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April 10, 2006


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It's problematic. I'm sure most critics want the freedom to speak from their OWN perspective and not act as interpreters for sometimes wantonly obscure art. A critic and an artist might have different tastes, though, and that ideally shouldn't make any art outside of the critic's taste bad art.

The problem with art criticism, art awards, etc, etc...is that they attach value to the intangible and experiencial. That's why artists and critics will never find each other satisfying.

Isherwood seems to be expressing a very conservative view of art. That being said, I've certainly been to festivals where a traditional drama shows more creativity and success than something that is, on the surface, more ambitious.

The critic is always balancing his or her own views with what's in the room. Thank God, therefore, we have more than one critic out there.


I'm not sure how well this relates, but all of this reminds me of a book review I read in the New Yorker some years ago by John Updike. The book was a very urban, very lurid, very gay story that Updike didn't cotton to at all. Upon reading the review, I didn't think his reaction was homophobic, I just thought to myself, "Could they have found a less appropriate critic for this material? Were John Rechy and Edmund White busy?"

This brings up a separate question (are minority works better served if reviewed by minority critics?), but it also brings up a related question that I wonder about: what specific responsibilities does the media have to the work it critiques? If we're asking work to be reviewed on its own terms, as Todd London suggests, should we then extend a request that only those who appreciate the work's terms be assigned to review the work? Where is the distinction between challenging critics we presume to be enemies of the arts and demanding to be coddled? It seems like this has been covered on this blog before, and if I'm retreading thoroughly trodden soil, all apologies, but I'll toss it out there anyway.

Oh, and FYI, I started this comment headed in one direction and ended up going another way altogether. No big opinions here -- just questions, provocations, etc....


Oh, and incidentally I googled that review by Updike -- it was the great Alan Hollinghurst's THE SPELL -- and, well, uhm, kinda homophobic....

Alison Croggon

I read a interesting lecture the other day talking about poetry criticism - (at http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/standrews/stanza/lecture06.htm if anyone is interested). I think the following is a nugget of good sense: the least interesting thing about any review is in fact whether the critic liked or disliked the work. Michael Schmidt says:

The best critics are those who are willing to follow their judgement rather than merely their taste, who are as it were led by judgement rather than by taste. Two anecdotes. Ernst Gombrich sent his students to the V&A to view the Raphael cartoons. All but one handed in their assignments. She said she didn’t want to write about them because she didn’t like them. ‘I asked you to write about the Raphael cartoons, not about yourself,’ he said, and sent her to complete the assignment. He required that self-effacement from his students that I as a teacher ask of mine, and that as an editor and publisher I crave from the general reader. It is the old Coleridgean formula: when you want to understand a work ask first what it’s setting out to do, then ask how well it achieves its aim, and finally, only finally, whether it was worth doing. That last question admits the ‘I’.


I, personally, am a little tired of the race (gender, orientation, &c.) card getting played when it comes to critics. I wouldn't go as far as John Simon to say that the only people who can enjoy "The Color Purple" are women who are also black and lesbians (because how can anyone make that claim?), but me not being any of those should not disqualify me from making a statement about it, anymore than me not being a woman should stop me from talking about "The Vagina Monologues." If a show can only reach a specific, target audience, it isn't really art: it's commercialism. Real art (as theater should be) should always aspire to transcend a limited demographic: that's part of what offended me when I recently saw "A Jew Grows in Brooklyn."

To use an extreme example, even a homophobic person should be able to review a gay play, so long as they admit their bias. It is only if they are unable to write past their personal views, as Alison points out, that there is a problem.

Here's an anecdote. Lots of critics, including myself, bashed "Acts of Mercy." But most of us weren't young and Hispanic, and there seemed to be a consensus that it was OUR fault for not getting the material. (I would think that's the play's failure, not ours . . . but I digress.) A wonderful review in The L Magazine finally touched on this, written by someone both young and Hispanic, who wrote of how pleased the agent was to give this open-minded individual a ticket. This reviewer also bashed the show: it was genuinely bad. But why the assumption that it is a failing of PEOPLE to get the ART? That's a feeble excuse.

In any case, just don't limit yourself to reading one critic. Everybody has an inescapable personal bias, no matter how good a writer they are, and everybody sees something different in a show. What you should use is the agglomerate of as many reviews as you can get (anybody want to help me make a Metacritic for NYC theater?); "The wisdom of crowds", as James Surociewski writes, is the most accurate assesser possible.

I think I got tangled up somewhere in there, but it's late, and I've still got a review of "Little Willy" to write. I'll try to be more lucid once some more people post.

-Aaron Riccio


yes, it was damn annoying the way that lisa kron went on and on about how her play was different from this straw man of a 'real' play she'd set up...annoying because there was a lot of truth in 'well', and this was just false and obvious...


Oh I disagree (about WELL). I think she did an excellent job in weaving together (or perhaps integrating!) why she thinks a specific aesthetic is important with how that aesthetic mirrors the very thing she's talking about. And I didn't think it was a straw man at all. There's plenty of very mainstream plays that ask fairly seductive questions and then (unfortunately) answer them, going about it in the most conventional way possible.


In regards to Aaron's statement that "if a show can only reach a specific, target audience, it isn't really art: it's commercialism. Real art (as theater should be) should always aspire to transcend a limited demographic...."

My short response is as follows: "Why?"

My insanely long, less-outraged-than-it-seems response is as follows:

This statement leads me in all sorts of screwy directions, both in regards to minority art and literature and choice of medium. I'll start with the smaller issue first.

You might consider this a stretch, but one could take such a statement about "transcending demographics" and argue (as a certain faux-populist once argued with me) that movies and TV are the only worthy media because they're the only ones that really reach the culture at large. Therefore, visual arts, literature, and theater are all elitist and doomed because they are limited by their logistical circumstances (ticket costs, location, having to leave the house to participate, etc.) and only attract a certain type of audience member as a result. Am I at fault as an artist for not wanting to "transcend the theater-going demographic?"

I also don't really think it's fair to say that something doesn't have value as art because it doesn't "aspire to transcend" the demographic of its subject matter, nor do I even think that's even possible. Such an idea also contradicts the notion of "evaluating work on its own terms."

Does all canonical, Christian/heterosexual/nationalistic art "transcend" the demographic of its subject matter? Is that why non-Christians/gays/international audiences can appreciate it? The notion is absurd. So why should minority artists be asked to do such a thing? I write gay stories; I don't really aspire to transcend their gayness. All I can really do is tell a story with the kind of richness and poeticism and humor and interest that I always try to use to tell my stories. Whether or not straight people relate to it is their own issue, isn't it?

It just seems to me that minority artists are the only ones who ever have to deal with this, whether it's Alice Walker and her fiction (God, I'd be terrified to ask that of her!) or Michael John Garces and his ACTS OF MERCY. So, while Mr. Garces might be a little defensive about a bunch of non-Latino critics panning his work with statements like "you don't get it", I can certainly relate to such defensiveness.

If Garces really is writing very closely to a Latino experience and for a Latino population, and he is touching on experiences that a wider audience might not completely "get", why does that make his output less valuable as art? Likewise, some of us minority writers don't write material that is right for mainstream houses. I have plays that I'm relatively certain would only be produced by gay theaters and would attract primarily gay audiences. Would you suggest that such theater is less valuable than work that appears on stages that attract larger audiences with a wider cross-section of people?

I'm confronted daily by hetero subject matter and I never demand that the work overcome its very essence to communicate to me more fully. If something communicates to me, I can value the details of the story's given circumstances while taking from it what might be specific to my experience. That's not demanding that the artist transcend anything; that's paying the artist and his or her story, experience, and worldview respect.

Consequently, this lack of respect is why I was so irritated by Updike's review of the Hollinghurst novel when I re-read it, and why I'd disagree with your assertion that even an admitted homophobe could fairly critique a gay-themed novel. In Updike's review, he suggests that straight novels are inherently better than gay ones for the following reason: "Novels about heterosexual partnering, however frivolous and reducible to increments of selfishness, social accident, foolish overestimations, and inflamed physical detail, do involve the perpetuation of the species and the ancient, sacralized structures of the family." This conveys an insulting amount of disrespect for the milieu in which Hollinghurst is working, never mind the fact that the statement is beyond ignorant. And this is exactly why John Updike is the last person who should be reviewing Hollinghurst's material. I'm sure you'd do a better job, Aaron, but Updike most certainly DOES NOT GET IT.

Phew, okay, I think I'm done now....

Aaron Riccio

A lot of good, valid points, Kyle. When I speak in big, grandiose, and general terms, I often overlook the other side, but what you say is very true. Just because something is appealing to only a very small group of people does not mean that it isn't art. Of course, that does somewhat reduce the value of art, as under those laws, anything that anyone writes, draws, speaks, &c. is art (for it already has an audience of at least one, the artist his or herself).

Now we're just at a level of superlatives, and we can't even agree (and probably shouldn't) that the best form of art is one that can reach the larger audience. There are, after all, gay plays or feminist plays that can appeal to a wider audience than others, but that doesn't necessarily make them better. Of course, unless they're performed with a disclaimer that explains their audience, they shouldn't be perturbed by critics who "don't get it" writing that "they didn't get it." They weren't warned, and all they're doing in their review is to put up that warning for people. I would argue that that much is fair.

I'm agreeing with you wholeheartedly on the Updike affair though (which resonates of Isherwood's recent statement): a personal attack on an entire form of art has no place in a review of a singular show. Such generalizations are unfounded and improper. If Updike wants to bash gay novels, he can go at them one by one. If Isherwood wants to rip apart experimental theater, let us make him watch each one so that at least then, if he still holds his conservative opinion, it's been somewhat earned.

Here's the summary:

(a) Unless the venue specifically notes the limited appeal (e.g., "Acts of Mercy" to a Hispanic audience; "A Jew Grows in Brooklyn" to a Jewish audience), the critic has the right--the obligation, in fact--to tell others of the narrow scope. If an artist doesn't use this disclaimer, they clearly believe their work to be universal, and I think it's only fair for those who disagree to sound off on it. After all, I represent theatergoers too, and we have to remember that there are many people who will agree with Isherwood/Updike/&c.

(b) This is why I reiterate that no critic should ever be the sole voice of reason for a show's rise or fall. That certain institutions do have that power is a very dangerous thing.

I wrote way too much. Apologies, but I'm not going to self-edit in a forum. I think it's fairer if my thought process is denuded so as to be easily picked apart by the rest of you.


Just a quick note, a point I've been thinking of for the last couple days and see that Aaron mentions it -- so thought I'd drop it in.

Remember, the Isherwood statements that are causing so much controversy were not made in a review of a single show. They were made at the end of a write-up of all (but one) of the shows in the Humana Festival -- six shows in total, as I recall, with only a few paragraphs on each.

It's a bit odd as reviews go, because the piece didn't run until the Humana Festival was nearly over. Isherwood's piece ran in the Times last Wednesday, April 5, and the festival ended April 8.

Actually, though, if you check the Festival Web site, most of the shows had already ended by the time his piece ran. In fact, a cursory check (done very quickly, just now) shows that, of the six shows he reviewed, only one -- the one he disdained the most, Natural Selection -- had performances after his review was published.

My point is, this is an unusual review in that it 1) covers so many different shows and 2) could not conceivably been used by anyone to decide whether or not to attend the Festival. (I suppose it's hypothetically possible that someone was considering flying out to Louisville to see Natural Selection in its final perfs, but then changed their mind, but . . .)

John Branch

Two thoughts. First, at a dance critics' conference some years ago, I heard Susan Sontag propose the same approach that Michael Schmidt mentions (quoted by Alison Croggon), with a slight difference in wording: a critic should consider what a work is attempting, how well it succeeds, and how important that is (not whether it should've been done). If a critic manages more or less to get that into words, his/her readers then have a lot of material with which to estimate for themselves what they'd think.

Second, along with considering what a critic ought to do, we should consider how to use critics. What I do, in an ongoing process, is compare my own reactions to the critics as a way of judging whom I tend to agree with and when. In film, I've found that if Andrew Sarris finds something valuable in a movie, I usually do too, but there are differences. In theater, I haven't found any single writer whose views regularly come close to mine, though Michael Feingold in the Voice works better than the rest. Notice that this doesn't mean I read only those people I think I'll agree with. To put it simply, I'm not looking for one review that'll tell me whether to go see a film or play, and I'm not expecting to find a writer who says what I think. I'm looking for material to work with, descriptions and arguments and impressions.

Alison Croggon

Hi John - I wonder if you think with me that the influence of critics is sometimes greatly exaggerated? To take a gross example: if Andrew Lloyd Webber depended on critical response, he wouldn't be as rich as he is. And I think Cameron Mackintosh at some point stopped invited critics at all. At the other end is the reader, who will always make up his or her own mind. I suspect most thoughtful people read critics as you suggest, and over time get a sense where he or she is coming from. There used to be a notorious film critic in Melbourne whom everyone would read because he was extremely reliable: if he shat on something from a great height, it was always worth seeing. Do critics still have make-or-break power there, or is that simply perception? I'm not saying critics don't have influence; but word of mouth has always struck me as the more important thing.

For my part, I think good criticism is worth reading for its own sake, simply because it's interesting. Whether you agree with the critic or not is beside the point; it gives you stuff, as you say, to work with. Sontag seems like a paradigm of that kind of critic to me. That's rarer, of course. I think it's valuable to have the critic as advocate, as Hobson was for early Pinter, or Tynan for Osborne. That's about a passionate relationship to an artform. It will mean negative stuff as well, of course.

Ideally, one hopes for lots of different critics with lots of different opinions all arguing with one another. That strikes me as healthy.

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