Arts 101: The Critic


Of all the misbegotten occupations in the world, critiquing art must be the most woeful.

Generally ranked below politicians, lawyers and call-in radio hosts in the scheme of societal disgust, an art critic at least can optimistically be considered several rungs above Bernie Madoff.

Called a parasite by artists, performers and authors, he or she usually is explained by the aphorism, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, write reviews.”

As actor Tyne Daly once said, “A critic is someone who never actually goes to the battle, yet who afterwards comes out shooting the wounded.”

Yes, it’s easy to hate the critic: the wizened, undernourished, snaggletoothed, envious person who can’t stand anyone’s success and does his or her best to point out every imagined imperfection with hideous glee.

Like the way critic Paul de Saint-Victor said “the music of Wagner imposes mental tortures that only algebra has the right to inflict.”

Or theater critic George Jean Nathan, who called J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” “the triumph of sugar over diabetes.”

You can see them wringing their hands, with malicious smiles on their lips, coming up with memorable lines of disapprobation.

“The play opened at 8:40 sharp and closed at 10:40 dull,” wrote Heywood Broun.

“The covers of this book are too far apart,” wrote Ambrose Bierce.

“I like reading people like (art critic) Robert Hughes, even though he can be so nasty,” Tucson artist Jim Waid says. “I enjoy it when it’s nasty, and it’s someone I don’t like, either.”

But there is more to criticism than the one-liner. And despite their miserable reputation, critics perform a valuable service. It would be hard to imagine an art world without critics to write about it.

Art’s best listener

Art is, after all, a conversation between artist and audience. In this equation, the critic functions as a first and best reader, viewer or listener. In fact, you should call a music critic a “professional listener.”

The arts, whether poetry, music, theater or visual, provide an experience that’s difficult to talk or write about. Like the old saying, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” critiquing art in many ways goes against the very fiber of the art experience.

Yet, without talking about what we have just witnessed, coming to terms with it can be very hard. This is especially true about any new art.

What is Jeff Koons trying to say when he floats a basketball in an aquarium? Or Damien Hirst, when he glues butterfly wings to paper? Is it art? Are they trying to pull a fast one? Or is there something to it but we lack the language to say what it is?

A first listener, reader or viewer can be utterly confused about what the art is trying to communicate. The critic becomes the guy who takes the first stab at figuring it out.

In this, the critic is risking as much as the artist — risking being wrong, and foolishly wrong. The history of criticism is full of critics whose judgment is contradicted by time. Remember all those critics who hated Beethoven’s music or trashed the Impressionist painters?

The language of art

But it isn’t simply the judgment that counts; it is the writing: Even a wrong judgment raises the important issues.

The critic invents the vocabulary for discussing art.

“I take over where the artist leaves off,” New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl said in a 2004 interview. “The reader takes over where I leave off.”

This is one of the critic’s most important functions.

For most people, whose primary exposure to critics is in the movie section of their daily newspaper, it can look as if the critic’s most important attribute is his thumb. “Me like.” “Me no like.”

And certainly, one of the functions of criticism is consumer guidance. Which film should you go see?

“The critics hated the latest Adam Sandler film.” This may be all the encouragement some people need to rush out to buy tickets. You know what you like, you learn what your local critic likes and you make a call.

But critics exist beyond their thumbs. They are there to think about what they’ve seen or heard.

“Criticism is about attempting to explain our deep, internal reactions to art and summarizing their significance,” says Zachary Lewis, classical-music critic with the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Talking points

In a way, a critic’s most important job is to model how to react to and talk about the experience. After all, art is notoriously difficult to put into words.

“All too often, I encounter listeners who want me to tell them what to think,” Lewis says. “They turn to me after a performance and ask, ‘Was that good?’

“That kind of mentality endows a critic with far too much power. My goal isn’t to tell people what to think, but rather to guide them toward forming a more informed opinion of their own.

“I wish more people felt empowered to trust their own opinions.”

It is true that some critics come across as experts. They know more than you do, or pretend to. But that misses the essential truth that art is meant to be enjoyed by anyone willing to put in the time and effort. Art isn’t made for experts; it’s made for you.

“I gave up reading Art Forum,” Waid says. “Too much impenetrable stuff. It made my head hurt.

“I do read a lot of art writing, and my general take is, I want them to be a good writer, whether I agree with them or not. If I cannot understand what they’re saying, if it’s so obscure with jargon, I know it’s their fault, not mine.”

A good critic has to be a good writer.

As Schjeldahl put it, “If people don’t want to read me, I starve. There are no rewards in being obscure or abstruse or overbearing for me.”

Unfortunately, too much art writing fails to follow Schjeldahl’s lead. Reading bad art criticism can be like chewing on an old mattress. Academic criticism is the worst.

The critic’s art

But the world is full of great critics whose work is fun to read. They provide a pleasure all their own. You read some clever phrase or surprising insight, and you recognize its truth with a smile: You recognize your own insight, expressed to you before you have been able to put it into words.

As Alexander Pope put it in his “Essay on Criticism:” “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

Good criticism is an art form all its own.

“I think it’s my job in part to act as an advocate for classical music and to hook people on the art through writing that’s succinct, informative and catchy,” Lewis says. “There’s nothing wrong with being entertaining.”

Of course, criticism has its public function, too. Sometimes, it functions as movie reviews do, as consumer guidance, but even for a one-night concert, a review can be important.

“There are many reasons for running concert reviews,” Lewis says. “First, simply by reviewing, you’re demonstrating that in the paper’s opinion, the event was significant.

“Second, you’re explaining to people who missed the event what it is exactly they missed so that maybe next time they’ll think twice about missing (or attending).

“No reporter would avoid covering a murder, fire or council meeting simply because it’s a one-shot deal.”

And, as Maryellen Gleason, Phoenix Symphony president and CEO, says, “It’s critical to have feedback.

“A critic’s opinion is just one opinion, but we welcome that. I view the critic as a supernova in the audience, more informed intellectually about the performance. We want to know what the critic thought.”

Even if it’s a negative review that makes others spew steam from their ears, causing them to question the qualifications, ancestry and motives of the critic.

After one disagreeable review, a reader accosted former Arizona Republic critic Dimitri Drobatschewsky and asked him angrily about his qualifications.

“Just what do you consider to be the most important qualification for a critic on a major metropolitan daily newspaper?” he asked.

Drobatschewsky looked him in the eye.

“I consider that the most important qualification for a critic on a major metropolitan daily newspaper be that he has a long and unpronounceable name.”

And it should be noted, finally, that critics don’t necessarily enjoy giving a poor notice. After all, they got into the business because they love their art form. That should never be forgotten.

As English critic Norman Lebrecht put it: “Great critics take their seats, whether in a Soho studio on a Monday morning or at the Metropolitan Opera on a gala night, prepared to fall in love.

“They may despise the producers and question the credentials of every cast member, but when the lights go down, their breathing quickens like a child’s on its birthday. Their verdict may amount to defamation and damnation in a brutal phrase that will resound for a generation, but the loathing they vent is the effluence of love, of an all-consuming love that has been rudely dashed but will quicken again tomorrow, regardless of today’s despair. The echo of that love is the legacy of a great critic.”

Published July 19, 2009 in The Arizona Republic.

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