John Rockwell on The Critical Divide

By John Rockwell

Lisa Traiger, Dance/USA’s eJournal editor, tells me that there are rumblings on the Dance/USA side of the Great Divide about the proper role of print critics, or those few remaining of that endangered species. She called on me since I was a dance critic once (and a critic of other arts, too, and an editor) for The New York Times. But I have also been a performer (briefly, in my semi-golden youth in the mid-1960s, with Ann/a Halprin) and a producer/presenter, as the first director of the Lincoln Center Festival in the mid-1990s.

Right now, a print critic is different from a blogger in that there is usually still at least one major daily newspaper per town, and hence its critic assumes a disproportionately influential role in the local community. In New York there are several dailies, but for the high-art audience, the Times rules the roost. Of course, there are weekly magazines and tabloids too, and their critics can serve important public functions. As for the myriad bloggers and chat-room organizers and Facebookers and Twitterers, their influence pales, however expert and impassioned the writers may be. That Internet world can be rough and rude, but it certainly counts as aesthetic democracy in action.

Critics may be full of themselves, but they do have a higher conception of their role than artists and presenters. We see the critic’s role as a noble one—trying to encapsulate in resistant prose the artistic experiences we encounter, maybe helping to educate our readers and provide them a sounding board for their own opinions, advancing the standards of an art form we love. Critics must love the art in question and bring a certain level of expertise (technical, historical, experiential) to the job. Underneath all that, they have to have the gift of good writing. Critics are not there to serve the dance community or particular artists. They are there to join in—lead, maybe, in a dominant paper—a wider conversation and shared enthusiasm about the art form.They are not there to serve the dance community or particular artists. They are there to join in—lead, maybe, in a dominant paper— a wider conversation and shared enthusiasm about the art form.

This can lead to conflicts with artists and presenters. Presenters resent a lack of support for their endeavors; for them, a critic’s role is that of institutional booster, especially of fledgling companies. Artists want to be loved, better yet loved intelligently and supportively. They resent a mere critic’s presumptions, and are hurt when their work is slighted, especially ignorantly, fixating on any snub they perceive as unfair or ad hominem.

At Lincoln Center, I was bemused by the often naked hostility shown behind the scenes by the center’s top administrators toward critics and criticism. For them, critics’ only function was to sell tickets—forget about intelligence or poetic writing or whatever wisdom they might bring to the party. Critics were corrupt losers, the underlying resentment seemed to me to be, and who cared if a review was smart or dumb (and there were some dumb ones, to be sure), as long as it moved business at the box office?

Lisa Traiger was also curious about my take on Alastair Macaulay’s sugar plum crack that aroused so much controversy this past month. I told her I didn’t want to dwell on that, since Alastair succeeded me as the Times’s chief dance critic, that I respect him and that there is such a thing as collegiality. Clearly bodies and beauty and charisma are valid points of discussion for artists who put themselves before the public with just such attributes as selling points. Artistry counts, too, even more. Sometimes critics seem to relish negative cracks about performers’ appearances, as John Simon used to do in his film and theater reviews. I could sympathize with Alastair, given the flap caused six years ago by a piece of mine about stars and beauty at the New York City Ballet (one that I stand behind even now and included in my book compilation, Outsider [Limelight, 2009]). It’s a legitimate subject, but the critic shouldn’t seem to take pleasure in insulting performers. At the same time, performers, especially women, should maybe lighten up a little (Alastair was harsher on Jenifer Ringer’s cavalier, Jared Angle, than on Ringer herself, but precious few rose to his defense). I thought Ringer handled the whole affair elegantly in her television interview.

There is an inherent tension between reviewers and reviewed, and that’s inevitable, even healthy. Critics who are overly friendly with certain artists and champion them incessantly lose the confidence of their attentive readers. Every critic, more properly every good critic, has a sensibility that becomes evident to readers over time: they particularly like ballet or experimental dance or ethnic dance or tap dance or historical dance or certain dancers and choreographers. That might make those who fall outside the favored circle upset, but a critic who blandly likes everything is hardly the solution. Nor is the critic who tries to confine him/herself to “objective,” nonjudgmental description much help. The very act of description and the choice of what to describe amounts to a subjective judgment, and anyhow, readers want critics to render a judgment, if only to calibrate it with their own, to confirm what a genius or idiot the critic truly is.

Soon enough, I don’t think it will make too much difference whether the critic appears in print or on line. The medium isn’t the only message. Arts-lovers—and ticket-selling presenters, who may well love the arts themselves—crave publicly expressed opinion if only to feel superior to the poor, benighted writer. Inky newspapers may wither and die, but criticism will continue, and the more prominent critics will be admired or reviled, depending. Expertise, presumably more likely to be evident in a critic with a real job, is really only manifested over time in the writing itself. The prominence of the publication is no guarantee of the validity of the opinion, even if more readers increase the role of a particular critic as community arbiter. I remember once a weekly critic dismissing daily critics as “hacks”; the only true critics, he felt, were critics just like himself. I can assure you, whatever bitchiness the reviewed may feel about the reviewers is nothing next to the bitchiness reviewers feel among themselves.

John Rockwell began writing at The New York Times in 1972, first as a classical music critic and reporter, then simultaneously (until 1980) as the paper’s chief pop music critic, and, from 1992 to 1994, as the European cultural correspondent. Between 1994 to 1998, he served as the first director of the Lincoln Center Festival. He returned to The New York Times to become the editor of the paper’s Sunday Arts and Leisure section. In 2004 he was named the chief dance critic. He left the Times at the end of 2006 to pursue independent projects.


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