Critical Condition: Why Be Negative? Don’t Ask “The New York Times”

If the New York Times can’t make a reasonable case for the need for discrimination rather than salesmanship, we are in real trouble.

By Bill Marx

I hear complaints from some readers, critics, publicists and artists whenever I question the quality of arts criticism at major Boston media outlets, The Boston Globe, WBUR’s ARTery, and WGBH. Everybody has a right to work their side of the street, they advise. Don’t take potshots — just let the media giants do their thing. You do yours. They don’t demand incisive criticism? Mostly spew out praise? So what? Let ARTery and company deliver the gush that sells tickets. Rose-colored criticism maintains the peace because it keeps everybody happy – publicists, institutions, foundations, and artists. Why raise the alarm? Ignore the mainstream media and supply what you believe is more thoughtful and hard-hitting evaluation of the arts.

Fair enough, but the problem is that these outlets shape how we (editors as well as the public) define arts criticism. When people are only exposed to the ‘thumbs up” school of reviewing it inevitably lowers standards across the board. Why should mediocre criticism be given a pass? There are plenty of attacks on shoddy news reporting; a number of websites are honorably dedicated to holding reporters and commentators accountable. Why should today’s elimination/ dumbing down of arts criticism be different – unless it reflects a general cultural attitude that devalues the arts and their importance in our lives? Shouldn’t the media be questioning that melt-down rather than encouraging it?

Given the mainstream media’s resources — they pay critics, and that is becoming frighteningly rare — these professional outlets have the responsibility to post quality arts criticism, just as they do with their news coverage. When they flounder, it is bad for criticism and for the arts. So when co-chief New York Times theater critic Jesse Green pens an inept argument for The Agony and Ecstasy of Writing Negative Reviews it should be noted and protested. If the New York Times can’t make a reasonable case for the need for discrimination rather than salesmanship, we are in real trouble.

The occasion is Green’s March 21 column, a reaction to blowback to his pan of the new Jimmy Buffet musical Escape to Margaritaville. Buffet fans (known as “Parrotheads”) came out in force to denounce the critic, calling him a snob, among other names. Green says they have a right to their feelings and he has a right to his. Then he goes onto to consider why critics are duty bound to write negative reviews when the occasion calls for it. The problem is that Green’s explanation doesn’t make much sense. To the point that I wonder if there was a Times editor in the house.

He writes:

What I couldn’t control for is taste. Arts criticism is in some ways a paradox, like Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Critics try to make objective judgments based on responses they know to be subjective.

The strained connection (“in some ways”) with taste and the line from the Moore poem is absurd because critics don’t “try to make objective judgments.” They aren’t scientists making empirical measurements. They deliver subjective judgements that are backed up by their expertise, evidence, and analysis. Journalistic arts criticism is essentially a form of rhetoric — reviews are about calibration, education, persuasion, a consideration of aesthetic and social value. At its core, criticism is a very subjective craft. Green goes on to claim that the best part of theater is often about disagreement –“fighting about the show.” Really? I prefer discussion over Twitter wars.

Green then argues that it was his responsibility to pan the production: “Not just because the theater needs to set a higher bar for musicals. And not just because — let’s be honest — writing pans is invigorating.” The latter point is honest, but what, for a critic, could be more important than fighting to raise the standards of the art form? Reviewing is not just about informing consumers about where they should spend their leisure dollars — shouldn’t negative reviews be about pushing the art form in the right direction? As close as Green gets to this idea is when he writes that penning negative reviews “means providing theatrical or social context, arguing a position clearly and, yes, getting in a few zingers.”

Green arrives at the higher calling of the negative in his wind-up:

What really makes a pan a responsibility is that criticism is a form of journalism, which is, in theory, a form of truth. A critic reports honestly on his own thoughts and feelings, as if they were a war or a trial. They often are both.

Arts criticism is “in theory, a form of truth.” What in the world does that mean? A critic should be honest — isn’t that a given? Should a critic be proud that he or she didn’t lie? Of course, a reviewer is honest in a far different way than a reporter who puts together a news story. A critic makes subjective judgments about artistic quality; the verdicts should be fair-minded (in the sense of being disinterested) but far from reflecting a ‘fly on the wall’ neutrality. Is Green suggesting that we should be thankful for negative reviews because they prove critics don’t lie? Has arts coverage become that corrupt? Does that mean that those reviewers who rarely utter a negative word are not speaking “a form of truth”?

Here is why we need negative reviews. Because they reflect an eternal truth: all the blurbs in the universe will not eradicate the fact that much in the arts is mediocre. Pans also provide the means for the reader to evaluate the critic: we learn as much about someone from why they dislike something then why they like something. And negative reviews prove that the critic takes the arts seriously enough to risk defining success and failure, to draw an aesthetic red line, to proclaim to the Parrotheads that the emperor has no clothes. H. L. Mencken insisted that negative reviews serve a positive function — “to clear the ground of mouldering rubbish” — thereby creating a healthier culture in which genuinely valuable art had a chance to be recognized. That is the paradox raised by negative reviews of the arts — the imaginary garden will only thrive once you pull out the real weeds.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. Gerald Peary on March 26, 2018 at 10:27 pm

    How I agree with H.L. Mencken on the need “to clear the ground of mouldering rubbish.” People don’t have to be artists. The world doesn’t need another painter, actor, poet, filmmaker. But it always needs TALENTED painters, actors, poets, filmmakers.

    • Bill Marx on March 26, 2018 at 10:38 pm

      The essay containing the H. L. Mencken quotation defending negative criticism is “Private Reflections,” collected in Smart Set Criticism, edited by William H. Nolte. Much edifying material there and elsewhere in the volume that our contemporary critics should take to heart, such as among the critic’s duties is to fight for the freedom of the artist. I would add that Mencken sees negative reviews as being about more than zingers (he was a master) but as important contributions to the health of the culture. Bad art steals attention and resources from the good, making it harder for excellence and experimentation to survive, even on the margins.

  2. Mary Jane Doherty on March 28, 2018 at 5:32 pm

    Not to mention – as so few understand – a true CRITIQUE, whether negative or positive, is a gift. It means the viewer considered the material, offered a response. True makers of art want to grow and learn; a thoughtful critique is one of the most efficient ways to further that process.

  3. Lou Harry on March 31, 2018 at 2:44 pm

    Bravo. As a critic, I found Green’s column insulting and assumptive. This piece is an important step in making sure his definition isn’t the one that stands.

    • Bill Marx on March 31, 2018 at 5:27 pm

      Thanks. From Voltaire’s Candide: “‘Monsieur, how many plays have been produced in France,’ Candide asked the Abbot, who answered, ‘Five or six thousand.’ ‘That is a great many,’ Candide said. ‘And how many of them are good?’ ‘Fifteen or sixteen,’ the other replied. ‘That is a great many,’ Martin said.”

  4. Franklin on April 2, 2018 at 8:19 am

    As much as I adore Mencken, if critics were really capable of “clearing the ground of rubbish,” there would be much less bad art than there is. We’re here to demonstrate the exercise of taste in hopes of inspiring readers to exercise their own. For better or worse, that’s about the extent of it. The purpose of negative criticism is the same as that of positive criticism, to be true to taste. That act of being true is more important than the positivity or negativity per se.

    • Bill Marx on April 2, 2018 at 11:13 am

      We are not far apart. Mencken argued that negative reviews play a positive role — alerting readers to junk, and suggesting that attention would be better spent with the real thing. Criticism served a diagnostic cultural role (along with its educational and iconoclastic value), but the man who coined the term Boobus Americanus was under no illusion the artistic rubbish would be moved. Still, the effort needed to be made, if only as a cleansing assertion of aesthetic judgment.

  5. Luigi Nonono on April 2, 2018 at 11:25 am

    The great Virgil Thomson said that a reviewer, as I recall, should document the event. Though he did fall into the trap of expressing personal opinions, prejudices and principles; he did not recommend doing that. Critics are mostly writers with an interest in the arts. That does not qualify one to write reviews. Would you have such a critic at juries in a conservatory? No, but they too often act like a juror. Even Alex Ross admitted he did not study to be a musician. If you have not done so, you are NOT qualified to issue opinions and evaluations of someone’s playing. You can describe the event and their effect on the audience, but you cannot make value judgments, unless you are a skilled, trained musician, or theater person, or artist.

    The typical critic occupies a semi-philosophical abstract zone in which an artist either meets or fails to meet their expectations. This is the worst, the most damaging kind of reviews, and this is what is killing off critics right and left, because who really wants to read that crap? It just becomes gossip. The standards must be higher, not only for writing talent, but for actual training in the arts. This is what makes Peter Dobrin much more perceptive, because he actually was a musician, if only a hornist. He understands the relationship between a conductor and orchestra, even if he is a terrible snob about whom he reviews or doesn’t review. And that’s another issue. Critics have become elitist snobs, following the example of the NY Times, for some inexplicable reason, and fail to attend “local” events by “local” artists, debuts and the like, which has in effect, killed the solo recital. It is nearly impossible for many people to get an audience anymore, because without reviews, their interest has not been guided to that kind of concert, to appreciate its values, and it is the most important, foundational musical event there is, equivalent to a one-man show by an actor, which always gets treated as an event.

    No, there is far too much about reviewing that is unfair. I heard about a web publication in New York that actually charges a hefty fee for a review. That’s just outrageous of them.

    It used to be that the critics at major newspapers or magazines were good enough writers to have their reviews collected and published in books. One of the important things about that is that those books then become records of all the concert events that took place, that are otherwise lost in time. Few places save programs. Orchestra websites do not archive past performances, as they should. Critics, therefore, have a responsibility to write well enough to warrant such collections. The New Yorker, to show another fault, heavily favors opera and new music in its reviews (and previews), and has done so for decades, which is damaging to everything else.

    If people read the reviews as avidly as they do the funnies, critics would not be losing their jobs. So fix yourselves first before complaining. I wonder what they teach in the workshops and courses on writing about music, reviewing, etc. It’s probably crap.

    • Bill Marx on April 2, 2018 at 5:13 pm

      This response, though a touch rant-y, raises some interesting points. I can’t find a place where the great Virgil Thomson insists that superior critics are required to have been trained in the art form they are critiquing. Many terrific critics — of music, literature, etc — were not practitioners of an art form or ‘trained.” In a generous 1957 review of the collected critiques of Boston Post/New York Times critic Olin Downes, Thomson asserts the reviewer was “like all good critics, a participant observer.” That does not mean Downes was a reporter; he was subjective, applying his distinctive prejudices and principles. Thomson quotes Downes, approvingly, on this issue: “Criticism, of course, has value only in ratio to the strength and distinction of it subjective element.” (Jesse Green take note.) A good critic, writes Thomson, has a “talent for letters” and “a talent for judgment and no fear of using it … A good reviewer does not have to be right; he has only to have a good mind and to speak it. And if his judgments are both informed and sincere, they will, like the best of the music he reviews, both carry some conviction and bear, at least for a while, the test of time.” There is no mention of past musical training being a requirement.

      Some critics have been artists, bringing with it the inevitable charges of conflict of interest (Thomson has been rightfully accused of rewarding orchestras that played his compositions). A mediocre fiction writer (Edmund Wilson) can be a stellar critic of literature. Whether the critic studied the art form or not, the proof is always in the pudding when it comes to criticism — does the critic convey informed, sincere, and provocative judgments about the art form?

      A few other observations: critics bring expectations to performances — as do audience members — but they should be prepared to change those ideas as they experience what they are reviewing. Gossip should not be part of criticism, unless it illuminates the piece under discussion. Critics may or may not be snobs (understandably, the job tends to draw egotists), but they don’t always choose what they review — editors often make the call, so fault the right party. In my experience, critics sometimes are steered away from reviewing local fare because editors don’t think there is a wide enough readership or the budget is tight. There has been and always will be corrupt arts criticism — the online world is only exacerbating the practice. I agree that one of the purposes of criticism is to document the arts, and it has done so in the past. Granted, fewer large mainstream publishers are gathering reviews penned by critics, but smaller presses, in some cases, are picking up the slack. Besides, critics can archive their reviews online, so there is less of a need for the traditional publication route.

      Finally, there are a number of reasons why arts critics are fading away — never underestimate anti-intellectualism, lack of editorial support for first rate criticism, shrinking arts sections in newspapers and magazines, and the current mania for arts-writing-as-branding. But I agree that one reason is that too much criticism has become bland — the better minds that Thomson demands are going elsewhere.

  6. Gerald Peary on April 3, 2018 at 11:15 pm

    For thirty years, I was a film critic without having ever made a film. For the last dozen years, I am both a film critic and a filmmaker, in the midst now of completing my third non-fiction feature. Has my reviewing changed, improved, whatever since I now make movies, know what happens behind the camera? I don’t think so. My reviews seem the same, good or inept, you decide. I have been asked frequently, “Not that you make films and know how hard it is, aren’t you easier on films?” Absolutely not. It’s crazy making films, crazy hard, but finally it’s what’s up there on the screen that counts, however difficult it was, how many years it takes, to get there.

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