Monday, July 16, 2012

Going Too Far

After skimming through an otherwise lackluster Sunday Review yesterday ("Where are the fluffy human-interest stories and think pieces I crave?"), I was delighted to encounter this piece about the Times' critics by the paper's public editor, Arthur Brisbane. This position, as I understand it, is an intermediary between the Times and its readers. Brisbane finds trends in readers' responses to an issue, locates the most interesting or representative comments, gives relevant Times employees a chance to respond to the readers, and then finally weighs in with his own opinion.

This week's article centered on readers' negative reactions to the paper's arts criticism -- all kinds of arts criticism: books, architecture, classical music, and of course theater. One line I especially appreciated was this: "Readers sometimes just disagree with a reviewer’s opinion," and then Brisbane moved on, as if that were all to say about this sort of objection (which I think it is). In my experience, basic differences of opinion about a show account for the majority of negative comments. It's great when readers voice them, but it's frustrating when they use them as calls to fire me.

On the other hand, the negative responses to which Brisbane devotes the bulk of of his article ought to give any scrupulous critic pause: unnecessary attacks on an artist's human dignity, perhaps by criticizing the artist's appearance when it has nothing to do with the art, or by speaking ill of the recently dead. It's difficult to think of a justifiable reason to perpetrate either of these egregious criticisms.

But this idea of violating an artist's dignity might extend even further. In a comment on one of my recent posts, Mark Jackson, a Bay Area writer, director, and actor, proposed that a critic should never write something that s/he couldn't say to the artist's face. In other words, in addition to the extreme examples above, he might also prohibit many criticisms that feel harsh or cavalier for other reasons. It's a nice, simple golden rule, but for me criticism is a little more complicated than that. I can imagine saying few things I write, positive or negative, to an artist's face. Criticism isn't dialogue; it sparks dialogue. I believe the essay has unique power to delve deep, and that to achieve that depth, either in a single phrase or as a whole piece, a critic must have solitude and reflection. I'm not saying an artist and a critic in conversation can't make spectacular discoveries about a show, but good criticism offers more than just a series of ideas, questions and opinions; it's also enjoyable as a prolonged exploration of one author's voice.

My response to Jackson is really a quibble: "I can't speak my criticism to artists' faces because who reads reviews out loud to their subjects! Nyuck nyuck nyuck!" If I were friends with a review subject, I'm sure I could force myself to recite my article -- pretentious diction, awkward syntax and all -- to his or her face. But "Could I look you in the eye and say this?" simply isn't as important or difficult a question for me as "Am I being honest?" is. What might surprise artists is that asking myself the latter often makes me temper my criticism. For me, extreme feelings, positive or negative, often arise from the urge to make a point in a pretty or provocative way rather than to reflect my genuine opinion.

Brisbane's article is thus a welcome reminder to keep asking myself that question. If I do, hopefully I'll be working toward what Jackson describes as criticism that's "forceful, effective, and vigorous"  without resorting to humiliation or attack, if not quite in the way he proposes. In the meantime, until I have the Times's budget, I'll have to keep being my own public editor.


  1. Now Lily. Naturally I did not mean that you should literally recite your reviews to an artist’s face. By your last paragraph here you get to the point of my comment that you’re referring to -- that a critic can, should, and must be critical, yes; she only need not stoop to meanness to do so. It's simply a matter of how one phrases oneself.

    It’s also worth noting that this word “critical” need not merely mean negative. Whether positive or negative, “critical” can mean above all else considered, detailed, and thoughtful. Sarcasm and meanness are entertaining to people, but not necessarily critical of them.

    On and up
    Mark J

  2. Ha, yes, I don't know why I'm having such a hard time with this relatively simple idea. I was talking about it with one of my students during our class on theater criticism, and she said almost exactly what you're saying, that you should be able to say a review to an artist's face without hurting their feelings.

    Maybe what I'm struggling with is that in my experience people's feelings get hurt even when I put a lot of thought into how I phrase criticism, if I take care to excise gratuitous meanness.

    So what's going on there? Maybe sometimes I'm meaner than I think; at other times maybe artists are oversensitive.

    It's my job to be honest with myself and recognize when I'm at fault and try to not make the same mistake in the future. That's part of what this blog is about. And in December, I'll be on the other side (I have a staged reading going up, provided I can get the darn thing written). It'll be good for me to remember what it's like to be an artist. But I also hope a critic comes, so that I can see what it's like to be written about. (I kind of also hope a critic DOESN'T come, so that I don't HAVE to know what it's like to be written about!) That's a big part of why I decided to try to write a play: I hope, in some small way, it gives me some perspective and makes my criticism a little more fair and balanced.