boston's Arts Coverage So Bland?" the self-professed persona non grata opined that:

Marx went on:

You will rummage long and hard on WGBH and WBUR (broadcast or online) to find a critical word amid the depressing line-up of puffy interviews, rewritten publicity releases, and earnest proclamations of “stunning seasons.”

In contrast, Marx announced, his Arts Fuse 'scribes' were "passionately encouraged to be wrong-headed, hysterical, opinionated, stubborn, ecstatic, and pretentious, but never, ever uncompromisingly insipid."

But of course this is Bill Marx talking, so the call to arms inevitably modulated into panhandling:

For those who believe that arts and culture deserves trustworthy and thoughtful criticism and reporting, there is an alternative—The Arts Fuse. Please contribute to our first-ever advertising campaign, via the tops of Boston cabs, to support our mission by getting the word out about our reviews and coverage.

Okay, now maybe that's a fair sales pitch.  You give me your money, I'll give you "trustworthy and thoughtful criticism."  Or, in a nutshell - "I'm Bill, trust me."

But (surprise, surprise), if you actually check out the theatre reviews in the Arts Fuse, you find they're stuffed to the gills with pull quotes like: "Searing . . . rich and layered . . . shocking relevance . . . small missteps but delightful . . . absolutely worthwhile seeing."  In short, the usual middlebrow marketing lubricants; indeed, if you charted the most recent Arts Fuse reviews on a graph (I won't bore you with another Excel spreadsheet), you'd find mostly raves or near-raves, with even the most critical review doing a 180 at the last minute to announce that the play in question is "absolutely worthwhile seeing" - despite, apparently, an earlier laundry list of caveats.  (The music pieces are even more monotonous; of the five most recent reviews, all were raves.)

So I'm not sure what kind of snake oil Marx thinks he's selling. I don't disagree with his critique of the likes of the Globe or WGBH and WBUR - they are indeed too full of puffery and PR (WGBH in particular). The part I don't get is how he imagines he's any better than they are.  It's true that he personally has always been a bit brighter than the average bear at the Globe or Phoenix. And as my friend and fellow blogger Art Hennessey sometimes reminds me, we both do check out a review on the Arts Fuse if it's by Marx himself; he always provides an emotionally pinched but intellectually informed take on the piece in question.

Well, I should say literarily informed. Marx has always been an insightful book reviewer, and he's obviously very well-read; the idea that this qualifies him to opine on the performing arts is a kind of quaint prejudice that he has never really outgrown simply because it would be inconvenient to do so. Beyond that, there's the problem that he's hardly original (in six years I've sketched out more fresh ideas than he has in thirty), and reliably throws softballs to Harvard, and has little to offer beyond boilerplate about "critical standards" and "thoughtfulness." But he does have something of a voice, and he obviously is desperate to be confused with Edmund Wilson - and this ambition gets him somewhere on the page.  

The problem is that Marx rarely writes for his own site. Instead, he publishes people who happily write for the likes of the Globe, WGBH and WBUR (those dens of PR and puffery!) whenever they get a chance, and whose Fuse work is only marginally subtler than their output elsewhere. Marx does pick up the occasional worthy piece by blogger (and, full disclosure, friend of the Hub Review) Ian Thal, but generally when he showcases an untried talent, it's soon embarrassingly apparent that the writer is a critical naïf, and groping for credibility, much less a plausible perspective.

And whatever you want to say about the Globe these days, it has reached a high plateau in terms of pure style - it's probably better written now than it has ever been (or at least better than it has been for the past thirty years - when Marx himself appeared in its pages). People like Sebastian Smee write so superbly, in fact, that it hardly seems to matter that they have nothing to say - they say so very little so very, very well, you hardly care!  Meanwhile Marx has yet to discover even a single new stylist, and seems unable to develop one.

So editing is hard, and grooming a critical voice even harder.  Which may be why Marx seems to be trying to fool potential donors with a variant of the old bait-and-switch; he's basically branding his site with his own reputation, when it's actually stuffed with weaker writers, and their weaker writing. In effect, he promises that if you donate to the Arts Fuse, you'll get Bill Marx - but instead you get Terry Byrne.

Perhaps even more damaging to his case, however, are rumors on the theatrical Rialto that murmur Marx is in effect "selling" reviews to arts organizations. Marx even obliquely nods to these whispers when he claims that he is "not beholden to the advertising dollars that come in from arts organizations."

Okay.  I'm not sure what that means (or even could mean).  But I've heard now from three separate sources that Marx has made explicit quid-pro-quo offers to local presenters along the lines of "If you give me a donation, I'll give you a review." So in effect, it's pay-to-play over at the Arts Fuse (although I doubt Marx has ever stated the rules of the game quite that baldly). I won't argue that Marx has explicitly promised a positive notice for cash; but does he have to?  These sorts of arrangements, like the one that Scott Heller at the Times effected to promote Frank Rich Jr. (which Marx himself poked fun at recently) are always accomplished as unspoken understandings.  Trust me, journalists are expert at hanging questionable dealings on slender ethical threads; and as long as no one says anything, the whole crap game stays confidently afloat.

Thus even sans explicit instructions, Marx's writers are pumping out the puffery, as noted above; so any of the presenters whom Marx approached could look over his site and realize,"If I give the Arts Fuse a  donation, there's a four-out-of-five chance I'll get a rave."

And those are pretty good odds. So by the standards of this fallen world, there's no reason for Marx's money machine not to hum along quite comfortably. Given his endless (and I mean endless) jibes at the mercenary instincts of producers, these moves make him the height of hypocrisy. But like most operational hypocrisies, his system has a built-in deniability that makes it workable.

The more salient question is - why should you contribute to his scheme? I understand why arts organizations would, of course.  But why should readers pony up their hard-earned cash for an uneven, second-rate imitation of what they can get elsewhere (often still for free)? It's obvious why Marx is making a big push right now - with the Phoenix having just folded, there may be a window online for something like its older incarnation to rise from the ashes on the web.  But clearly, even with a claimed stable of some 60 writers, Marx hasn't nearly reached the standards of the vanished world of alternative publishing. His reach seriously exceeds his grasp.

Plus there are other contenders in the race to co-opt our critical discourse.  Here in Boston, in fact, Marx is facing stiff competition from Polly Carl, resident den mother at Howl Round and the Center for Theatre Corrup - sorry, Theatre Commons!

But we'll consider Ms. Carl, and her plans to kill criticism with kindness, in the next installment of this series.

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