"Ignorance," gut reactions, and credentials

Or, who gets to say what sucks.

This past spring, local mom Emily posted to her family blog about her experience at the Milwaukee Art Museum (by the way, why is there no "Yes, MAM" campaign? It's right there!). Lots of people linked to her blog, lots of people in the art world mourned her ignorance, pitied her, patronized her, she became the subject of some debate - stop me if you've heard this one.

Anyway, same song, different tune just happened at the Walker in Minneapolis (thanks to Lisa for passing this on).

Things I thought were interesting:
It's just one guy's opinion.
People still go after his credentials.
The tone of the debate-conversation is a lot more civil than what I remember happening here.

Here's the link to the site as I first saw it.


Art versus Critics

I don't know that any of this posting is true, or accurate, but it feels right. Here goes.

Let’s assume for the moment that I am not particularly thin-skinned. Also, I can take criticism. Granted, those are two big Ifs, let’s just take it as a thought problem for the moment. Now add to the mix: I am a working artist (insert any number of jokes here). I might do any kind of art – theater, creative non-fiction, visual art, music, or I could be the kind of guy who makes a living not out of doing anything, but for being who I am in an exceptionally entertaining way. If all this is true (not thin-skinned, take crit, working artist), I probably still don’t like critics. Well, maybe I like just that one guy, just to show how open-minded I can be, but that’s just tokenism. The exception that proves the rule.

Part of the problem is that I don’t know what the critic’s job is. I mean, I can go on and on about what the job should be, but I don’t really know. I haven’t gone to the critic’s boss to find out what her job description is, but I state with confidence that I don’t need to. See, knowing the should gives me power. Really it doesn’t give me anything more than an opinion. I'm an idealist trapped in a realistic world. I know that my Ideal Critic doesn’t obey my Shoulds, but I don’t let it bother me in the abstract, because I know the Real World doesn’t operate that way. I can’t help let it bother me in the concrete, though, which is why I don’t like Critics, except that one guy. No, he doesn’t like all my shows, I’m not a shill for him anymore than he is for me. We’re above that kind of thing, that’s how cool we are.

I wrote about some of the job factors that theater critics might have, outlined not from my own belief system but from what I’ve heard people talk about or comment on. And then there’s the whole sales issue – you know, a critic can make or break a play, a gallery show, a film (except anything by George Lucas, who seems to be critic-proof). Separately I wrote about their audiences, and the fact that one of their audiences is their reading public, not the artists’ viewing (or listening) public.

This next bit is just supposition, but it sounds right to me so I’m writing it down. I think one of the big reasons that artists generally don’t like critics is that they remind us of commerce.

That’s badly phrased.

They remind us that we sell our art or that we sell access to our art. That there is a wholly commercial element to our sacred work.

We justify our own participation – gotta make mortgage, gotta buy groceries, I worked hard on this, there’s the materials to take into account, doesn’t my craft count for anything, how can you put a price on expression. Oh, wait, I just did – I charged you twenty dollars to come to my show. Ahem. Well. It’s a bargain.

It’s not like critics shove this fact down our throats. But just by doing their jobs, just by being, they remind us on some level that we are dependent on sales.

What a bunch of jerks.

p.s. here’s a former critic turned playwright on the subject of critics writing about new plays.

Next Criticism: Solution one, professional peers.



Okay, so True Artists generally don’t like critics. We've got that covered. What we frequently say (whether we are True Artists or just plain artists), is that it’s just one person’s opinion. Why does that one opinion bother us so much then? Because I’m here to tell you, we doth protest too much, doncha know.

I’m going to start off with qualifications, because that’s generally our first line of attack. I’m starting with my list of things that critics do. And with no commentary from anyone out there, I’m forced to conclude that my preliminary list is Okay. Here is a recap:
1. To comment on the show (or to the art generally speaking).
2. To speak and/or recommend to a potential audience
3. To speak to the artists.
4. To advance the art form.
5. To advance the community.
6. To educate the audience regarding the play and the art alike.

What are the necessary qualifications for commenting on the show? I know, someone’s going to protest that none are, that all emotional reactions to the artwork are valid (isn’t that what art is supposed to do, after all, arouse some emotion?), or maybe any reaction at all, or any interpretation at all, is valid. To a certain extent, I’d agree, save one thing: the critic gets paid. We’re holding her to a higher standard.

That higher standard suggests education. The critic doesn’t have to know the show in advance (how on earth could she review a new work, were that the case?), but does need to know the art form. For theater, because that’s my specialty – I'd say she ought to know some history – classical theater, 20th century theater, and contemporary are the big three/four. Sure, you can know all about Restoration and Symbolism, but honestly, those don’t get produced a lot. If you know classical (Greeks and Renaissance alike, in different senses of the “classical” word) plus the recent past, you can brush up on Symbolism the next time someone produces Maeterlinck. Trust me, it’s not going to happen often.

Why am I advocating shortcuts? Because there’s too much that’s happened. Theater historians don’t know it all, and we’re not even talking about them, we’re talking about a different job entirely. So: know the big points and that’ll give you a sense of how to connect the dots when you need to do so.

On that note, connecting the dots, the critic might want to have a handle on the period culture as well – what theater meant then, for example. I don’t mean what it Meant in terms of Art, but how theater and audiences understood one another. Shakepeare may be High Art now, but he was Steven Spielberg back then, just as capable of writing something thoughtful as he was of writing something crowd-pleasingly craptacular. There’s a reason why MacBeth and Titus Andronicus were his best sellers, and it’s got a lot to do with blood and guts to my mind. Shakespeare was no fool - he was looking for butts in seats.

And she should be a decent writer.

To summarize: Know the art form, both what goes into it and what it’s been historically. Know the relationship between the art form and the audience. Can write.

I think this has been mostly straightforward up until now. But there’s always got to be a wrinkle.

What are the differences between credentials and qualifications? I have a Ph.D., which are the credentials I need to teach at the university level. However, there is nothing in most programs that requires a Ph.D. to know how to teach. In other words, credentials trump qualifications. For that matter, at research institutions (University of Wisconsin – Madison, University of Indiana – Bloomington, Harvard University, etc.), professors are rewarded more for publications (books and articles) than they are for teaching. I bring this up to make the point: credentials do not necessarily establish qualifications.

The fact that I re-built my porch last year, passing all city inspections, suggests that I am qualified to build a porch for you, but I don’t have a degree in carpentry. Our résumés distinguish education and training (credentials in the forms of degrees, certificates) from our history (qualifications in the list of relevant stuff we have done). Credentials are official; qualifications may be official, but they are no guarantee of quality. Example: how many bad drivers do you know with a license? The state has granted us the credentials to drive, but that doesn’t mean we’re any good at it.

By the way, I don’t want to build you a porch. Let's just get that straight.

The reason I make the distinction between credentials and qualifications is because we all know credentialed people who are total, unqualified boobs. Yet, we may not be able to hire some superbly qualified people because of whatever protocol we might be following. So: credentials are no guarantee. I’m not saying anything surprising here.

But it has bearing. People who dismiss Damien Jaques at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel assert that he’s not qualified. What they mean is that he’s not credentialed. Jaques has been reviewing since the early 1980s, I believe (correct me if I’m wrong, anybody). A carpenter without a license who’s been working for nearly 30 years, hire him, he’s going to have a bunch of tricks. A theater critic who’s been writing for nearly 30 years, no way, can’t be qualified.

This sounds to me like: “I don’t like Jaques’ reviews,” which is an emotional response, but not a particularly logical one. That’s certainly how people responded to Steffen Silvis and to Christopher Piatt as well.

I’m not saying that people can’t be bad reviewers. I am saying that we need to get our words straight. I don’t know how long Silvis and Piatt have been writing criticism, but Jaques has seen more theater in a year than I have in the past five years. Seems pretty on-the-job qualified to me. We can call any of them dumb, we can accuse them of bad writing (this argument has actual merit as an argument), we can accuse them of being failed artists. And we do – we accuse them of all this and more.

And it makes us sound just a little petty.

It’s a distortion of the truth to say that a reviewer is just one person’s opinion. It is true, of course, but what it distorts is the fact that that their opinion counts more. Jaques’ opinion matters more than Bickerstaff’s – the Journal Sentinel (a daily paper) has more readers than the Shepherd Express (a weekly). Both of their opinions matter more than mine does, given that I don’t work at any kind of paper at all.

They have a platform from which to speak, a megaphone if you will. Their voices are louder.

Which raises a question: do we not like critics because they criticize, or because they’re louder than we are? Do we not like them for who they are, or because of where they work? Because I guarantee you, if we put in another reviewer at the Journal Sentinel, we’re not going to like her either. It’s a thankless job, after all.

And yet – it’s a bellwether. We lament the loss of a critic when the job is eliminated as newspapers decline. It makes me think of lovingly abusive siblings: no one beats up my little brother but me.

Next Criticism: A guess this time why we don’t like critics, but it’s just a guess