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April 6, 2011

A Sally Field moment

I want to return ever-so-briefly to some old news: "Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark," and the reviews that precipitated the ousting of director Julie Taymor and her creative team.

I know it happened a month ago. But I think it's worth bringing up again to underline the timing of Taymor's dismissal and the role of the professional critics. I see it as a significiant moment. 

Critics everywhere, one assumes, were in a quandry about the appropriate course to take with this show, and what precedents it might set: To review or not to review? Do we break the unwritten rules between writer and subject, which, in this case, was the anticipated but long-delayed opening of a $65 million Broadway musical? Audiences members were opining online, and yet the professional could not, should not. And the official opening date kept getting postponed. Preview performances began November 28.

Among professional reviewers, Newsday's Linda Winer and Bloomberg's Jeremy Gerard were the first to see and write about the show, publishing their appraisals in late December. The show was then scheduled to open February 7, but when that got pushed back, too, 11 critics decided to plunge ahead and publish their views. Their articles were posted online February 7, and they included influential news sources such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

It was then -- and only then -- that the show's producers faced up to the fact that they would have to replace Taymor if they were ever to get substantive changes to "Spider-Man." A new creative team was brought in, including director Philip William McKinley and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. The critics' words had moved the mountain.

Some in the news business would have you measure an arts critic's worth by the number of online hits she gets. An art critic's true contributions, to the arts, to our culture and to history, have been minimized because we live in a time where empty numbers have become the gauge of significance. It's a messed up way to determine quality, and certainly the "value" of arts criticism isn't so easily quantified; indeed, why does value even have to be proved? 

Yes, arts critics - especially arts critics - speak truth to power, too, and so it's worth highlighting that every time it happens. We've all touched a raw nerve with our writing. In the middle of an otherwised civilized lunch with the president of the board of directors of a major performing arts venue, I was threatened with a punch in the face. We're not here to please anyone. And, for that matter, we're not here to make anyone's job easier, artist or producer. The readers deserve the truth, yet sometimes it feels like only a handful of them are even paying attention. Still, it is the critics who have expertise, training, curiosity and diligence who make a lasting impact, who aren't afraid to point out what's beautiful and what's ugly in this world. 

So I was cheered to see change effected in New York City, even if the story itself is not a particularly happy one. And it made me feel like a goofy Sally Field: "You need us, you really need us."

April 6, 2011 8:37 PM | | Comments (0)

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