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.
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.