Monday, August 23, 2010

The "Art" of the Critic

“Those who can’t do, teach.”

Replace “teach” with “criticize,” and you already have a fairly good idea of what a large segment of the artistic population thinks about critics. One of the more common jobs out there for a dramaturg is that of a theatre critic, though the crumbling newspaper industry is making even this much more difficult. Criticism has been maligned as a non-art that concerns artists. However, while not all critics are artists, and it is impossible to equate a daily review with an indelible theatrical event, good criticism is a very specific type of art. The critic’s responsibility is to be an artist who cannot make art for art’s sake; the art of the review is one of utility. Its craft lies in circumnavigating its restraints, and they are legion.

The first dangerous constraint is that the review cannot truly be for the people it affects most: those involved in the production. A critic is as much an artist as a dramaturg (this can be read either way, depending on one’s opinion), but the critic cannot be the dramaturg of the production he or she reviews. This is tacitly acknowledged by the taboo on reviewing a show in previews. Only once a show is out of the stage where it can be adjusted, are the reviewers allowed to write about it. If the ideas of the critic could truly matter to a show’s development, the system would allow for two reviews; one early, than an adjustment period, than a final verdict. As this is a pipe dream, it is hard to see a review as anything but a judgment for the public, and for the ages. Unfortunately, these two required judgments conflict.

As a lover of both theatre and intelligent discourse, a critic does not want to issue a simple diagnosis – but as the public’s guide, the job’s perimeters narrow into the more basic consumer’s choice. The public cannot, save an expensive and self-defeating walkout, spend thirty percent of three hours watching a play in response to a review that is one-third positive. Nor can a theatergoer necessarily pay for sixty percent of a ticket to see a show receiving moderate but guarded acclaim. Going to the theatre is a yes-or-no proposition, and therefore responding to the task of theatre guide invites the yes-or-no mentality. It is up to each critic to determine to what degree to fight this mentality. An ideal review would not only contain a critic’s personal feedback, but enough engaging information about the experience so that a reader could figure out if he or she would enjoy it. How to achieve this in 500 words?

Word count, perhaps more than anything else, is the thoughtful newspaper critic’s bête noire. This is much more of an issue in the current newspaper industry than, say, on the Internet, though the Internet did spawn the concept of “TL; DR.” Distilling criticism into a restricted frame is a challenge: even if the critic is forced to paint in miniature, there is still a responsibility to be creative and insightful, witty and wise. If painting in miniature requires a more studied, careful brushstroke than a larger canvas, small reviews need more carefully chosen words than in-depth reviews. This is, of course, romanticizing one’s limitations. Miniaturists did not choose their craft because of a canvas shortage.

Newspaper reviews are not only getting shorter, but they are generally created under extreme pressure, presenting a fundamental dichotomy. Playwrights often have months or even years to develop what winds up on stage, and a critic needs to have an immediate response. The imbalance is staggering, and no wonder artists complain. The newspaper medium demands quick content, and speed is a large part of the art. However, the critic’s other function as an historical preservationist makes the disparity of time spent on production and review even more contentious.

Other than perhaps in video, the production is “immortalized” mainly in evaluation; a published script preserves the playwright’s contribution, not the production. It seems dreadfully unfair to have 500 words written in twelve hours permanently impose a lens on history, no matter how inconsequential. The production is ephemeral; it is the reviews that dog one forever. The review is created for the public, but it is the artistic community that may value and remember it historically: how to walk this tightrope of intent?

Director Anne Bogart, at the 1992 Critics and Criticism conference, mentioned the concept of artist as empty vessel, referring to the powerful the feeling of being “spoken through.” However, she later admitted that an artist contradicts the concept of being this kind of transmitter, by bringing their personal prejudices, experiences, and influences to the art they create. Bogart calls these human influences “tragic,” but this sort of tragedy is hard to comprehend. Why would an artist wish to divorce his or her “development as a human being” from the “development as an artist”? The critic is much like the artist in this case: for all his or her intellectual development (to parallel an artist’s artistic development), full of these very human influences.

While intellectually the critic may see that a piece of theatre should work, it is impossible to divorce the personal response, and nor should it be possible if theatre hopes to effect an emotional reaction. The theatre, to the best of our knowledge, is created for humans, by humans, and this is a spiritual conduit that should remain open. Shortly after Bogart’s comments, Ross Wetzsteon, Village Voice editor and founder of the OBIE Awards, spoke of the danger of taking a journalist’s judgment as objective gospel, rather than subjective opinion. While the artist can consider him or herself an empty vessel, the critic must not espouse this same theory of divine inspiration, unless we are using “divine” to refer to a particularly good one-liner. On the other hand, Bogart mentions art as being created in a state of imbalance (which of course leaves the artist more vulnerable to criticism) while the critic is under pressure to be as rational as possible.

Bogart exposed a fundamental difference between artist and critic when she espoused her tenet that the play must be larger than the artist. For the critic, this is not entirely the case. Of course, the critic cannot consider him or herself larger than the play (effect on public perception or purchases aside), but while to the artist, the play looms larger than anything at that moment, the critic (ideally) must consider it as not only a work in its own right but as a speck on the horizon of cultural, intellectual, emotional canon; what critic John Simon calls “being in tune with history.”

In the end, despite the agonizing artistic process and the constraints of market forces and the desire for critical approval, while responsibility towards the public is ideal, the artist is really only responsible for his or her integrity. The critic has a responsibility to the artist, to the public, and to a small part of historical record, though many do not necessarily behave that way. Similarly, in Bogart’s view, the artwork changes the artist, but the play and its subsequent review does not necessarily have to change the reviewer past the basic condition of having or having not seen it. No wonder artists and critics clash, with their very different ways of looking at these tiny universes. The artist uses a microscope to look at the vast sky, while the critic employs a telescope lens with microscopic scrutiny.

Writing a review is in no way harder or more important than the piece itself; without art, art criticism would clearly not exist. But a thoughtful piece of arts writing can play off the initial work, generating ideas and questions. As Bogart postulates that a writer’s art happens with the pen, a director’s in rehearsal, and an actor’s on stage in front of an audience, the real art happens when the act of absorption culminates in the act of transmission; when the postulating stops and the “doing” begins. So, while some will never agree that the art of the review is just that, perhaps eventually they will call it a respectable craft.



  1. Beautifully written!

    One of my largest concerns is that the public is starting to wear the hat of 'critic' instead of those that may have some credentials to do so. They are taking reviewing into their own (incapable) hands, and massively making or breaking performances, and even individual actors. Twitter has been a huge influence - as it is immediate! Put on a hashmark and you can then add in your 'valued' opinion to a mass list of others! A person only has to view the list to decide weather to see it... and Twitter has a character limit of 140!

    Those that are professional critics are moving into a digital realm to release their reviews. Unfortunately, the TL;DR catastrophe is merely the result of the short attention span of the population, also the lack of education. Remember, in our day and age the internet plays an important role to any person of educational background. A person who is not well-versed in theatre production, or landscape art, but enjoys its products is able to give a non-educated opinion, and complain when a critic or the pieces of work are too complicated to understand.

    Does this mean we need to change the way theatre and other arts are made? Hell no. :) However, I do believe that healthy criticism by those that are educated in the respected fields should be valued more by those in the field. The criticisms should be made with care, and given time and thoughtful reflection before made. This still doesn't solve the issue of 'the public'... perhaps an interpreter is needed?

  2. On one hand, the view of the general public is extremely valuable to the artist and helps elucidate whether the artistic intent was perceived and received as planned. However, without building a relationship with a particular critic, it is hard to figure out how in line one's aesthetic and point of view is with the mass reviews. It also creates the possibility that only the lowest common denominator will succeed in, say, the reviews of the Twitterverse.

    There is the bizarre trend now of Twitter reviews to go up starting at intermission of the first preview, which is really an issue. It's irresponsible to review something without having first seen it all; how do you know the intended message or affect if a piece is yet missing? Even if a piece is so bad that I want to run out of the theatre - and I have seen a few - is not getting a full review with my name on it if I didn't sit through the whole thing. That's a critic's responsibility. The casual reviewer tends to lack a sense of responsibility, which can be an issue. Maybe Twitter could work the "promoted Tweets" angle by more prominently featuring the Tweets of actual critics?

    There may at some point be a wider polarization between critics who write scholarly criticism and those who merely point thumbs up and down (ironically, Roger Ebert is actually a very thoughtful critic). This may be necessary. But I do believe that scholarship and utility need to interact in every piece of theatre and discussion of theatre. That's why I became a dramaturg, because we sit exactly on that edge.

    Thanks for the compliment on the writing; I'm so glad you liked the post!