Arts Commentary: Can Criticism Be Too Positive Too Often?

How much do you really know about a critic if all you have on record is what he or she likes and why? At some point staying mum about the negative looks less like tenderhearted support or good manners and more like cowardice or a lack of seriousness.

By Bill Marx

Dance Critic Deborah Jowitt — leaving THE VILLAGE VOICE after decades.

The news that veteran, award-winning dance critic Deborah Jowitt will no longer regularly review for The Village Voice, though she will still contribute occasional features and interviews to the newspaper, leaves me more puzzled than upset. The incident has more to do with misconceptions about the purposes of criticism (as well as its diminished power) than a clash of principle. As long as our definition of criticism is shaped by intellectual wobbliness (critic as consumer guide or axe-grinding blogger) and a lack of imagination (shared, alas, by critics and editors alike), we will have these pseudo-conflicts, followed by sobs from some readers about the end of a golden era. The irony is that the Web supplies an efficient and positive solution to the sticky Jowitt/VV situation. Too bad neither party appears to have thought of it.

Granted, the editorial chops of VV Arts and Culture editor Brian Parks, billed as an “award-winning playwright who also oversees food coverage and supervises the food blog” (Note: how do you supervise a blog?) look a bit shaky. But his statement about Jowitt’s decision to leave her post contains a trenchant argument. He writes that her reviews of dance are generally positive and that an ever sunny approach does not reflect reality: “But of course all of us in arts journalism know that every arts field has all sorts of bad or mediocre work going on, many times by established figures and in prominent venues. This work needs to be addressed and challenged by a paper’s critics, just as the good work needs to be saluted. That’s part of a newspaper’s vigorous critical practice . . .” That is absolutely true—criticism lacks credibility if it only finds things to admire, partly because we evaluate critics based on how well they back up, with evidence and reasons, the judgments they make.

How much do you really know about a critic if all you have on record is what he or she likes and why? At some point staying mum about the negative looks less like tenderhearted support or good manners and more like cowardice or a lack of seriousness.

The truth is that that the majority of what is churned out in the arts every year (books, plays, dance performances, etc) is mediocre. If critics like all or a majority of what they review, it undercuts public perceptions of the honesty and independence of their verdicts—commercial and editorial pressures (the call to please artists and editors in order to keep positions or to remain well liked in the arts community) trump the need to make (and explain) hard aesthetic judgments.

There is an interesting complication. Jowitt, I suspect, sees criticism as a necessary means to support dance as an art form. She doesn’t challenge Park’s characterization of her reviews, and her vision of criticism as a means for encouraging analysis rather than judgment is a respected part of the history of arts criticism. For some important critics in the past, the purpose of criticism is to illuminate, educate, and engage audiences, not risk turning them off. Generally, the most powerful supportive critics have used their writing to fight for art that they felt was being unfairly neglected by mainstream culture—the rhetorical strategy is to make audiences aware of the difficult talent on the margins, to explore the compelling value of art that, because of moral or stylistic reasons, puts off audiences who, given sufficient understanding, would see what they were missing.

A scene in Village Voice editor Brian Parks’ play AMERICAN ABSURDUM

This is a valuable task for criticism, despite the dangers to intellectual independence that it poses. But those supportive reviewers, while they champion a certain kind of art, also wrote negative reviews of work they considered was unfairly overvalued by other critics and the culture. As Eric Bentley insists, the responsibility of the reviewer is exclaim from time to time to the mesmerized crowds that the Emperor Has No Clothes, if only because he or she doesn’t want the public to waste its time on inferior work but turn its attention to genuinely exciting creative accomplishments. In that sense, the critic must set him or herself against the machinery of publicity and fashion to point out where real value lies. This has always been a crucial part of the job.

But Jowitt champions the art form of dance in her reviews, which inevitably raises the issue of credibility that Parks points out. All-out supportive critics believe that the art they critique survives by fragile means, its existence under dire economic siege, so it must be protected and bolstered by generally positive notices. Culture queen Joyce Carol Oates has written that she will only review books that she likes. There are not enough readers she points out—why discourage any? The slippery intellectual and ethical slope is obvious: we have local theater enthusiasts who say that they will not include anything negative in their observations of productions—instead, they bring their reservations to the director. Alas, the reader is not part of that friendly conversation.

But Jowitt, a respected dance historian and author, is light years away from your common theater groupie. The answer is not to have Jowitt withdraw from the VV because they want her to change her approach, but for Parks and Jowitt to recognize the educational value of her stance and balance it in a wider dialogue about the value of dance today. Granted, column inches are limited in the paper version of VV, but that is dying out. So is the idea that publications need to foster an all-powerful critic who represents the “brand” of the publication? More and more people are looking for credible places to find arts criticism online: why not include Jowitt’s reviews, written as she would like them, with more judgment pieces by others on the same dance performance?

By doing this, VV would present an edited page that enhances critical thinking on dance productions. Some fiery dance critics will no doubt want to be affiliated with the VV, and if Parks picks knowledgeable reviewers who write and think well, backing up their discriminating judgments (both good and bad), with discerning analysis, then Jowitt will have a provocative home for her ideas. It seems to me that online offers a superb opportunity to include, rather than exclude, different approaches to reviewing. There was a time, decades ago, when VV expanded our conception of arts criticism—it could do so again.

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. Thea Singer on June 10, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Why would it ever be in the realm of an editor to determine whether a review of a subject he/she knows little about should be positive or negative? I wonder what Parks’s real agenda is here. When editors dismiss critics because they are “too negative,” the real problem may be that they don’t want to offend an outfit that may be a potential advertiser (I know, the thought is shocking). When they do the opposite, as with Jowitt, I wonder if the real issue is that they think nastiness will get more readers/sell more papers (sensationalism IS the order of the day; critic as reality-TV star?).

    The fact of the matter is, Deborah Jowitt’s approach has never been “ever sunny.” Her writing is much too dense, her insights too nuanced, to be characterized as such. She calls it as she sees it — but, responsible critic that she is, that “seeing” is not just her little opinion (thumbs up! thumbs down!) but based on evidence: knowledge, history, context. In fact, she can be downright negative. Consider: “A charge of prudishness or snobbery is often leveled at those who don’t adore Bejart. My distaste may stem from something even more fundamental and inescapable: I’m a woman, and Bejart’s choreography is savagely antifemale.” (VV, 1977) Or this: “One of Feld’s weaknesses as a choreographer is evident in Anatomic Balm. He makes phrases in which a great many intricate changes of position, direction, and shape happen while advancing the dancer very little through space. Too much of this, and you begin to wish he would ease up a little and let someone just tear around for a minute.” (VV, 1980)

    Parks talks about “mediocre” work. OK, then. What is more valuable in maintaining a vibrant arts community: Constructive criticism of mediocre work aiming to educate as it judges, or trashing a piece and leaving readers smirking? With no words, often no story, and sometimes no music, dance can be the most elusive of the arts, the most difficult to understand. “I just don’t get it” is a common refrain on leaving the theater. Jowitt’s work has been criticized as being “too descriptive” rather than “judgmental.” But how can you possibly comment in a way that will make sense to someone who hasn’t been at the show without first describing/analyzing what’s been on the stage? For a writer of Jowitt’s caliber, judgment is implicit in the description and analysis.

    Bill, I think your conclusion is a good one: “The answer is not to have Jowitt withdraw from the VV because they want her to change her approach, but for Parks and Jowitt to recognize the educational value of her stance and balance it in a wider dialogue about the value of dance today. ” I differ, however, with your call for “fiery” critics to take her place. Some “fiery” critics contribute to the discussion while others provide lots of heat but no light. What good is the latter to anyone?

    I’m going to end this with Jowitt’s own words, an excerpt from the Preface to her book The Dance in Mind, where she explains a bit about her view of the critic’s role:

    “Some years ago, in Philadelphia, at a conference on Dance and Philosophy, Alan Kriegsman of the Washington Post articulated more lucidly than I ever had a concept of the critic’s role that he and I share: he spoke of contributing to the ‘hum’ surrounding a work. We all acknowledge the ephemerality of dancing…. Critical writing, along with the response (public and private) to what is written, lobby conversations, interviews, dancers’ tales, and so on cling to a dance performance, making it resonate in the memory, prolonging its life. To add to that ‘hum’ by stimulating thought,and perhaps dissent- – that’s what continues to interest me….

    “I’d like my words to be a bridge to the work, a window opening on it…. It’s this goal that accounts for the amount of space I give to description. You can’t report a dance as if it were a fire, and the essence of a work may utterly vanish in an earnest listing of what body part did what. But there is a kind of descriptive writing that evokes the dance, without pretending to account for every minute of it. The writings on dance I most admire–whether these are are by my contemporaries or lions of the past, like Edwin Denby or H.T. Parker — conjure up vivid images of dancers and what they are doing on stage. Opinion is supported by examples or emerges through description. Some of my favorite pieces of dance writing are highly ‘critical,’ others are not; but none is without the strong flavor of an individual’s vision and an individual’s feeling.

    “Of all the kinds of criticism likely to harm dance, dull criticism tops the list.”

  2. Sally Cragin on June 11, 2011 at 11:15 am

    How sad, but how unsurprising. This frees DJ up to expand her operation. We all know newspapers that pastured talented senior people becau$se of other rea$$$on$. I think DJ just finally outgrew the VV. Their loss…

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts