Commentary: Does the Web make music criticism meaner?

Anne Midgette, Washington Post's Classical Beat blog, 7/13/12

I took part in a lively discussion in WQXR's series Conducting Business, in which the violinst Lara St. John, the blogger-critic Pete Matthews, and I have our say on the question of whether the Web is making criticism meaner. (The title of the podcast is Music Criticism as Contact Sport.) I Tweeted the link to the podcast and [a] question: Does the Web make criticism meaner? A couple of artists promptly responded: unequivocally, yes. As someone who's written my share of tough reviews, I thought a lot about this. My basic stance on what the Web has done to music criticism is very positive: it's allowed a lot more discussion and a lot more response. I am opposed to the idea of the critic holding forth unchallenged from the ivory tower, and am encouraged by a model that allows other viewpoints to come into play. To me, this is really the point of the exercise: the more people are talking about the art form, the better it is for everybody. I think the reason the Web is perceived as meaner is partly that it puts these debates in writing for all to see, and partly because, when there are a plethora of opinions, there are more likely to be a few that really sting. But this is not a reason to condemn the Web wholesale. For one thing, there have always been print critics who have specialized in stinging barbs as well, and those came without the benefit of the accompanying discussion that makes it palpably evident that people care, passionately, about the art form. For another, it affords a glimpse of a vox populi that traditional media outlets never used to give us. I'd rather base my opinion on 50 responses than the voice of a single critic, and surveys show that a lot of other people feel the same way. As for the claim that blogger-critics are less informed than newspaper critics, and less edited, I've said time and again that I don't buy it. There are great bloggers and not-so-great bloggers, and there are lousy newspaper critics, and critics who put things into print that desperately seem to need more editing than they got.


Commentary: The New York Times responds to reader criticism of its arts critics

Mark Shenton, on his blog for The Stage [UK], 7/26/12

The public editor of the New York Times, Arthur S Brisbane, recently wrote about responses to the paper's many critics: "A certain backwash of discomfort is perhaps inevitable, given the scale of The Times's body of work, which is poured out every day in the Arts sections and weekly in the Book Review.... We are talking about thousands of reviews every year."So, just as it is often asked who polices the police, who polices those thousands of reviews? Nowadays, of course, the public have their own opportunity to answer back publicly, in the comments sections that every review comes with online; but unlike other forms of news journalism, the New York Times culture editor Jonathan Landman insists the objectivity isn't the stated aim of his paper when it comes to reviews. His critics, he tells Brisbane, "are not supposed to be objective; they are free to champion certain kinds of work. They are free to like or dislike anyone or anything." But, he adds, there are limits to this principle. "You don't want a TV critic who decides in advance that all reality TV is stupid, or a theater critic who hates musicals. What's crucial is that whatever a critic's philosophy or taste, whatever he might have written about an artist in the past, he approaches each work honestly, with an open mind." Perhaps inevitably, this column itself provoked readers' responses. One enquired about the source of the critics' expertise. Philip McGrath asked, "Did they extensively study art, or are they painters or sculptors themselves? Are they experienced architects or designers with portfolios of their own? Have they taken or taught writing courses, or written and published novels, biographies, short stories or poems? Have they produced, directed, acted or danced in movies or live performances?" Culture editor Landman replies, "The credential that marks a great critic is great criticism. Think of some big names in criticism of the last century -- none were professional-level practitioners...yet millions devoured their work with pleasure and respect. There are also journals full of articles by credentialed scholars. Whose stuff would you rather read?"


Commentary: Why aren't there more theater practitioners among theater critics?

Sherri Kronfeld,, 7/22/12

[At] the "Critiquing Criticism" discussion this March at Humana [watch it on #NEWPLAY TV], here were arrayed before us a group of prominent theater critics from a variety of web and print publications, as well as an artistic director of a well-respected theater company, and someone who worked at a major theater in play development. I asked: Why aren't there more theater practitioners among theater critics? Why is ours one of the rare fields -- unlike sports, books, economics, etc -- where esteemed practitioners can't comment on each other's work? In fact aren't they the best people to do this? Now, asking this to a group composed of critics who were not practitioners, and practitioners who were not critics, I assumed I'd be jumped on, and I was. The woman in play development said that although she saw so many plays and would love to advocate for them, the 'conflict of interest' meant that she couldn't. This is the most common response I've been given when posing this question. Back in Brooklyn, one of my roommates loves sports, and often the TV is on in the background with a game or various talking heads commenting. Without fail, one or more is a major former athlete. Sometimes this commentator even played on the same team whose game is being discussed. No one views [that] as a conflict of interest. If you flip the dial around to reality and competition TV shows, you'll see chefs commenting on food, fashion designers sitting alongside fashion editors checking out new designs, etc. Why aren't more theater practitioners critics?  Playwright (and current writer on TV's Smash) Jason Grote described his past writing about theater. He but doesn't do much reviewing anymore. He wrote to me, "I never had a problem with writing for The Brooklyn Rail or American Theater -- but everyone else seemed to...Many people didn't seem to understand "what I was" -- I felt forced to choose between thinker and artist." Why isn't someone like Robert Brustein our Ben Brantley? Why should theater practitioners only write about theater in the most oblique ways, and on blogs? I want Adam Rapp to review the next Stephen Adly Guirgis play, and in the damn New York Times (if he wants to). And no, I do not think it's a conflict of interest. I think it would be a celebration of the art form we've dedicated our lives to. Why, in theater only, is enthusiastic advocacy and lifelong experience viewed as a conflict of interest?


Commentary: Should actors criticise each other in public?

The Guardian Theatre Blog, 7/27/12

Hard not to feel sorry for actor Morgan James, who attended the first preview performance of a new production of Sondheim's Into the Woods at the Delacorte theatre in New York and found herself embroiled in a Twitterstorm when she tweeted her reaction to the show. Admittedly her review, which has since been deleted -- "HOW can you **** up Into the Woods?? I fear musicianship is dead in musical theatre. And acting, for that matter. #horrified" -- wasn't exactly positive, but it was at least clear. And it seems James might have been right on the money: the New York Post's Michael Riedel published a roundup of reactions to the production that proclaims: "I do believe hers is an opinion we can trust ... [and] even people working on the show agree with her." Ouch. By that time, of course, James had been attacked repeatedly on Twitter and forced to apologise. She tweeted, mournfully: "I am really sorry for this firestorm. For my words, for responses, for the chaos. I am so sorry. I had NO idea this would turn into this. And I apologize to the cast, crew and creatives of the show and everyone at the Public." Which raises an interesting question -- was James right or wrong to tweet as she did? Most actors would hesitate before broadcasting negative opinions about shows they see to the world at large (not least because they might be employed tomorrow by the people they're slagging off today), but is it hypocritical to pretend that a show's hunky-dory when it isn't? Is it time everyone in theatre was more straightforward with each other? Or should actors and directors keep honest feedback for the rehearsal room? 

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