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Posted at 10:12 AM ET, 11/11/2010

On nasty critics

By Anne Midgette

This weekend Julia Keller, a cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, wrote a small manifesto about being a critic. The thrust of her argument is that some critics exult in being mean, and she vowed she would never be among them.

I remember taking a similar vow back when I wrote my first reviews (very unwillingly; I didn’t want to be a critic at all). I still hate writing negative reviews. But I think that Keller’s vow, well-meaning as it is, is a little misplaced.

There’s a school of thought that the arts, like cooking and travel, belong in the category of marvelous lifestyle enhancements: things that adorn our lives and make them nicer. The role of a critic, in this view, is simply to alert readers to the wealth of marvelous things that are out there, and act as a consumer advocate, preferably by recommending nice things, or writing about the nice things that have taken place. People who espouse this view don’t understand why critics are so, well, critical. I wish I had a dime for every reader who had written me to say some variant on the theme “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” (though that would seem to negate the critic’s whole function). I once met a critic who told me that s/he had sworn never to write a negative review, but only to write about things s/he liked. I appreciate the sentiment, but it also meant I never needed to read anything s/he wrote again: I already knew what s/he was going to say. Think about it.

Keller does acknowledge that sometimes you have to be tough. But her piece focuses on being nice, being decent, being sorry about writing badly about someone. And I question whether those sentiments are really germane to the discussion of the job - just as I question whether an artist’s personality is relevant to a discussion of his or her art.

The arts are more than decoration. If they have the power to sustain us (and to endure over decades and centuries) it’s because of their commitment to certain standards, certain ideals. The critic’s job is to try to uphold or at least remind of those ideals. In the service of that, one can sometimes get very angry at mediocrity. I concur that some critics, as Keller describes, seem to take delight in skewering people, and I agree with Keller that no one should be happy about writing a nasty review. But I think that getting lost in discussions of the critic’s personality is a distraction from the main point of the exercise, which is to care enough about the thing one is criticizing to think it makes a difference whether it is good or not, and to get angry, sometimes, when it is not.

What are your thoughts?

By Anne Midgette  | November 11, 2010; 10:12 AM ET
Categories:  national, random musings  
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Comments

Anne,

Here's another take on the "if you can't say anything nice..." from that most delish DC insider: "If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me."

But, alas, that's TMZ and Perez Hilton criticism, I guess.

MPS

Posted by: scottmp | November 11, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Anne,

Here's another take on the "if you can't say anything nice..." from that most delish DC insider: "If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me."

But, alas, that's TMZ and Perez Hilton criticism, I guess.

MPS

Posted by: scottmp | November 11, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Anne,
I am an opera lover and reading critical reviews is an integral part of my opera experience. Having decided on my opera schedule months in advance, the reviews don't change my mind about going or not going to the show but rather help me better understand many aspects of the show that otherwise would go unnoticed by me. I even have an on-line subscription to 'The Opera Critic" which has a much broader range of reviews than the local papers. I see the opera critic of a local newspaper as an educator who can point out good and bad things about a show. As an average opera lover, I am not that knowledgeable about some issues that you or other well informed critic can point out to my un-initiated ears. In that respect, I always appreciate the expert praise or criticism, so that I can be better informed and appreciate the art form for its value. That being said, I still think that some critics use derogatory language, offensive and hurtful remarks towards the artists that do not have a place in a decent paper. One can be critical without being rude. Personally, I will withhold my “bravos” if I do not like a particular performer or performance, but I will always politely applaud the performer’s effort to do their best and will never “boo” anyone, it’s just very rude and impolite.

Posted by: Mike-Klein | November 11, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the sentiment that one can be critical without being rude. One of my favorite critics, Robert Layton, longtime reviewer for Gramophone magazine, used one of my favorite phrases from time to time for recordings he simply did not like: "Perhaps others will hear things in this recording I missed."

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | November 11, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

I, too, agree with the others that it is possible to be critical without being harsh or rude (though I might make an exception for John Simon who was harsh, critical and rude but very literate and entertaining).

Would be interested in knowing your thoughts on a tangential topic. Do you think the role of the critic has evolved (or should evolve) given all the changes in the performing arts in the past half century? It seems that even in this age of dying newspapers, growing electronic media, blogs, social media, etc, most paid critics take the same approach to their craft (specifically the way they review performances) as their counterparts long ago. We hear criticism of orchestra musicians or orchestras for not changing with the times – can the same be said for critics?

Is it time for critics to assume a somewhat broader role? For example, since many readers today are less knowledgeable or informed than audiences of the past (despite the abundance of resources available), should critics provide more of an educational role to help their readers with context? It is certainly easier to do this electronically where column inches don’t provide a limit.

But, too often it seems that critics write for a very narrow audience, assuming their readers understand their references and language. For less knowledgeable readers, this simply confirms that opera, theatre, orchestras, etc. are elitist and not for them. How could they possibly hope to understand the performance if they can’t even understand the review?

Certainly, it’s not the job of the critics to sell tickets or market concerts but, if audiences continue to dwindle and arts groups continue to fail, it won’t be long before the critics join the unemployed.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | November 11, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

I agree that a critic should call it like she sees it. However, I believe it is not OK for the critic to express her anger in her review because the performance didn't rise to her expectations. THAT is mean, in my opinion. And unprofessional.
Why should I care if it made the critic angry, I want to know what the performance was like, along with interesting information and thoughtful insights.

I also believe that the daily newspaper critic (at least), should report what happens in the hall. Otherwise, it's not the complete story. If the audience yelled bravos for 5 minutes, despite faults observed by the critic, that should be reported. And vice versa. I also think to the extent possible, reviews should report that encores occurred. For example, I was at a NSO concert that you didn't review (It was Salome's opening night). The violinist played an encore, before intermission. It happened to be a Bach partita movement. But it didn't happen according to the Washington Post. Also, the violinist offered a unique, timpani-accompanied cadenza in the Beethoven violin concerto. Again, not a word about this unsual occurence in the Washington Post. What's that all about? The impression is that reviewer (again not you on this occasion) was at best clueless.

Posted by: c-clef | November 12, 2010 9:20 AM | Report abuse

One facet of the issue is that a critic has limited resources; a critic can't write about every performance she hears, and she can't write for every reading audience. Or to put it more simply, a critic can't be everything to everyone. So, what should the critic choose to write about?

Some critics want to call people's attention to only good music, and I think this is fine. In a world in which patrons are pulled in multiple directions to explore many different artistic media, it can be helpful to have a critic serve as a kind of guide, someone in the know to give recommendations. In a way, this is a particular method of upholding standards and ideals because it promotes that which a critic considers excellent.

Some critics want to uphold artistic standards or ideals more generally, and that's what Anne decided to do. I think that is fine as well, for the reasons she stated.

But critics who enjoy a good skewer also have their place, so long as their negativity is fair. It smacks of too much Kantian moralizing that a critic should write a negative review in spite of disliking the task. If a critic is going to write a negative review in order to uphold artistic standards or ideals, does it matter whether the critic relishes it? Not necessarily. The only issue I could see is that an excessively sadistic critic could end up calling more attention to her reviews themselves rather than the actual performance being discussed.

Posted by: robertcostic | November 12, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

I don't pay much attention to critics...I tend to think of them as a necessary nuisance. Rarely do their thoughts reflect the grain of "truth" (whatever that may be), and their track-record through posterity as to determining worth or staying-power is poor to put it mildly. Very often they lack the knowledge or experience to speak with any authority (as Midgette's ridiculous and biased piece on "small voices" in the NY Times recently shows).

I do think it is ironic, however, for Ms. Midgette to write this particular post. She is a very successful critic, and does her job, assuming her job is to create interest and readership, well. That said, this is a woman that has made her career out of being mean and snarky in reviews, more often then not letting the size of her print personality overtake the quality of her criticism. Her reputation is first and foremost as someone who does not criticize, but as someone that berates. I find her to be the prime example of critics that succeed on the hyperbolic tone of their writing, masking the poor substance contained there within.

Posted by: lepetitprinceboi | November 14, 2010 2:25 AM | Report abuse

Well, of course, a critic's function is quality control but the ultimate critic regarding that is really the public. Too many critics nowadays love contemporary classical music - junk in my view. They just go along with their peers. However, in doing so, they put a stamp of approval on music that does not deserve a second hearing. Holland (of the NYTimes) agrees with me on that. I read a review on Sophie Mutter here the other day (by a guest critic) that was brilliant. It said everything it had to say but in a soft, though honest, way. Your reviews strike me as unnecessarily harsh - a little too personal. However, others may like you just the way you are.

Posted by: pronetoviolins | November 18, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

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