Response: Critical Justification

A certain number of people (not huge) want to read critics who take the arts seriously, who do more than tell readers what is worth spending their money on.

By Bill Marx

Thomas Garvey asks me some compelling questions in his post, and I want to address them because they touch on some of the reasons I have started writing this blog.

First, I want to get some of the silliness out of the way. I am not now nor have I ever been a Marxist, I have no hatred of “filthy lucre” nor do I resent theaters that make money, and I never described my job as wanting to “shut down as many small theaters as possible.” Garvey faults me for panning shows he admits were theatrically dead. So would it have been better if I had lied? There were critics who wrote raves about those productions – and the corpses stayed stiff. I am far from nostalgic for the days of the Globe’s Kevin Kelly. I do miss my friend and reviewing mentor, the Herald theater critic Arthur Friedman.

The irony is that I don’t have any ill feelings towards Garvey, though he still seems to hold a grudge due to reviews I wrote, many years ago, about productions he was involved with. I invited him to write for the WBUR arts blog because I admired the spiky gumption of his reviews. I still do. I don’t always agree with his verdicts, but any criticism worth its salt (more about that later) should stimulate thought and his reviews are, at their best, knowledgeable and provocative. His approach evokes the spirit of Tynan and Simon – like them, he is combative and impassioned. He doesn’t suffer fools lightly.

Garvey wrongly believes that I was outraged when the Huntington Theatre Company quoted from his WBUR arts blog review of Love’s Labour’s Lost. The arts blog was designed to be a place where different views of the same production could be posted. I was glad that Garvey contributed his reaction, but wanted to clarify that the words came from him and not from me. I have no problem when quotes are attributed accurately from reviews. The main thrust of the column I wrote afterwards was not to question his view, but to examine issues related to critical attribution and the rise of online reviewers.

But criticism becomes mindless mush when reviewers fill it with hyperbole tailored to wind up as ad copy. That is why the gush-ridden Globe reviews I wrote about recently irritated me so. They didn’t go into why the productions merited the praise, analysis that would do credit to the theater artists as well as make the shows appealing to potential ticket buyers. The critics reel off adjectives instead, which is boring and disposable in a blurb-saturated culture. When stage criticism provides reasons for its verdicts it serves the theater by articulating values and raising the standards of discussion. And it should also be a pleasure to read. That is why reviews should stand on their own as stylish pieces of prose – at least critics should make an attempt.

Garvey agrees with me that the current Globe regime doesn’t want serious theater critics. His charge is that I don’t have the authority to say so. I am tainted – I have written puff pieces! It would be hard to find a theater critic, especially a second-stringer, who hasn’t. Even the NYT assigns Ben Brantley occasional personality features. When I wrote theater and book reviews for the Phoenix and then for the Globe I supplemented the meager fees paid freelancers by producing fluff. I wasn’t happy about grinding out publicity pieces; I am not alone in disliking that part of the job. When WBUR hired me, I stopped doing features as soon as I could and concentrated on reviews in the online magazine. I haven’t covered up the fact that I sinned – but throughout the decades I never forgot the difference between advertising and criticism and never stopped believing that preserving the distinction matters.

But does it matter all that much? Garvey’s second charge is that hard-hitting criticism has no beneficial effect. He insists that the Boston stage scene blossomed while my vitriol flowed in reviews that misled readers and harmed theater companies. If that level of impact was extremely arguable then (the ability of second-string critics to close shows was exaggerated), those days are long gone. Thankfully, the era of the concentration of critical power (and authority) in the hands of a few publications and radio stations is ending.

As I have written in the blog, I agree with Garvey that theater critics have less influence than ever before and in many ways that is a liberating development. If reviewers have no power over the box office, it will free them to champion theater by expressing honest and pointed evaluations of productions rather than bowing to the perception that reviewing is primarily about increasing a show’s ticket sales. What will be at stake online is the quality of the discussion, with opinions surely clashing over what is right and wrong with Boston theater.

What is exciting about the Web is that those who care about theater in Boston can exchange contrasting views — Garvey and I are only two critical voices in the crowd. The city’s herd of mainstream critics tended to give the ART the benefit of the doubt too often. I handed the troupe a goodly share of pans, but I didn’t dislike everything at the ART — I disagree with Garvey about Olly’s Prison, for example. The Web presents opportunities for interaction and community-building, as well as the space for prolonged argument, that encourages reasoned discussions from a variety of kibitzers about a production’s merits and demerits. If, as Garvey claims, Boston theater is better than ever that’s great – it will make reviewing a joy. But I am also interested in reading others who might not think the same way.

But I don’t want to hedge here. If criticism has no power to change the arts, either for the better or for the worse, and no commercial clout, what is the justification for negative reviews? Admiring reviews are at least safe – they might be wrong but do no grievous harm, aside from sometimes sending readers to mediocre shows. Garvey himself has written stinging critiques. Why should anybody read them? Garvey, who poses these questions, provides an answer with his piece on the legacy of Pauline Kael. What is the value-added, Tom, in your acidic consideration of the state of film criticism? You attack Kael’s impact while fighting for film artists you believe in and provide an example of what effective criticism should be. The payoff for the reader is in the intellectual stimulation you provide, the chance to butt heads with your ideas and sensibility.

A certain number of people (not huge) want to read critics who take the arts seriously, who do more than tell readers what is worth spending their money on. As you say on your blog, it is a crime that Harvard students are not familiar with Ingmar Bergman. When they hear about him, will they run out and rent a Bergman DVD, adding some lucre to the late genius’s estate? If they do, that’s all to the good. But in the Kael piece you are doing the artists you value honor by making an argument, by raising crucial issues of culture and taste. Yours is not the final word, only part of an ongoing debate. As you point out, there is a castle-in-the-air quality to criticism, particularly theater reviews, most of which are ephemera after the critiqued shows close. The best a reviewer can strive for is to do right by his love of the art of the theater and the craft of criticism, backing up his conclusions with analysis rather than puff.

Why did reviewing start? People wanted to swap opinions about what they had seen or read the night before. Professionalism and the academy arrived, but the primal urge to evaluate and discriminate remains. And the Web is the perfect place for millions to exercise that yen. Why are bloggers writing about every aspect of culture? Most are not getting paid and few exert much influence on ticket or book sales. Granted, flexing the ego has always been a part of criticism, but the Web explosion is about more than that – it is about people sharing judgments, enthusiasms, experiences, and knowledge. A lot of the arts criticism online is junk, but some of it is superb.

I intend to get back to writing incisive criticism. I have been talking about journalistic reviewing on my blog because I am fascinated by the migration of arts criticism from the mainstream print media to the Internet. Will the approaches of the great models of the past – George Bernard Shaw, James Agee, Samuel Johnson – be relevant in the world of online reviewing? What forms will evaluation of the arts take online? The rise of cultural commentary on the Web is a major turning point in the history of arts criticism. I am curious (and optimistic) about the changes: I will comment on them as well as write online reviews that may kick up some dust.

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.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts