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August 29, 2008

Mean Critics

I just wrote a highly disgruntled commentary in my Rockwell Matters blog about the Public Theater's revival of "Hair"; here's the link. The other day I was interviewed for a forthcoming article in Dance Magazine about negative criticism and how artists respond to such negativity. I don't think of myself as a slash-and-burn critic on the order of Hilton Kramer or John Simon or Martin Bernheimer. Yet here I was, so deeply offended by a performance that I walked out at intermission. No doubt Mssrs. Kramer, Simon and Bernheimer simply have a more highly evolved sense of moral outrage than I.

No one likes to be complained about in public. As the author of four books and as a longtime critic for a highly visible outlet, The New York Times, and as director of the Lincoln Center Festival, I received my share of criticism, positive and negative. I liked the positive better, though I have been heard to grumble, gracelessly, about what I call "trivial parise" -- reviews that profess to like what I have done by reviewers who have made no effort to engage with it.

While anyone's feelings can be hurt, artists simply have to develop a reasonably thick skin if they want to stay in this business. Not reading reviews is one tactic, and many artists claim they don't, though I rarely believe them. I used to counsel artists not to fret about isolated negative comments, to trust their teachers and colleagues more, but to start taking the reviews more seriously if the vast majority complained about the same failings. Sure, the lone visionary can sometimes be ahead of the doubting pack. But not that often.

The penchant for negativity, for calling attention to yourself as a critic through sheer venom, has been exacerbated by the Internet. If you're blogging, and especially if you're concerned about calling attention to your voice in the lonely infinitude of the blogosphere, violent opinion is one tactic. It seems to work in politics, so wny not in arts criticism?

But as a wishy-washy, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other liberal, I still place my faith in fairness. Not Fox "fair and balanced" fairness, but real fairness. Presumably you as a critic have entered the field (whatever the field can be said to be these days) because you love the arts, or an art. If so, your writing should reflect that love. Hardly to the point of praising the unpraiseworthy, but at least by allowing a generally enthusiastic, supportive view of the arts to serve as a proper foil for your occasional bursts of righteous outrage.

August 29, 2008 11:47 AM | | Comments (1)


Hey John,

I always find it interesting when, after finding out what I do, people respond with "Oh, I could never be a critic: I hate being mean."

Slash-and-burn criticism is one thing - my main objection to it is that, in the end, such an approach usually goes hand in hand with a limited understanding of what criticism can strive for as a vibrant, literary art form. And limited is boring. The "I hate being mean" comment also indicates an essential confusion about the act of criticism. Real fairness involves honesty, too, and we're not always so good at that in our public dealings with each other.


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