Results tagged “criticism” from ARTicles

sebphoto-thumb-200x280-39131.jpgSebastian Smee, the chief visual art critic for The Boston Globe, was on a furlough day enjoying the beaches of Miami last Friday when executive editor Marty Baron called to say the writer had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. When Smee landed in the newsroom on Monday, he gave a speech that praised his editors for holding to "a belief that the arts matter, and that good writing about the arts is going to be an important part of newspapers as they evolve.'' When I called to congratulate him this week, Smee reiterated the passion he has for his work in New England, spoke of the importance of value judgments in reviews and explained why he believes arts coverage is necessary to the future of journalism. 

In your 2008 article The Mind of the Critic, you mention three categories people tend to associate with criticism: to judge, to educate and to entertain. What is the role of criticism?

It may not be the most interesting part of a critic's job, but it is the most important: that he or she expresses an opinion. That's what people are expecting from a critic. There's a tendency out of politeness or good manners or fear for critics to sit on the fence sometimes. I understand that, and sometimes I succumb to it myself. But I do think you need to form and express an opinion about the merits of something. Of course, that opens onto a whole world of much more interesting questions, and you can delve into ambiguities and mixed feelings and a certain amount of education.

You're not talking about stating that something is good or bad. You're talking about expressing an opinion. 

Yeah, but good or bad is part of that. That's a critic's job: to make a value judgment on what they see. It's not imposing that value judgment as the only possible judgment about the thing. I see it very much as starting a discussion, but the discussion is going to get off to a much less interesting start if the critic hasn't actually said whether he thinks the thing he's looking at is good or bad.

What do you think about Boston generating two Pultizers in the arts this year? We might expect such numbers from New York, but what does it say about Boston right now?  

April 20, 2011 12:15 PM |

An interesting letter from Rhode Island School of Design president John Maeda in today's Providence Journal, protesting the paper's recent scale-back of visual arts coverage -- criticism in particular. He writes, in part:

A good critique is what lets an artist grow, helping the ideas behind her work come alive and make an impact in the world. By seeing work through another's eyes, the artist learns more about herself, and the world learns more about what she was trying to say. It's what inspires interest in art. Our curriculum is based on critique as a methodology, and our culture in Rhode Island holds it dear, I know. I hope that you see the value of critique and art in the public sphere, and will reconsider your decision to limit art reviews in your publication.

To read the full letter, go here and scroll down to "Don't short visual arts."

October 4, 2010 5:27 PM |

There's a great scene near the beginning of the movie "In & Out" where Oscar nominee Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), walking the red carpet on the way into the ceremony, pauses for an interview with entertainment reporter Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck).

"Everyone's saying that you won't be going home empty-handed," the reporter says. "How do you feel about that?"

"Well, basically, to me, uh, awards are meaningless," the star replies. "Um, I'm an artist, uh, it's about the work, all the nominees are artists -- we shouldn't be forced to compete with each other like dogs."

"Well, I hear ya. Good point," the reporter says. "So then why're you here?"

"'Case I win," the star says, flashing a smile. Then he turns and waves to the screaming fans.

I mention this because all day I've been trying -- futilely, as it happens -- to resist the urge to respond to Ben Brantley's take on this year's drama Pulitzer. "I have never bought a book, read a poem or seen a play because it was by a Pulitzer winner," he writes in today's New York Times. "So any indignation being vented over this year's Pulitzer Prize in drama leaves me a bit mystified."

Even if he hadn't qualified his lack of respect for the Pulitzers by confining it to "the categories devoted to the arts" -- a handy asterisk for a newspaper reviewer -- that would be a curious, rather navel-gazing thing for a critic to say. He's right, of course, that "the Pulitzers have usually gone to firmly middlebrow works." Even so, dismissing the awards as measures of artistic merit is one thing; denying their power is another. The Pulitzer Prize may be a marketing tool, but that doesn't make it meaningless.

April 14, 2010 3:46 PM |

This is the most essential sentence in Los Angeles Times theater critic and 2010 Pulitzer Prize drama jury chair Charles McNulty's brilliant broadside against the Pulitzer board for its shameful habit of tinkering with the drama prize: "Too bad the board doesn't have members who are better able to distinguish the merits of a production from the merits of a dramatic work."

Exactly, exactly, exactly. Theater is a collaborative art form, but the drama prize is awarded to playwrights, composers, book writers, lyricists: the people who write the work. If you can't tell the difference between what's on the page and what's on the stage, then you have no business ignoring the advice of people who can. The Pulitzer board has never given the slightest indication that it's in possession of this skill.

Surely every playwright has been foiled by an actor or director or designer's misunderstanding of the text, or inability to communicate it; that happens to Shakespeare every day of the week, and has for hundreds of years. Lucky for him, we don't base our estimation of him on the countless god-awful productions of his work. But even Shakespeare's plays can be elevated in production beyond what's written. That's part of the beauty of theater. A good drama critic, like anyone else steeped in the art, can see through the performance to the play underneath.

Also important in McNulty's piece: Although he praises "Next to Normal," he calls "its understanding of mental illness simplistic." This year's Pulitzer winner is arguably entertaining (not in my opinion; the box office begs to differ) -- but truthful, dramatically or otherwise? Hardly.

April 13, 2010 12:02 PM |

I had a great arts-criticism experience recently--discovering a work of criticism that wasn't just a terrific piece of writing but opened my eyes to something I'd never really considered as an art form before. I stumbled onto Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez's fat Penguin paperback Perfumes: The A-Z Guide on a display rack at Powell's, idly opened it to a random page, cracked up laughing after two sentences, opened it to a few more random pages, saw something smart or hilarious or both on each of those pages, and realized I had to buy it.

I know nothing at all about perfume, but I know sharp critical writing when I see it. Turin and Sanchez's brief reviews of 1800+ scents (which begin with one to five stars, one to four dollar signs and a two-word description) are amusingly vicious about the ones they hate, amusingly effusive about the ones they love, and just plain amusing about the rest, and they're also so effectively informative and descriptive that I could basically get a sense of what they were talking about most of the time, despite having absolutely no grounding in their technical terms. (They do include a brief glossary in the back of the book, and some general overviews of perfume history and masculine and feminine perfumes up front.)

Before long, I was calling up friends to share my favorite bits--it felt like I was 18 and discovering Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide all over again. I gravitated toward the zingers first (on Creed's Love in Black: "Such is the sheer volume of this accord that it causes olfactory illusions, like the weird clicks one hears in an ambulance horn up close, and one ends up smelling incongruous things like cup noodles and linseed oil. Ah, I know why the ambulance is there: iris just suffered a disfiguring car crash"). But the more I read, the more I appreciated the compact precision of their writing, and the way they can load a sentence with both information and comedy: "Jean-François Laporte was, as always, far ahead of his time in 1978 when he grabbed the wrist of whoever was weighing out the candyfloss (ethylmaltol) in his new vanillic amber and forced in ten times more than anyone had ever dared."

As you might expect, they resort to non-scent comparisons a lot, in part because describing perfumes in terms of other perfumes is only funny or meaningful if the reader catches the reference. On Thierry Mugler's Angel Pivoine, for instance: "This together-at-last fragrance pits Giant Transvestite against Ditzy Blonde from Hell." On examining the review of Angel proper, it turns out that that's the giant transvestite: "Although Angel is sold as a gourmand for girls, spoken of as if it were a fudge-dipped berry in a confectioner's shop, it's all lies. Look out for Angel's Adam's apple: a handsome, resinous, woody patchouli straight out of the pipes-and-leather-slippers realm of men's fragrance, in a head-on collision with a bold blackcurrant (Neocaspirene) and a screechy white floral." I can barely even count the metaphors in that passage, but I can actually imagine the scent they're describing. That takes some doing.

I'm also glad to see that Turin and Sanchez are what some music-critic types would call "poptimists" in discussing what my own cultural biases tell me would have to be one of the most aristocratic of media: Tommy Girl, for instance, gets five stars, and Turin's review notes that "no fragrance in recent memory has suffered more for being affordable." I gather from Sanchez's introduction, "How to Connect Your Nose to Your Brain"--which is actually labeled as an "Introduction to Perfume Criticism," and describes some of the difficulties of critically assessing perfume in the first place--that there's not a lot of other perfume criticism in print, and that there is nonetheless a huge and contentious online fragrance underground. (Of course.) I don't have enough interest in perfume itself to try to track their contemporaries down--although I suspect I will probably jot down a few brand names to sniff the next time I'm at a department store. Mostly, I'm impressed with the wit and specificity of Turin and Sanchez's writing, and if in fact they're among the inventors of an entire division of criticism, I'm even more impressed.

March 22, 2010 10:05 PM |

Already there's worry here that the assembled writers and critics are going to do too much griping, out loud, about the state of arts journalism. It's a legitimate concern. Thankfully, others out there in the big world are thinking about some of the "issues." This very week, coincidentally (or maybe not!?, let's ask George Bernard Shaw's ghost), the comic known as Get Fuzzy has been mulling what "expertise" means as it relates to reviewing.

Click here for Monday's strip.

March 5, 2010 7:17 AM |
Superego 1997.jpg
David Byrne's blog qualifies. 
Don't you want to know what he's thinking? Inject his journal. No BS. He's about what he sees, including photographs of ugly beauty. He derives spiritual elation from the Renaissance Hotel in Dallas, for crying out loud. And so will you, when you see his pic. Byrne consistently takes the artist's point of view, because he is one. (Read his take on the BCAM opening in LA and on the Murakami show). Who said criticism is dead? His rapid mental shifts, seering eye, probing opinion and compulsive desires brand criticism as it thrives right now. But you are probably already RSS feeding...
April 14, 2008 11:06 PM |


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