Swans Commentary » swans.com August 27, 2007  



Gulag For Critics


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - August 27, 2007)   The report that classical music critics in newspapers in Atlanta, Minneapolis, and now at New York Magazine have been removed from their posts comes on the heels of the general attrition of criticism in virtually all of the arts -- save films, which, ironically, is the one place where their presence matters least, as moviegoers have always been oblivious to critical opinion and regularly reverse negative judgments by trooping enthusiastically to vacant potboilers aimed usually at the somewhat loopy and easily-pleased teenage market.

This diminution comes hard upon the heels of severe cutbacks in book reviews with many publishers now relying for publicity on Oprah, (The Dubious Adjudicator of Literary Worth), and brief appearances on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and the early morning talk shows. Of course, theatre reviews have always been thought of as the poor relation of the arts -- as if an art form as ancient and deep-rooted as theatre could fend for itself in the marketplace. Many newspapers and magazines have reduced theatre coverage and, in most of the glossy magazines, it has disappeared altogether. The trade publications, such as American Theatre Magazine and Playbill Magazine consistently promote plays and players but niche-publics are not the same as mass outlets, which can often affect the commercial longevity of an off-Broadway production or encourage a transfer from a small to a large house.

Nor is it in any way beneficial that the Internet has spawned blogs that attempt to evaluate books, concerts, and play performances, as it is never a matter of simply obtaining "coverage" but of receiving nuanced reactions from critically astute writers who really know their onions and have the literary expertise to deal perceptively with what is on offer.

In a world beleaguered by appalling developments in Darfur, Iraq, Pakistan, China, India, and Russia, it may seem piddling to concern oneself with critical appraisals of concerts, art exhibitions and play productions, but that would be a benighted and short-sighted view. The function of criticism is not only to praise or damn artistic offerings, it is also to gage the progress or retrogression of the art itself; to safeguard the integrity of practices that have a long and significant history in what we like to call our "civilization" but whose significance is diluted when cogent appraisal of artifacts somehow become negligible.

Speaking of the one art I know the most about, the theatre, I have for many years now bemoaned the fact that the small amount of criticism which does exist is boneheadedly journalistic and superficial rather than credentialed and penetrating. Everyone, of course, is entitled to their opinion, but astute and long-serving critics who are constantly interacting with theatrical offerings are more entitled than others. Criticism, as it has been famously described, begins with the word "because" -- whereas in the case of most critics, reviews yield only descriptions, plot summaries, and hackneyed adjectives to describe the relative merits of artists and the works in which they appear. The theatre critic (and this goes just as much for the majority of film critics) use their space to summarize narratives rather than their esthetic components. One is not calling here for more "academic" criticism as that often loses itself in speculation about things external to the actual experience of theatregoing; treatises on established "schools of thought," which are themselves clustered clichés that bypass the existential experience of what is taking place on the stage. But I don't want this to become a harangue against the quality of current theatre critics because when criticism itself is endangered, there is no point in analyzing the merits or demerits of what is rapidly disappearing.

The real point is that we endanger the art form -- be it music, painting, or any of the performing arts -- when we permit criticism to be considered expendable. If a play or a production suddenly hits a new note and thereby opens up a completely unexpected strain in theatrical practice, that is important and needs to be both described and signaled by an astute critic. It's what happened when Modernism first reared its abstract little head -- and Expressionism -- and Epic Theatre -- and Magic Realism. Confronted with the new and unfamiliar, it was the critic's job to define what was happening and, rather than reject what was strange and unclassifiable, discern those qualities which set it apart from what had gone before. On a lower plane of criticism, the critic explicates new work that has a certain "felt presence" but no explicit nomenclature -- like Happenings and early Performance Art. On the most general level, the critic is there to steer us away from dreck by explaining what precisely is shitty about a piece of writing or a fetid performance. That too has positive value -- no matter how negative it may appear to be in print. The good critic translates inchoate feelings in the spectator, which, because they open a window or raise a closed shutter, shed light on an artifact, clarifying a confusion that he or she could not unravel for themselves. That is a worthy occupation because it adds to our store of both knowledge and experience and, through the critics' perceptions, our own sense of perception is increased.

This happens even when (especially when) there are contradictory reactions from reviewers. The actual mêlée of reactions are themselves illuminating and there is a long history of dense critical opinion for what we now hail as masterpieces but which initially had to endure bitter rejection. In the case of almost every groundbreaking work of art, be it music, painting, sculpture, or the performing arts, one critic or another has been there to marshal those insights that subsequently justified (and even exalted) the new work. That is a priceless virtue in art; being told that something we don't understand is actually valuable BECAUSE....etc., etc., etc.

The greatest virtue of informed theatre criticism is that it elucidates for the artists (actors, playwrights, directors, and designers) precisely what it is they have wrought. That splash of revelation happens because of the combustion that takes place between Artist and Public, after weeks of private rehearsal suddenly metamorphose into a public article that either confirms their notions or casts them into a radically different light. That "splash of revelation" occurs only when the new artifact meets the public in the presence of discerning critics.

The rural bookseller who recently burned cartloads of books to make a point about the death of literacy in America was, in my mind, something of a real patriot. The act had the whiff of the "burning of the books" in Nazi Germany that appalled all of us who value and honor the written word. Well, the removal of critics from their seats of judgment is just as obscene and insulting to writers, actors, painters, singers, and musicians. We may all, at one time or another, abhor the sentiments of a particular critic, but we still tacitly honor the discipline in which those assessments are taking place. Criticism, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, is itself an art, and when we dispense with critics, we are jettisoning provender that is necessary for our esthetic survival.

We have no Cindy Sheehans who can squat outside the offices of those newspapers and magazines that are cutting off the oxygen with which art sustains itself, but we should try to recruit some. If flag burning can incite passionate denunciation, the eradication of critics should also be seen as an act of spoilage. It is to the critics whose voices are still listened to that we should turn for advocacy. They know better than most how valuable that work is, and unless we proclaim those values loud and clear, every art will suffer. Today, it's the book reviewers and the music critics who are being displaced; tomorrow it may be the political commentators and the op-ed writers. The real enemy here is the "impulse to eliminate criticism." It is criticism -- in all its forms -- that needs to be obstreperously defended.


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About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art13/cmarow84.html
Published August 27, 2007