The Judicial Review — What Is It?

There is now an eighth Judicial Review, with the panel deliberating on the Boston University College of Fine Arts production of the 1990 Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical “Assassins,” which looks at the lives and sensibilities of men and women who attempted (successfully or otherwise) to kill the President of the United States.

Below: background on the idea behind the Judicial Review

I am not sure that men at present think more profoundly than half a century ago, but beyond question they think with more rapidity, with more skill, with more tact, with more method and less of excrescence in the thought. Besides all this, they have a vast increase in the thinking material; they have more facts, more to think about. For this reason, they are disposed to put the greatest amount of thought in the smallest compass and disperse it with the utmost attainable rapidity. — Edgar Allan Poe, 1845

By Bill Marx

Edgar Allan Poe — Not only a great American poet and short story writer, but the finest American critic of the nineteenth century.

In the early 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe demanded an American criticism of the arts and humanities crafted to educate and intellectually stimulate the public. For him, reviews should engage and challenge readers about compelling cultural issues -— from considerations of the evolving identity of American art to the controversial politics of cultural influence—in ways that reflect the fast-moving rhythms and diversity of American society.

For Poe, the best criticism serves as a lively bridge between thinkers with far-reaching ideas in the humanities and a varied readership interested in seriously but efficiently discussing the arts, culture, and society.

The Arts Fuse is taking up that challenge, using the opportunities proffered by the internet to refashion criticism of the arts and humanities in ways that meet Poe’s demands, which are now more inviting than ever, given the power of the Internet to connect artists, critics, and audiences. Two years ago we received a grant from Mass Humanities to help create five Judicial Reviews, our innovative response to Poe’s ideal.

The inspiration for the Judicial Review is the U.S. Supreme Court. Arts events will be evaluated by local panels of “judges” who will post majority and dissenting opinions in the form of written reviews or via video or podcasts.

Our aim is to create and maintain, online, an in-depth and interactive discussion of the issues raised by the arts—social, cultural, political -— among academics, critics, artists, and the wider public. The arts that will be covered range from books (fiction as well as non-fiction) to dance, music (jazz, classical, popular), theater, film, and the visual arts.

The panel will be made up of a combination of professional critics, humanities scholars, and non-professional observers. The “case” will be presented to the readers of the cultural selection under consideration -— perhaps the text of the play, video clips of the film or a dance performance, a recording of the concert, or excerpts from the book.

Once the judgments have been rendered, there will be summaries of the “Majority” and “Minority” opinions with an invitation to the feature’s readers to respond to the judges, who may want to question each other as well.

The Supreme Court calls for “Friend of the Court” briefs. The Judicial Review will invite artists themselves to have their say, to contribute to a respectful exchange of views and ideas. Humanities scholars will contribute “sidebars” providing the cultural and historical background of the performance, exhibition, or written piece.

Consulting scholars to the Judicial Review will help chose the academics for the panels and will contribute “sidebars” to the project as well as writing reviews and participating in some discussions.

Finally, the arts organization under review will be encouraged to file opinions and responses. Links within Judicial Review pages will encourage readers to follow an argument about a certain topic, providing links to sites that contain more information about the topic, the cultural and historical background, the artists, and the panelists.

In these ways, the Judicial Review expands on the traditional, at times needlessly antagonistic, conversation among critic, humanities scholar, and artist. The heuristic value of the process is that it welcomes a variety of voices to evaluate and educate readers, who will, in some cases, be invited to become judges on other panels.

Our goal is to introduce a supervised space for educational, passionate, and incisive conversation about the arts that draws on the strengths of various levels of expertise, including the broad range of the humanities. By doing so, it is hoped that the judges will learn from each other as well as offer perspectives that invite responses that will deepen readers understanding of the arts, the humanities, and the craft of criticism.

More important, the Judicial Review is designed to go beyond specific criticism of the arts performance under consideration. Because different voices—humanities scholar and professional critic, amateur and artist, arts producer and arts consumer—will interact with each other and readers, the process will inevitably tackle humanities issues raised by arts and culture.

According to the acceptance letter from Mass Humanities, the panel was very impressed by the prototype of the project, which examines the production of The Overwhelming by Company One in Boston. “The example made clear the power of your idea,” observes the panel, which was also excited at the prospect of contributing to the creation of an “alternative approach to arts criticism.”

The panel also felt that the team behind The Arts Fuse was “excellent and that if anyone could make a go of this they (and you included) could.” We appreciated the vote of confidence —- 7 Judicial Reviews are posted and others are on the way. Readers interested in participating, or in helping to fund future Judicial Reviews, should email me at—or via snail mail at

The Arts Fuse
P.O. Box 441283
Somerville, MA 02144

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