A great bit from theater guru and friend to Mockingbird, on the blog theaterwords, regarding the ease with which we clamber to the throne of ‘critic’. Such snobbery is quick to dethrone what is commonly popular–even if what is common is commonly known to be good–like Pixar movies! Rock’n'roll! The article weighs the role of the critic-as-judge and could have eschewed the operation altogether, as in, “Artists need not hear criticism at all, because who does it help? And so what if I love 98 Degrees?” but instead points out the necessity of criticism (Law) to point out that which is honestly true of things. At the same time, the article is quick to note how quickly an honest and worthy assessment of craft, rooted in humble respect, becomes (because it is human criticism!) a band of scoffers.
Ben Brantley’s latest, discouraging Times review (of “How to Succeed…”) brought to mind one of my favorite movie scenes — the finale of Pixar’s “Ratatouille.” In it, a jaded food critic experiences a Proustian revelation over a simple peasant dish. Brilliant cooking brings him back to innocence, and he writes a gorgeous meditation on the nature of criticism:
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.”
Indeed. Brantley observes, “While Mr. Radcliffe is clearly not to the musical manner born, I would give him, oh, a 6 out of 10.” … “[Radcliffe] speaks his lines quickly and distinctly… and often sings on key.”… “When [Radcliffe] leads the show’s big finale, the satirical rouser ‘Brotherhood of Man,’ you can be forgiven for thinking it might better be titled ‘Brotherhood of Manikins.’ ”
I’m all for high standards and entertaining wordplay, but this hardly seems to belie love and respect for the work of the theater. An unflagging sneer underlines what could’ve been an honest effort to point out artistic missteps. In this piece (and other recent pans) Brantley avoids attempting to figure out what shows are actually trying to do or say…
The counterargument is that a critic need not love or respect his subject; his should be an unbiased and authoritative outside eye. Former Times critic Frank Rich says as much in “Hot Seat,” a collection of his theater criticism: “Was the alternative [to panning shows] to write waffling reviews, imploring readers to go to some well-meaning mediocrity for the good of the theater and those who worked in it? If I did that, I’d become the boy who cried wolf: Those same readers would not believe me when I praised the really good play that came along.”
Rich is, of course, right — no one wants to read pandering praise. We want our critics to be fiercely intelligent people with high standards. We want them to speak the truth as they see it — as they see it. Therein lies the key: criticism is a subjective art and should never lay claim to some kind of inerrant, artistic fact.
The alternative, then is a different kind of criticism, one that eschews thumbs up or down for a bit of humility, one that always presupposes respect as its bedrock. As the “Ratatouille” critic reminds us, “The bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” The creation matters more than the response.
Criticism is valuable insofar as it makes the wholehearted effort to see, to really, truly examine something. In a world drowning in distraction, that skill couldn’t be more dear. When texts or tweets or tumblrs pull us away from the present, critics, “professional seers,” help open our eyes. How vastly important this is!
But ego gets in the way, and the results look like the zinger-laden piece “How to Succeed…” was served in yesterday’s paper, a piece ultimately more about Ben Brantley than the show itself.
I’m not sure what an ideal critical landscape looks like, but the review monoculture currently headlined by the Times isn’t it. In the subjective sphere of the arts, no “reviewer-deity” can lay claim to any kind of absolute theatrical truth, and we should be suspicious of those whose work lays claim to the contrary.