A Critic vs. Critic (Soloski vs. Weinert-Kendt) Showdown?

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In this week’s From the Blogroll, I took note of Alexis Soloski’s blog post in the Guardian regarding whether critics and artists ought to be friends. The particular slant of her piece, more or less, had to do with the Facebook-friend conundrum, a conundrum hitherto unknown to me which not only acknowledges that being a Facebook-friend is not the same thing as having someone in your life who actually gives a crap about you, but posits the idea that even in a site as innocuous as Facebook, ties between critics and artists can be fraught, indeed are inevitably fraught, with all manner of ethical questions and worries.

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Here’s a bit more of Soloski’s piece, as it will help make the title of this post more clear:

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…A few years later, I gave up acting, enrolled in a doctoral program and became a more regular reviewer. I also grew charier about having personal relationships with artists. Increasingly, I found it difficult to write about people I knew. While I certainly wouldn’t change a negative review into a positive one (I do have some integrity), I would fret over articles, worrying that acquaintances might be hurt by what I’d written. Perhaps if I were possessed of perfect objectivity I’d still argue for close ties between critics and artists, but I’m not and I can’t. Now, I do still show up to the same parties, but I’m much more circumspect about establishing friendships. (It helps that I drink less these days.) I should also say that I do have a few Facebook friends who work in the theatre, typically college chums or mates from my early days in New York. And I no longer write about them.

What do you think ought to be the appropriate affiliation between critics and artists?

Well, Rob Weinert-Kendt, writing yesterday in his fine blog The Wicked Stage, has an answer and I suspect Soloski won’t like it. First, he reprints Douglas McLennan’s idea for saving critics from total obliteration and irrelevance:

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Lots of arts organizations have blogs on their websites. Most aren’t very good, and they’re difficult to maintain well. There are many out-of-work critics. And less and less arts coverage in local press. So why not critics-in-residence?

Then Rob added some thoughts that are in many ways not unlike my own:

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Some of my favorite people have crossed freely between making and writing about/commenting on art, and even between publicity and journalism. I mean, I guess that’s a line I’m close to right now, working for TDF while hawking my wares as a freelancer. Indeed, I haven’t been a full-time employee of an actual media company for nearly six years now. And though my economic situation has occasionally been better than that of many of the starving theater artists I cover, in recent years that has less frequently been the rule, and I’ve looked at certain nonprofit arts organizations, and the cool people who work there, with something approaching professional envy.

Of course, the ideal position for me would be some unholy hybrid of composer/music supervisor and critic/essayist. Not gonna quit the day job…

So which is it? This much is clear: the traditional newspaper/magazine critic job is already dead nearing extinction. Mustn’t something take its place? If we “embed,” to use Rob’s term, critics within the nonprofit business model, to what degree will that make objectivity of any kind a total joke? In McLennan’s view, the critic will likely morph into a kind of in-house feature writer, penning sunny stories about the creative teams and filming video. Hey, if a company likes MCC Theater wanted to create a position for someone to do that and pay, oh, I don’t know, maybe $40K, I might consider it if I really believe in the company’s work and mission. But how would turning critics into benign operators of blogs save critics and criticism?

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Ah, and what about dramaturgs — isn’t the dramaturg already the embedded and defanged critic?

So that’s the argument against the McLennan/Weinert-Kendt (and Jacobs) construct. What’s the argument against the Soloski construct? Well, for one thing, how do we get better, smarter, more innovative and daring theater if we seek only to perpetuate the walls between critics and artists? Think of it this way: we held a presidential election in which the winner specifically campaigned on a platform of opening up communication with the entire world — even with our enemies. And obviously the people spoke. Are we saying that the hardened adversarial relationship between critics and artists is even more intractable, even more insoluble, than that of the U.S. and North Korea? Are critics little more than aesthetic al Qaeda?

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