Wednesday, May 30, 2007

What gives a critic authority?

There is a fantastic blog entry over at Arts Journal by a books blogger who was also a theater critic. It was written somewhat in response to the L.A. Times article, "Not Everyone's a Critic," but he really gets into the whole question of what gives a reviewer authority to be a critic.

A few morsels to tempt you to read the whole thing:

In the early '90s, the Dallas Times Herald hired a new theater critic who, it turned out, had been a professional actor. He even still had his Equity card; he'd acted off-Broadway.

Then one evening I ran into a theater director/professor/friend and happened to ask him what he thought of the new critic in town. He was curious to know more about the fellow's background, and when I explained, my friend promptly quipped, "Oh, yes, that's what every director wants judging him from the seats. An ex-actor with a grudge."

Well put. What this says is that not only is direct education/experience in an art not absolutely necessary for a critic, it can even be a hindrance, a distortion. Your teacher could have been an eccentric, someone with a warped notion of his art. Or, considering the highly collaborative nature of an art like theater, extensive background as a lighting designer may cause one to over-value the importance of blue gels and undervalue the contributions of, oh, say, actors.


It's with the word "earn" that I realized how this all actually works. We have it backwards. The critic doesn't bring authority to his reviews. It's his reviews that grant him authority, earn him any authority. A review is not an opinion, as Mr. Schickel says. It's not even (just) a wise judgment. It's an attempt at persuasion. It doesn't simply tell us that this book is worthy of our time and attention. A review tells us why and how. In trying to explain the critic's own response, the review justifies them. The review leads us into sharing his conclusion.

In other words, the critic earns his authority by using his knowledge, his rhetorical skills, his humor, his personal insights, maturity, modesty, bravura cleverness -- whatever it takes, in this particular instance, to convey the experience of the film in question and to convince us not only that he's right but that he's worth listening to. These are the only things that matter with a critic. Just as with a teacher, it's all about the classroom (and how he handles the homework), with a critic, it's all about what's on the page. If he can't do that, all the rest is meaningless.

He has lots more good stuff to say.


Anonymous said...

I may misunderstand what you are trying to say, but for me there is a large difference between someone who wants to be a reviewer versus someone who wants to be a critic. Perhaps a good analogy would be if I attended an art show. I can look at a painting and provide a review to someone else of how that particular painting struck me. I can tell you why I liked it and the feelings it invoked within me. But I would not be able to describe to you the technical aspects of the painting, what technique is used, how it compares to other art of its type, etc. And that is where I think the question of knowledge and background come into play. It is one thing to give your personal opinion and describe your experience to your readers (something you do rather well I must say) but entirely another to describe oneself as a critic or someone who has the special knowledge to critique the mechanics of a performance or the technical aspects of the play itself. For that one needs to have the requisite training just as a critic of art would have. It would be necessary to have an understanding of the play or perhaps the author and to go beyond the spoken word or performance in other to provide an educated critique. At any rate, just a thought - I don't mean to challenge your blog or your abilities as a reviewer - just to provide another point of view. It seems to me that a critic's authority is not given, but earned - and not by being able to turn a clever phrase, but by being able to provide an educated opinion as to the art itself rather than the personal likes or dislikes of the author.

Bridgette Redman said...

Thank you for commenting!

I think this is a fascinating topic to discuss, one in which the answers are still evolving.

I do draw a distinction between a critique, a review, and a blog. However, I think it is possible for a blog to be a medium to deliver either a critique or a review.

As for whether a person is a reviewer or a critic--well, doesn't that depend on what they are writing at the time as opposed to anything inherent in their backgroud or training? A person could have years of training that would qualify him or her to write a critique, but if he or she doesn't do so, they he or she is not a critic.

One of the things I've enjoyed about this blog is that it is different from my other writing. What I write in this blog really is just my personal opinion. For me, I want it to be more about encouraging dialogue than about critiquing or reviewing.

Also, while I'd like to say that what I write for the Journal is a critique, it isn't. There isn't enough space to really do the job of a critic. However, that is a review--ideally a review that has little to do with my likes and dislikes. It hopefully lets readers know whether they personally would want to see the show.

I do think the discussion of qualifications is an interesting one. What makes a person qualified to critique? I'd argue that a person well-versed in the art is still not a good critic if the person doesn't also possess a critical vocabulary and the ability to use it. For example, I was an instrumentalist for 12 years, playing clarinet, tenor saxophone, and tuba in various concert bands, symphonic bands, marching bands, jazz bands, and pit orchestras. I took music theory classes and studied music extensively. Despite that, I do not consider myself qualified to write a review of a symphonic orchestra performance. I can write about it and I can share my impressions, but I don't possess the critical vocabulary necessary to review or critique it. So qualifications are a strange thing.

Perhaps another question might be--how transparent should a critic's qualifications be? I'm very confident in my qualifications as a critic because I know what they are. However, it's highly unlikely that anyone other than a handful of readers and my editor know what they are. I think that is true of most arts critics. I know I've always considered that the review and what is written in the review is more important than who I am. Perhaps I am mistaken in that.

Thank you again for making a comment--I hope you'll continue the discussion.