Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Right to Scornful Reviews

I was recently in an argument with someone about the role of critics. I mentioned that wrongful criticism has killed more than one promising career – and not always for the reasons one might think. My challenger countered by saying:

“Any creator of art who can't stand heat, should stay out of the kitchen. The truth is a critic has every right to create a scornful review and it needs no justification.”

Really? That’s “The Truth?” Well, needless to say, this hit a nerve with me. A really big, raw nerve. Honestly? I’ve grown far beyond merely being weary (and wary) of such “one size fits all/can’t stand the heat” rationalizations.

Throughout my life I’ve seen absolutely amazing paintings, murals, sculpture and jewelry created by artists who gave up because of cheap shots taken by a critic reducing their work, their worth and stature before potential audiences and consumers could have an opportunity to size them up for themselves. Likewise, some of the finest musicians I’ve ever heard – in an enormous range of styles - have disappeared before being able to make their mark on the world. Arguments are made that these artists are “too sensitive” or need to toughen up. Perhaps sometimes, but that is too simple a way out – a copout if you will. It also happens to sometimes be a mere matter of economics. More often than one might imagine it is an artist’s money issues not an inability to “stand the heat” which forces the gifted away from their true calling. I know.

I continued my argument stating that there should be some sort of competency test for a journalist who – no matter how terrible a writer – nonetheless wields a power he or she may not fully realize (and those who do, can be prickly insufferable bastards). My aggressor countered that such an expectation should be ignored – the periodicals job is to simply “sell” itself and most people don’t believe what a critic writes anyway.

Hmmmm . . . perhaps, but then why do we have them? Why, then, would anyone read something they know going in, will be false or incorrectly/inaccurately reported? Besides, we all can cite examples of a show that did poorly because no one attended why? Oh yes, the critic’s review declared it “an atrocity”

Merely because we, on a daily basis, read critics who are insipid, guilty of dumbing down, egregiously inaccurate, egotistical (or any other host of what should at minimum be deemed as detriments to journalistic integrity) is less than an insufficient reason of a periodical or newspaper keeping such a writer on its staff. I find the complacency of these organizations sickening and the inaccurate manner in which the arts are often covered (not to mention the “news” itself) absolutely rattles my cage.

I realize that I could be in the minority here (could be?) but millions of people read and rely on these writers to help shape their opinions on everything from what to wear, eat, hear, look at, and in some instances, live. The power exerted over both artist and public positively chills me.

Several years ago I watched the animated Disney film, “Ratatouille,” (I've since purchased it on DVD). This little movie went beyond my wildest expectations in very many regards. The film’s villain, an arrogant, boastful critic appropriately named “Monsieur Ego,” has an epiphany that brings about the tale’s dénouement. He begins his speech:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism
designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends.”

I had tears in my eyes – my heart swelling up to bursting point as I listened to this monologue. While M. Ego was specifically referring to food, the points he made go straight to the heart of any criticism.

“One person's ‘inflammatory writing’ is another's ‘truth’”.

One of my dearest friends happens also to be one of my favorite critics. I once commented on a less than glowing review of a performance I had found amazing. I realized that he was attending at least one performance – sometimes more each day all of which needed to be processed and reviewed. Somewhere in there he had to cram in some fast food and sleep. He didn’t complain but it was clear he was exhausted and quite possibly – despite his love of this music and the performers of it – the very last place in the world he wanted to be that night was “there.”

I realized the difficulty of what sounds like a “dream job” to many of us and, with some bit of embarrassment he admitted "You know, I think we lose perspective having to go things all the time - and sometimes we don’t have enough time to think about separating the junk from the genius."

Now what was that about truth?

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Blogger Smorg said...

I'm with ya', P. It's the attitude like one your debater has that causes critics to lose their (ours) credibility to the audience. I think it was Mr. Tommasini who once wrote that he isn't in the business of nitpicking and catching errors in a performance, but of informing and trying to aid the audience in seeing what the performer/performance is trying to get across. That's what a good critic does, to me.

Alas, many with easy access to the internet can't differentiate between constructive criticism (that doesn't downplay bad performances, but doesn't go out of one's way to walk on people either) and pure talking trash about others in the misguided attempt to make oneself seem smarter (at others' expense). One is what a grown up does, and the other ... o well, you know what I'm talking about already. :o)

Anyhow! Thanks for taking the time to write this up! It's good to see a well respected voice like you standing up for those folks on the lighted side of the orchestra pit. They are humans like us after all.

Happy Thanksgiving tomorrow!

Smorgy :o)

November 26, 2009 at 1:11 AM  
Blogger sabauda said...

beautiful post

November 27, 2009 at 4:12 AM  
Blogger Will said...

A very strong illustration of what you say is the career of Stephen Sondheim, only one of whose musical theater pieces--A Little Night Music--received positive reviews in its premiere production. The rest were slaughtered by clueless critics, some of whom made a major point of declaring the plots incomprehensible, the piece dark and depressing, or the music inappropriate for a musical. But Sondheim persevered and prevailed.

December 1, 2009 at 10:06 PM  
Blogger Sharky said...

Bill, I always wonder what critics feel like when - years after trashing something - it turns out to be an iconic, blazing "thing" that takes on a life of its own. You'd think that some of them might reconsider their approach, but I've realized just how many of them are as closed minded and literal as the general public - more so, even!

December 8, 2009 at 2:29 PM  
Blogger Will said...

When I came to Boston to study back in the Paleolithic, there was a critic named Alta Maloney. Alta Maloney LOVED everything that played Boston. Nothing was ever bad; everything was wonderful, the best ever. I asked around as to why she had no standards, as arrant crap was getting rave quotes from her to plaster all over the front of the theater.

I was told that when the original production of one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's great musicals had come to Boston on its pre-Broadway try-out, she had panned the hell out of it, the only critic during the entire road tour who hadn't called it one of the finest musicals ever. She became a laughing stock and was spooked forever after. From then on out, she just loved everything.

December 8, 2009 at 5:04 PM  
Blogger Sharky said...

That is HILARIOUS, Bill!

And thanks, sabauda!


December 10, 2009 at 5:05 PM  

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