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January 24, 2007


Alison Croggon

I rather liked Adrian Martin's (visual arts critic's) take on that whole Guardian conversation (especially his sign-off line about not being corrupted by hacks). Myself, I'm not working for a publication, and so need to abide only by my own ethics. I'm a kind of accidental critic; for some reason I have this compulsion to talk about work I see, and for me it's enjoyable to formalise that into reviews. It's a kind of complementary project, and always has been, to my creative work: it takes me out of myself, forces me to think about things I might not otherwise, and stimulates me. Yes, it's all selfish.

I suppose I think of myself as an artist who reviews; I've been working as a full-time writer for years, which has included writing for theatre - I don't think of myself as a playwright, by any means, but it happens I've had nine productions of works, some at major arts festivals. Given that, it seem silly to pretend that my critical thinking emanates from anything but a kind of aesthetic curiosity, a kind of ongoing conversation between myself and whatever other voices swim into my purview. (Another reason I like blogging).

And maybe this makes me a little tougher, because I have never understood this thing about taking critique personally (unless it swims into some kind of personal abuse, which is actually rare). As a poet, I have never reacted well to empty praise - it just embarasses me. Equally, I don't take much notice of empty abuse. Good negative critique is something I have actively sought out and used as an artist to stimulate my work. The point is, and always is for me, the work. Personal feelings - especially those of, say, hurt vanity - are things you put aside so you can see your own work clearly. So, while I quite understand the desire not to be hurtful to people whom on a personal level you actually like or respect, there's another level at which I don't see any conflict at all in being upfront about an honest response to people I know - if anything, it's a mark of respect. To do otherwise is to be patronising, and worse, to belittle the art that is under discussion.

I just don't understand this stuff about the pact of ignorance. If I haven't read a play before I see it, but have the text, I always leave reading it until after I've seen it, just for the pleasure of not knowing what happens, but that's as far as it goes. Otherwise (if I have time) I like to know as much as possible about what's informing the thing I'm looking at: it can help to illuminate my pleasure (or lack of it). Aren't critics actually supposed to know about the work they're discussing? Why this distrust of expertise? Why should anyone read a critic if they don't know anything more than your average punter? What would be the use of a football commentator who didn't understand the rules of the game, or didn't have the inside goss on the latest knee injuries? I just don't get it.

George Hunka

An alternative model might be to rebalance the two sides of the issue that you mention here -- the journalist's so-called distance-from-the-subject is really just more of a closer proximity to the critic's own prejudices, from that ivory tower perspective not of the aesthete but of the critic or reviewer, who lives in her own tower if she declines to fraternise out of a misplaced sense of her own purity. A critic might characterize this as siding with the reader rather than the artist. But that can't be true, because she doesn't know what any individual audience member brings to the theater any more than she knows what the individual artist intended. It's a rationalization of a pretended professional objectivity which really just excuses ignorance.

As you know, David, I'm an playwright who reviews in the traditional press as well (or did, until recently). An artist needn't be blinkered by his own aesthetic interests in approaching a show as a reviewer, and I like to think my own reviews demonstrate this. (The proof, as people are constantly reminding me, is in the pudding, not the cookbook.) In part, I suppose, this is because we have a tendency to think of artists as aesthetes, but reviewers as good old ordinary Joes just like you and me.

Perhaps this emerges from The New York Times model of journalistic objectivity (though as any Journalism 101 course tells you, there's really no such thing), which is comparatively recent: in the heyday of New York journalism, when the Herald-Tribune and the Times and the Daily News and PM and the Post etc. etc. were all competing, the newspaper's perspective was often reflected in their presentation even of front-page news stories, let alone the op-ed and opinion pages. Indeed the media critiques of the 1960s demonstrated that this veneer of self-defined objectivity was just a smokescreen before the newspaper's economic, political and cultural interests.

Today this veneer of the critic's objectivity is a smokescreen to those same interests. Now, I'd agree that there are very few artists who are perspicacious critics of others' (and even their own) work, fewer still who can express this criticism to a general audience. But that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be cultivated, and that their cultivation wouldn't constitute an improvement in the quality of regular reviews, and the atmosphere in which the art itself is created. But to do so, one needs to fraternize with the artist as well as the audience (and interesting that one hears echoes of that completion of the phrase "fraternization with the enemy"). Neither art nor criticism has improved much since the current model of reviewing emerged. Nor has the atmosphere for the reception of new work, which remains antagonistic, an antagonism reflected more, I think, in critical reception than aesthetic intent.

More here, from May 2005, before I go on too long:


Alison: I'm not defending or attacking the contract of ignorance (gee, I like how that sounds): it's simply the critical status quo. And I'm not talking about going into a show proudly ignorant of the play, playwright or subject matter. As time and resources permit, I try to see a movie, read a book, read the script, Google the author/subject before I see a show. I don't mind reading a play before seeing it. It even enhances the experience for me. I'm talking about the conversation after the critic has seen the work, between him/her and the creative team. Rarely does that happen. (Longform criticism is, I suppose, the conversation the critic has with him/herself, several books, and much more time and verbiage than a daily or weekly publication permits.) When I wear my reporter's hat, I can have those conversations with artists. I just don't go and review their shows afterwards. And it's not a distrust of expertise. It's a distrust of divided loyalties. Generally speaking, daily and weekly theater critics' loyalty are to their readers, and their readers' wallets, first. (Of course, their first loyalty is really to their narrow personal and aesthetic agendas.) Not all critics have quite the intellectual freedom (or certainly the rigor) that you exercise on your blog. Mostly they're philistine consumer reporters with the ocassional fancy turn of phrase that ends up on an ad in The New York Times. The prerequisites for being a theater critic (or editor) at our biggest media outlets are notoriously low. (A couple years ago in the UK there was a furore over non-theater types being elevated to critical posts.) But I do take your point that care for the art supercedes fear of hurting an artist acquaintance's feelings. That's a bracing truth. Thanks.


And George: I think you're too quick to dismiss journalistic objectivity, at least as a desirable goal. Objectivity should be a goal in reporting as well as reviewing. In reporting you don't want to distort what was said or done by the subjects; in reviewing you want to honestly describe what was said and done and how you felt about it and how it fit into certain theoretical or historical or aesthetic models. Personal feelings, mistakes and the irrepressible need to entertain through dramatization will corrupt the best intentions of both reporter and critic. But you will find honest reporters and critics who will defend maintaining distance from the subject, and not just to blow smoke over economic or political interests. To junk it entirely is to risk the press becoming a mere propaganda tool for artists. Not as deadly a consequence as being a tool for the government, but dishonest nonetheless. And while I appreciate your historical contextualization, what are you saying about the "heyday" of greater competition between papers, that journalism was proudly biased and wore its prejudices on its sleeve (or, rather, the front page)? That hasn't changed. Anyone can plunk down $1.25 and compare the front pages of the Times and the Post and see that while the Times dominates this town, they both don't hide their respective political viewpoints. As for Journalism 101, I never took that class, but I'm sure what it teaches about objectivity is a bit more nuanced than, it doesn't exist. Neither does truth, but writers pursue that grail all the time.

George Hunka

All your points well-taken, David (and I don't mean that we should go from one extreme of objectivity to the other of impressionistic crticism). I only note that the time of which I speak (the 1930s and the 1940s) were a time of fine theatrical journalism from the likes of Brooks Atkinson, George Jean Nathan, Harold Clurman, etc. etc., in the pages of these same papers. While I don't know much about Atkinson's biography, I do know that Nathan and Clurman were deep in friendships and fellowships with the artists they regularly wrote about. (In a way, it was the Shaw/Archer era of British dramatic criticism reaching these shores.) And we still read their criticism (at least Clurman's) today.

David Cote

The 1930s and 40s were also a time of fine theatrical playwriting and directing. And the 1950s and 60s saw an exciting ferment of great Broadway musicals, Method-driven naturalism and Off-Off experimentation. I'd hate to repeat the old canard that any art form deserves the level of criticism it gets, but it's hard to lament the lack of a 5000-word close reading of, well, The Clean House (which I strongly disliked) or The Scene (which I appreciated as a workmanlike entertainment). Give us great dramatists and we'll give you great criticism. The rest is just wishful thinking and theory-spinning.


Hmm, should I be disturbed that, reading the Billington quote, I find myself saying, "Yes! I'm an ivory-tower aesthete!"

Alison Croggon

David, I realised you were not supporting this "contract", just reporting it. And it's not like I'm not aware of this notion - though it seems pretty extreme, even prissy, over there - arts journalists here are rather more relaxed and nobody here would consider merely interviewing someone to constitute a conflict of interest; at least, I've never heard of it. (Isn't Integrity what you have after you lose the Tao, and Rules what happens when you lose Integrity?) I remember the Australian Journalists Association Ethics that we were supposed to adhere to as cadets, and also that - certainly when I worked as a journalist - these ethics seemed to me to be observed more in the breach. The best journalists were (and are) ethical. No controversy there from me.

I do remember, back when I was a print reviewer, being very puzzled by the then Age critic, who wouldn't talk to _anybody_ after the show in case his thoughts were sullied or swayed by other opinions. He'd walk around after a show in a cone of silence, visibly revolving Great Thoughts in his head. I thought that his Great Thoughts couldn't have been especially robust if they were so easily knocked down by mere disagreement - but then, he was a very mediocre reviewer...

In my neck of the woods anyway, there are all the same some puzzling contradictions in practice when it comes to the arts. When I was a reporter - I spent a year covering industrial relations before I left for the sunny climes of poetry - it was well known that any journalist was only as good as his/her contact book, which was your most precious possession. You spent a lot of time cultivating contacts, going for drinks, just being friendly, etc, (of course you didn't accept holidays or gifts) because when the story broke, you wanted a relationship with that person so they would give you the information that you needed to do a good story. When you were covering a round, a bookful of good contacts meant you could be thoroughly backgrounded, and would give you the edge on insider knowledge. A good contact was maintained by a kind of mutually trusting distrust. Interesting business and, as you know, rather delicate. This contact stuff is considered quite ethical, is in fact an essential part of doing a round. (This holds for political or other opinion writers, too). So I have often wondered why this model seems to be actively discouraged in the arts; it seems rather that a background knowledge immediately disqualifies comment. Out of, as you say, fear of compromising "objectivity" or divided loyalties.

The fact is, I see very naked and un-disinterested (if you'll forgive the word) agendas at work in arts journalism here that oeprate under the flag of an assumed "objectivity", and my objections to them are actually those of a journalist. (You can take the girl out of the yellow press but you can't take the yellow press out of the girl). I do think arts reporters in major media organisations ought to be even handed. I think they ought to be at least as informed as any political journalist is expected to be, and I think their reporting ought to be accurate. And I think that equally of reviewers. (I acknowledge that opinion journalism is a little more difficult to map: all the same, opinion aside, it's possible to be both informed and accurate, things that can be "objectively" perceived.) I do think the one thing that all journalists I respect have in common is intelligence: an ability to be aware of what impinges on their subjective judgements, and to self-correct.

As a reviewer, I place my loyalties with "the reader". So like most writers, I guess I place my ethics in my style, for better or worse.

George Hunka

And, again, we agree, David. You write: "Give us great dramatists and we'll give you great criticism." And I wrote (in defense of critics, by the way): "A theater gets the critics and reviewers it deserves."

Neither of which leaves me sleeping any easier, these nights.


Alison: You'll find no arguments from me here. Arts journalists should be as hard-nosed as political reporters. But what is hard news in the arts? "Actor learns sword swallowing for new role," is news. "Musicians go on strike," that sort of news is handled quite well by the New York Times' Campbell Robertson or on blogs such as Playgoer. Advocacy journalism is what interests me more. But that's trickier to spin into "news." If you were to tell a hard-news arts reporter that Major Theater X is programming dull, conservative shows and the artistic director is grossly overpaid at $800,000 a year, that's not news, it's opinion. My task at TONY is to find ways of advocating the kinds of playwrights and programming I believe will push the art form forward and to try to shame those who are hindering it. Not quite like reporting on foreign policy or industry, but I do what I can with my little pad and rolodex.

Alison Croggon

Heh. I don't think it's that different, David. Especially not if you think about op-ed pieces. Don't such advocacy pieces _make_ the news? Certainly in the arts. And when you think about the NY Times and their track record on Iraq, the lines begin to blur a bit.

In any case, the principles of good informed ethical journalism still hold. Mind you, those things don't last so long in the news room... hence the panic about appearances, I guess. (I remembered a short time ago precisely why I am no longer a journalist). Good luck.

David Cote

And good luck in your endeavors. Much as I enjoy blogging these thoughts out loud and engaging in the give-and-take, I do enjoy journalism and consider myself an ethical, informed practitioner. It's my chance to make a difference—part town crier, part bully pulpit.

Nicholas Pickard

This may seem parochial, but in the small city of Sydney, its terribly hard for critics, directors and playwrights not to know each other intimately.
The contract of ignorance just doesnt exist.

Another problem is the limited amount of print outlets providing respectable reviews. Essentially Sydney has three newspapers for professional productions and two for independent/fringe theatre.

The rise and rise of internet commentary, however, is throwing down the gauntlet to many of these traditional reviewers to be more critical of the professional theatre's whom they often protect within a society that doesn't value the arts particularly highly.

It is well known within our local industry, that a particular reviewer who gave a couple of bad reviews to the flagship mainstream theatre company was swiftly pulled by the newspaper from reviewing their shows and a more acquiescent reviewer was put in place.

The ground is shifting through blogs and independent reviewers. Often these people are from within the industry, often from practising artists who have found interesting ways to review and challenge the status quo of the present situation. It is creating an atmosphere of healthy debate about the direction of the industry as a whole.

The ivory towers are coming down, whether they be the mainstream press or the mainstream theatre company's, and everyone is being forced to reassess exactly where they stand in the exchange of ideas. This must be good for the whole.

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