UPDATE (Easy Irony Department): It turns out that theatre and film reviewers for Backstage can’t even “engage” their own, presumably very interested, readership any more — according to this report from Kris Vire, posted late today, the trade magazine will stop publishing all film and theatre reviews on 11 April 2013. Vire quotes executive editor Daniel Holloway: “An analysis of metric data by our executive team led to the conclusion that too few readers are engaging our reviews for Backstage to continue to invest resources in producing them. We will be shifting those resources primarily to the creation of additional advice, news, and features content.” Maybe the problem isn’t with the readers after all, but with the critics who can’t engage even those in the business.
CLARIFICATION: I am told by a Howlround representative that, contrary to what I wrote below, “anyone can invite him/herself to the
HowlRound table.” Of course, I stand corrected.
Well, the series on criticism at Howlround has finally wound its way to the end of its weary week; you’ll find essays by Rob Weinert-Kendt (American Theatre and the New York Times), Jason Zinoman (the New York Times, again), John Moore (formerly of the Denver Post), Wendy Rosenfield (Philadelphia Inquirer), and others here, a lineup heavy with print critics. It’s worth what it’s worth.
Those interested in a rather different perspective can turn to “21 Asides on Theatre Criticism” from critic Mark Brown, which appeared in a 2010 issue of Critical Stages, the Web journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics. Mr. Brown, theatre critic of the Scottish national newspaper the Sunday Herald and Scottish performing arts critic for the UK national newspaper the Daily Telegraph, also teaches theatre studies and theatre criticism at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. In this essay he writes:
It is painful, and nauseating, to observe and comment upon an arena of cultural practice which is under increasing pressure to infantilise itself. We find this pressure in the commentators and practitioners who deride as “elitist” the assertion that the art of theatre must eschew the commercial and cultural pressure to “entertain.” We find it in the liberal critic who wears as a badge of honour his or her belief in the socio-political functionality of the theatre.
These “Asides,” therefore, are a personal response to the pain induced by this pressure. They are a cry, an ideological assertion, in defence of “radical elitism” in the face of the faux democracy of cultural relativism and the puerile shibboleths of liberal humanism.
1. The critic is a privileged member of the audience.
2. The critic’s pen is a wand, a quill and a dagger.
3. Criticism exists in the discrete space between journalism and art.
4. I write here of true criticism; there are other kinds.
5. The only true critical agenda is the pursuit of quality, and so the critic is a radical elitist.
6. Without mercy or malice: the motto of the true critic.
7. The critic is subjective. She does not deny her subjectivity. Her only responsibility is to be worthy of it.
8. The demand that the critic “reflect the collective view of the audience” nauseates.
9. When he asserts the “equal value” of all genres, the critic slits his own throat with his pen.
10. The critic is not a human “clapometer.”
11. Criticism abhors equivocation (which is distinct from nuance).
12. The bad critic: a fence sitter, deferring to personal sentiment, social propriety or cultural fashion.
13. The true critic: suspicious of consensus, prepared to be in a minority, even of one.
14. Synopsis is not criticism, although it often masquerades as such.
15. All theatre is political. So the critic is suspicious of the term “political theatre.”
16. The critic is not a doctor, she gives no prescriptions.
17. The prescription is a noose around the neck of the free artist.
18. Criticism, like poetry, is not a job, but a vocation; but the critic, like the poet, has bills to pay.
19. Polemic is for the street. The theatre is not the street.
20. The critic has to be a pugilist, prepared to give and take blows.
21. The critic must suffer like everyone else.
I find it doubtful that Mr. Brown will be invited to contribute to any online Howlround symposia anytime soon; I’ll just say that my own opinion hews closer to his than to those at the Howlround table.
Mr. Brown also contributed an essay called “The Critic is Not an Artist” (NB: Weinert-Kendt’s piece for Howlround is called “The Artist on the Aisle”) to the most recent issue of Critical Stages, in which he writes:
[Criticism] is (as I have argued above) not art, because it requires a clarity of analysis which it would be absurd and destructive to require of artistic works. Nor, however, is it journalism. When a newspaper wants a journalist to report on the news associated with the arts, it employs an arts correspondent, a journalist who reports on the facts of the appointments of directors of national artistic companies, the vagaries of arts funding, social or political controversies over artworks etc. This journalistic role is, and should remain, quite distinct from the role of the critic, which is to deal in the entirely non-factual realm of aesthetics.