Cutthroats Bandits - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold - Scene4 Magazine Special Issue - July 2014

Critics, Judgments, and the Arts

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold


July 2014

While not social or moral justice, per say, criticism plays an important role in the world of the arts.  This essay explores the ethics of journalistic criticism. Do artists not have the right to be judged fairly for the work they do? What constitutes fair and informed criticism? How have the roles of critic and artist changed in recent years?

Photo1Burns-cr"Cutthroat bandits in the paths of fame". . .so railed poet Robert Burns about the critics. 

"Do you know who critics are?" Benjamin Disraeli once asked contemptuously. "They are men who have failed in literature and art." Parasites preying on the fringes of art, culture vultures turning inspiration into industry – these are some of the epithets hurled at journalists who earn their living covering music, theatre, dance, and the visual arts.

Do critics deserve this kind of vituperation? Do they really wield the power that provokes such intense dislike?  Is their impact, especially in today's age of widespread media and social networking, more negligible than before? Surely in disciplines like music criticism, which often merely recounts the events of a single evening, rather than in theatre or film where a run of a work is at stake, a review is less of a deciding factor in success or failure. But from an artist's perspective the judgment passed on his work by what baritone Thomas Hampson once called "the vast observation industry" can sometimes be hard to reconcile with his own inner sense of purpose. "If one gives them [critics] power," Jess Thomas once said, "they will have power," and he urged artists to remain true to their own principles and own critical judgment. But still many artists remain sensitive to the risk posed by critics.  Hampson expressed it candidly and practically when he said," I read all my reviews.  I respect a great many of them intellectually, and I respect them all in the sense that they are land mines!"

But does criticism have to be nothing more than a potential hazard, a land mine which terrorizes a vulnerable artist and an impressionable public?  Cannot arts criticism serve a higher, less confrontational purpose? How can contemporary arts criticism move beyond negativism and become something far more constructive and collaborative? How can the ideal critic become not a judge dispensing "absolute" wisdom, but rather a partner and prime mover in fostering a love and respect for the art he chronicles?

In 1992, with a relatively new byline on the New York music scene, I published a manifesto about music criticism which had the youthful audacity to ask just these questions. More than two decades later, I think that, while the economics and, to some degree, the politics of arts journalism have changed radically, these ethical questions continue to have resonance – perhaps even more now with the internet, blogs, and widespread media coverage that can transform a single critical judgment into a global pronouncement at will. Thus, it becomes all the more imperative for a journalist who writes criticism to thoughtfully self-evaluate his methods and his mission.

In today's climate of vanishing print media, shrinking advertising income, and generally disastrous financial support for the arts, the practicalities of being an arts journalist/critic are ever more challenging.  Where critics on daily newspapers, monthly magazines, and other media once could boast considerable influence with both the public and the arts they covered, today's reviewers are sometimes regarded as little more than free publicists by press officers in arts institutions  - to be quoted if positive and discarded if negative. Editors, too, are often sensitive to the potential loss of advertising revenue, especially in small town publications, thereby limiting the reviewer's freedom and independence. Thus, the contemporary journalist, who wishes to become a respected, knowledgeable, and reputable critic must fortify his own standards of professional integrity and assess the deeper meaning of the work he undertakes.

Perhaps in order to best formulate an ethical critical standard, it is first necessary to examine some of the common pitfalls in reviewing the arts. The first of these, especially in music criticism, but also in theatre, is "the golden age syndrome."  Critics nostalgically yearn for the performers of the past, whose accomplishments wax more wonderful with memory.  For these reviewers no contemporary artist will ever measure up, and modern context seems to have little relevance to them. From that line of thinking, it is easy to embrace the second cardinal pitfall: that of adhering to a single personal standard of interpretation for a work. It is these reviewers who rebel so vehemently against directors' new stagings in opera or theatre because it violates the composer/playwright's meaning. What exactly is that meaning, and is any one critic privy to a special truth about creative intent?  Shouldn't a reviewer grant performance artists, by the very nature of their task, the right to reinterpret and recreate, and should he not first try to understand the thrust of that interpretation before assessing its validity? That is not to say every new staging offers a brilliant insight, some may be mixed bags, a few outright disasters, but pre-judgment does not help to see this clearly.

Equally frustrating can be the style of many critics.  Criticism, especially with modern blogging, often descends into gossip and hearsay, pandering perhaps to popular taste or written with the intent of making the critic appear to be "an insider." On such famous episode happened in the late 80s at the New York Metropolitan Opera when Martin Mayer wrote in Opera, comparing some performances: "My spies tell me that [tenor X] did not do very well and [tenor Y] did."[1] Unfortunately, the "spies" seem to have been embarrassingly misinformed, since "tenor X never sang the part at all – something a flood of letters to the editor immediately clarified.

Photo2GBShaw-crPeppering a column with gossip is not nearly as irritating as the reviewer who poses as a stand-up comedian, using wisecracking one liners to promote a cynical, superior self-image. Admittedly, such famous critics like George Bernard Shaw did use scathing humor in their reviews, but few modern writers are Shaw, and moreover, he balanced the joke with detailed and substantive analysis. In ever decreasing column sizes, can a reviewer afford to waste time on remarks like these found in a review of the Met's 1986 Die Walk├╝re: "Hunding's hut is a pagan period piece – antlers on the wall and a big hide on the wash line.  Where, you wonder, are Sieglinde's socks?"[2]

From this predilection for comedy, it is only a few more steps to the review which is savagely vituperative or driven by some hidden negative agenda.  How many times does the comment exceed the bonds of good taste? ("Basso X] looked and sounded as if he had just dined on rotten femur."[3]). Other times it exceeds the limitations of the assignment, commenting on past performances and predicting future ones – all of which has little to do with the present subject of the review. And the danger inherent in this kind of criticism is that the sweeping judgment, especially if it comes form a major media source, can acquire a spin of its own; it becomes the "official word" and it is difficult to dislodge the thought from public consciousness. The best arts critics display an absence of pettiness, flippancy, and vindictiveness and replace these with thoughtful, informed, specific analysis and an all-abiding respect for the art they analyze.

Happily, there is (and has been historically) enough worthwhile arts criticism to be found which does point to the standards of fair assessment and relatively objective understanding. The operative word here is "relatively," as by nature criticism is subjective; it is one person's viewpoint, and should be acknowledged as such. At one time or another a critic may feel compelled to lobby for a cause – urging a theatre company to re-evaluate its programming choices, for example. This is a critical prerogative, but expressing a preference does not mean closing one's eyes to its alternatives or losing one's grip on the openness that permits a reviewer to regard each performance as an opportunity for discovery.

Too often the spirit of adventure that should motivate a reviewer as he approaches each performance has evaporated.  Some critics have become so jaded that they are in danger of losing their spontaneity and their love of the art form they cover. Ideally, a reviewer should put aside fatigue, apprehensions, previous associations and approach a performance with a predisposition to enjoy it – to critique it, of course, but not without respect, even affection. That may seem like a tall order, especially when the evening does not live up to expectations, but it is, I believe, an obligation. The critical profession is no mere job, but a task which requires the journalist to be an explorer, setting out in terra nova. The journalist who wishes to pass judgment on an artistic work/performance must do it as an act of love, which is truest when it is most honest but most caring.

For in the best of all possible worlds, the critic will be not an adversary but the artist's collaborator, there to help support and guide careers and preserve and nurture the art form about which he writes. To that end here are some guidelines. First and foremost, the writer must remember that criticism should include both positive and negative comments. The occasion that is perfectly conceived and executed may be rare, indeed, but then, so, too, is the performance that has no redeeming virtues at all. Engaging in a rant about critical displeasure, as if the evening was purposely designed to pique the reviewer's sensibility is an absurd, but all too common practice. One needs only reread the New York theatre reviews of Franck Rich, who was nicknamed "the butcher of Broadway" during his tenure at the New York Times.  One of his most memorable assessments of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera may have seemed amusing as he said it, but is ludicrous in hindsight: "Its music is deplorable bubble gum, the acting is two-dimensional, and it sucks the horror out of a classic horror story." [4] Such inveighing, I would suggest, has the unintended result of diminishing the writer's credibility. The critic should learn to phrase in measured terms, remembering that if an artistic failure has occurred, the victim is not the "long-suffering critic" but the work of art itself, and it is the reviewer's responsibility to offer advice on putting the derailed performance or the career back on track.

This means structuring negative commentary so it effects positive change: removing loaded, judgmental language and replacing it with specific recommendations or reasonable alternatives. With the task of judging a work of art comes the responsibility to educate audience and performers. The journalist must do his homework and come prepared to the artistic experience he plans to evaluate. While this may seem self-evident, one might be surprised at how many writers, especially in smaller, less prestigious media outlets, have absolutely no knowledge of what they are about to see, not to mention any training or background in the discipline they have come to review.  This is not to say that to review a recital, for example, one needs to be a singer, but one should surely understand the basics of voice and piano, not to mention the historical and artistic context of the songs to be performed. Or if a theatre piece is premiering, then it might be helpful to know everything one can about the playwright's previous work, the style and cultural milieu of the work, other plays of that genre, as well as much information about the performers and creative team as possible.  And this does not mean simply regurgitating information outlined in the press release, or most maddeningly, simply retelling or describing the story.

Photo3Dylan-crAs Bob Dylan remarked pithily, "Don't criticize what you don't understand." Evaluating must be based on analysis.

Naturally, no critic can carry around in his head a font of encyclopedic knowledge, but every journalist has the responsibility to know do his research before he comes to an event.  The critic must become a continuing student of the art form they describe, so that, in turn, they are better equipped to teach others.

Photo4OscarWilde-crAs Oscar Wilde summed it up: "The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic."

The journalist should approach a performance with as little personal and professional baggage as possible; he should come ready to engage with the artist, to become a participant in the performance, ready and willing to feel with the artists and to experience the art.  Only after that magic has occurred is it time to change gears and analyze what has been experienced.  Modern filing practice fortunately allows more time to do just that. Reviewers no longer dash to typewriters to make a midnight deadline, and this "morning after" policy does allow much needed space for distancing and reflection. It gives the writer time to sift through artistic impressions judiciously, discarding those that seem mere personal response, articulating those that are based on knowledge, understanding, experience. It is in this way that the professional critic distinguishes himself from the vast modern pastime of peer reviews.  Today when anyone on or Facebook or his own blog can express his like or dislike of a book, concert, film, play, or painting, the notion of a review being something more than just preference may be hard to establish. And there is nothing wrong with an individual's preferences or the 2nd amendment right to discuss them in the appropriate forums, but positive or negative personal response does not constitute judicious professional criticism, and it is the obligation of the professional critic to establish his credentials by basing his writing on fact, objective observation, and well reasoned analysis.

Lastly, we come to important concepts which should govern all criticism, not to mention all civil discourse.  The arts journalist should accord to the artist and the work of art the respect their accomplishments merit.  This means counterbalancing negative comments with positive ones, tempering language, and remembering that an artist is not a machine and a performance is a living thing. Is it not just as meaningful, and a great deal more civil, to describe a sixty-year old distinguished baritone whose voice may be showing signs of wear as in "good current voice," especially if the performance has other strengths, rather than dwelling on how frayed his instrument may sound?  Disasters may make more sensational copy, but in the long run I believe tastefulness, decorum, and fair play make for more just criticism.

Photo5Pope-crAnd this brings us to the final admonition. As Alexander Pope so aptly phrased it, "Nor in the critic, let the man be lost." The caring critic has an obligation to remain sensitive to the human dimension of art. Perfection is less an attainable reality as it is an illusion fostered by great artistry, and art, as the Greeks so well understood, is a shared ritual, a sacred collective experience.  The critic should, like the artist, serve a higher calling.  He should not set himself up as an absolute arbiter, though he may set standards and fight battles; he should not imagine himself an implacable judge with life and death power over public taste and artistic careers.  Rather he should strive to be a participant in an ennobling ensemble effort.

Fair and just arts criticism holds as its mission documenting, preserving, and evaluating moments of cultural history; advancing the standards of art and its interpreters; and lifting criticism above mere reportage or censure to the role of addressing with judicious argumentation the deepest fundamental issues of the art form, itself. The critic who strives for these standards must not forget that the very artists he must criticize are also his colleagues – joint adventurers in shaping civilization's great living languages. To them and to the art they all serve he owes it to chastise with respect, praise with encouragement, and question with faith.

Cover Graphic - "la Critique" colored engraving by Travies

1. Martin Mayer, "New York Column," Opera, v. 38, December 1987

2. Manuela Hoelterhalter, "Die Walk├╝re Review," Wall Street Journal, 30 September 1986

3. Ibid

4. Frank Rich on 60 Minutes, 1988

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | www.scene4.comCarla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold's new book is Bookends (Weiala Press). Her reviews, interviews, and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is also a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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