Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thoughts on Criticism

I've had a very complex, productive relationship with arts criticism my entire life. I loved reading reviews as a kid, even for plays or movies I'd never see. My parents gave me Frank Rich's Hot Seat, an anthology of his work as chief theatre critic at the New York Times, when I was 13, and I read it cover to cover at least three times. I loved Pauline Kael's film criticism and Kenneth Tynan and Walter Kerr's theatre writing, and still enjoy reading collections of criticism--I recently spent great couple of weeks arguing with Richard Gilman in my head as I read Common and Uncommon Masks. I love the sheer good writing found in much criticism in raves, pans, and even mixed reviews. I love watching a mind grappling with a work of art and struggling to both convey the experience to someone who hasn't seen it and add to the experience of someone who has.

So in other words, I believe in criticism--in its necessity and its art--and I think I would even if I didn't also write it. Which is what makes this so troubling.

In brief, Chris Jones, lead critic at the Tribune (and a man whom I've had differences and agreements in the past) reviewed High Fidelity. It's the musical version of the 2000 movie, set in Chicago, and the earlier British novel. It was a swift failure on Broadway a few years ago (13 performances), and the Chicago staging represents the first production since, as well as a significant rewrite: the setting has been moved back to Chicago and the cast members also play the music. Jones' review was mixed--he enumerated the things he liked and the things he didn't, and did a good job at describing enough of the show's qualities to help the audience figure out if they would like it or not.

But maybe not for everyone. Someone going by "allison," in a blistering comment, included this phrase:

chris, theatre in this country is suffering right now. you are a chicago theatre critic. by your own words "america's hottest theatre city." you are supposed to support and encourage theatre in this town.

Kris Vire, in a very intelligent piece on his blog, responded, in short, "Bullshit." And I couldn't agree more. As he said, it is the job of critics to support good theatre. Being soft on a show that isn't very good does nobody any favors. I've been guilty of that myself. A few shows from the past year that shall remain nameless (unless you ask) had me leaving the theatre fuming--they weren't just bad, they were offensively bad. I gave them negative reviews, yes, but I soft-pedaled it. There's a difference between constructive criticism and lacking the courage of your convictions.

But I think another point has been lost, or mentioned too little: people need to use critical thinking when reading criticism. By this I mean: don't just take what the critic says for granted. Whether or not a critic thinks you should see a show is only one element of the review. Get to know that critic's work, and read several reviews for that production. Think about your own tastes--what things often turn you off? What will make you overlook flaws? If the critic is good and you are aware of your own tastes, you might come to a different conclusion from the critic. And that's a good thing--the writer is only human, their work only a guide, not an edict. I've often read positive reviews and decided to skip a play or movie, or been intrigued by mixed or negative ones. Critics can do their best, but it's the job of the reader to be informed and involved.

Is there something I'm missing? Are there other thoughts here? I always get worried when people seem to have fundamental misconceptions as to the job of the critic, or to see the act of criticism as unnecessary or harmful, critics as people getting off on their power rather than trying to inform. Is this the accepted view? Is there a way to get critics and practitioners on the same page?

1 comment:

Leonard Jacobs said...

Of course there's a way to get critics and practitioners on the same page: it requires dialogue and listening. Unfortunately, neither critics nor practitioners are very good at that, and the system of criticism that we have inherited, to which you and I as well as Chris Jones and Kris Vire are heirs, and which most of the time isn't criticism but in fact consumer-oriented reviewing, isn't built to facilitate the dialogue or the listening.

Part of the issue here is what constitutes good. That's why I'm not certain that the function of the critic is to support good theatre. John Simon, here in New York, thought the revival of 42nd Street to be the best thing since Adam discovered Eve emerging from his rib.

However, what I am very certain of is what you state perfectly in the early part of your post: the function of "grappling with a work of art and struggling to both convey the experience to someone who hasn't seen it and add to the experience of someone who has."