Sep 22, 2008

Criticism for Its Own Sake

For a talk I'm giving later this week, I searched for what I remembered as one of the best pieces I've ever read on the proper role of critics in our media-saturated age; I used to distribute copies of it to cub critics at Back Stage West, and to anyone else who asked. I still occasionally quote the 84 percent figure from an eye-opening study cited in the piece (see below).

Well, I couldn't find my hard copy, but some digging on the Web turned it up. It was written by the Irish theater critic Fintan O'Toole, on invitation by The Economist. And though it's 12 years old, it rings ever true. A clarifying sample:
Critics should be honest enough to accept that they represent nobody but themselves--not the art form, not even in any real sense the newspapers that employ them. Their job is not to report on how a work was received by an audience. It is not to sell books or tickets. It is not to reform or mould the practice of theatre or music or poetry. And it is not to maintain, as arbiters of taste and value, the authority of the institutions who print their opinions.

The job of the critic is to try to ignore the magnifying effect of print and hyperbole, to preserve a sense of proportion, and to give a genuinely individual opinion. It is a modest but by no means a contemptible task. And it is one that is inextricable from the artistic process itself.

As for that study:
An American sociologist, Wesley Monroe Shrum, in a recent study of the relationship between critics and performers at the Edinburgh Festival fringe, provides some empirical evidence for the belief that critics often say what artists think. He asked 43 directors and actors to say what was good and bad about their own show. The vast majority (84%) used "phrases or comments" that were similar to those used by one or more of the critics. Some of the artists were much more dismissive of their own work than the critics were. In one play, for instance, the critic praised the acting but the director thought it was "nervous" and "patchy."

The whole thing is well worth your time.

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