There’s a bit of a firestorm on Twitter and on line these past few days about criticism (again), prompted in part by Polly Carl’s HowlRound post, “A New Year’s Diet for the Theater,” in which she cites my essay on “critical generosity” from Public. The offending phrase from my piece seems to be where I take Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood of the New York Times to task for not being responsible to the “deleterious effects” of their criticism, and where I suggest that criticism is “always political,” whether or not it’s “masked by the ‘objectivity’ that power bestows on their work.”
The offending moment in Polly’s piece seems to be where she argues that we should be “nicer”: “Let’s be nicer this year,” she proposes. “There is a growing critical edge to social media conversation that is beginning to wear on me.”
Some commentators on Twitter quickly conflated “critical generosity” with “nicer” and protested that being nice has nothing to do with criticism; that it gives feminism a bad name; and that daily critics don’t have the leisure to have an extended generous (whether or not “nice”) dialogue when they write about theatre.
George Hunka, in his blog post, “We are All Victims Now,” admitted, “Nobody likes a good round of Times-bashing more than I do,” but chastised me for not citing any of Brantley or Isherwood’s reviews “that would lend substance to [my] accusation of political, aesthetic, and ‘objective’ motivations for negative critical verdicts.” Then he digs up the old Arlene Croce debate in The New Yorker from 1994 about Bill T. Jones’s piece Still/Here, which Croce refused to review because she dubbed it “victim art.”
A peculiar gender bias haunts this conversation which, as Polly might note, blew up in edgy and quickly accusatory ways on Twitter (a format I find pithy but not really conducive to thoughtful and, I admit, generous commentary). That is, “nice” is quickly equated with a kind of sentimental, non-evaluative, dishonest, non-confrontational, frankly and stereotypically “feminine” kind of engagement. And daily critics—whether or not, I should say, they are men or women or any other mix of gender identifications—are positioned as the brawny, masculine laborers being stalwart and honest and clear as they do the difficult and sometimes painful but always necessary work of telling consumers where to spend their money on theatre.
That’s too bad.
I agree with Polly. The arts are beleaguered. We’re not “victims,” as Hunka accuses me and Polly of suggesting (I think). But I would expect most of us to agree that when money dries up for artistic experimentation and innovation and the nourishing of new voices, we should all be worried. I believe that we need to take care with the work we see and engage, to honor the impulse that produced it; to see it in a broad context of social relevance and meaning; to consider it through a variety of aesthetic and taste traditions; and whether or not we “like” it, not to dismiss it out of hand, even when we see its flaws and failures. That’s what I mean by critical generosity. Word count and daily deadlines shouldn’t excuse derogatory dismissal.
Critics—good, professional critics—are experts. We know a lot about theatre and performance. We know its history, its debates, its forms, genres, and contents. Many of us are experts in particular kinds of theatre and performance. I know a lot about feminist theatre, queer theatre, women playwrights and directors, self-avowed political theatre, contemporary American theatre, solo performance, and a few other things. But that doesn’t make me superior to the work about which I write. I don’t want to stand above the work. I want to see myself in conversation with what it means, how it feels, what other people thought about it, what it does in the world. And yes, I do want to engage with kindness and rigor. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. A performance can make me angry and I still want to write about it carefully and I hope kindly. That’s also what I mean by critical generosity. (See this story about a new blog that documents random acts of kindness by academics. It’s relevant.)
Any critic also has a perspective, a way of looking that guides their engagement. I would propose that ways of looking are always ideological, never objective (see John Berger’s foundational series and book, Ways of Seeing). But then, I’m a feminist. I don’t think power is equally distributed. The Times and its first- and second-string critics have a certain influence, power also determined by their relative status at the paper. Anyone writing for a daily paper has visibility that gives their words weight and meaning. And obviously, they negotiate with the editors and advertising managers who supervise them, and are beholden to deadlines and word counts that constrain their writing.
Arts critics’ positions are also being reduced or de-funded at daily papers all over the country, a trend that will certainly affect the discourse about arts in this country. How can we proactively reimagine, then, how we stage our conversations about theatre and performance?
I started this blog (nearly 10 years ago now) because I wanted a place for a counter-discourse, one in which I could participate in a different kind of conversation about the theatre and performance to which I’m committed. My writing isn’t beholden to editors, word counts, or advertisers; I have that beautiful freedom and leisure. My writing is political and ideological; but then, because I’m a feminist, I believe all writing is marked by position and power, that all writing is rhetorical and wants to persuade. Why else would we write?
I look at theatre and performance—and film and television—with an interest in what and how it tells me about gender and sexuality, about race and class, about how we’re hailed as citizens of the world. I’m interested in how form and content and context complement each other around those themes. I’m interested in reception and production, in how artists frame their arguments and how audiences see and hear them. I’m interested in talking about the arts as though they have a real effect on our lives and what we’re capable of imagining for ourselves and others–because I believe they do.
Other critics look at and for other things. I’d love to have a real conversation—not an accusatory conversation—about the work of criticism and what it makes possible for artists and audiences. I don’t think I’m always right.
On that note, I’ll apologize to Brantley and Isherwood (whom I don’t know) for suggesting in my Public essay that they “revel in their power to destroy productions they don’t like.” I don’t know if they really revel in that power; perhaps it keeps them up at night. Sometimes, when I read their work, I don’t sense much concern for what their criticism might do to the artists whose work they’re evaluating. But as I’ve admitted, I’m sensitive to biases and to power inequities. My own words about Brantley and Isherwood in that essay come from too many years of frustration with the lack of audible alternative critical voices in public forums with the power to shape the public arts conversation.
But what I said wasn’t very generous. So I’ll follow my own injunction. I didn’t mean to be mean; I respect daily and weekly and monthly critics, as well as those who blog frequently or irregularly. I feel connected to other people who write about the arts and appreciate their labor; I want to be in dialogue with them, as well as with artists and audiences.
When I teach my students how to write criticism, they assume they have to be negative. I’d rather teach them how to be rigorous and generous about what they see, how to refrain from ad hominem attacks and respect the artists about whom they write, and use their words to create a dialogue about what works and what doesn’t and why, and what it all might mean.
Am I sentimental? I don’t think so. Are those of us in the arts victims? Not at all. Are we people with a common purpose, which at least in some small part is to champion the arts and the diversity of stories that deserve to be heard and explored and contested and provoked under its auspices? I hope so.
The Feminist Spectator