Critical Grade A?

This week in our Festival News we have a story on a kind of artistic fantasy: the critics get graded.

New York’s Time Out magazine organized the process, identifying the major New York critics in art, books, dance, film, food, music, classical music, and theatre. Each critic’s work was graded on a scale of 1 to 6 (six being the best grade) in five categories: knowledge, style, taste, accessibility, and influence. New Yorkers like to think in terms of influence.

Time Out brought together a panel of artists, curators, and publicists to do the grading. Publicists? New Yorkers like to think that all art needs a publicist. To be fair, although no one ever thought publicists should be evaluated based on their deep and abiding commitment to aesthetics, Time Out’s point was that they, too, are very much affected by the marketplace reaction to the critical response. After all, it is hard to publicize a work of art that has been slammed by the critics.

Panelists were provided anonymity. A “proctor” was tapped to collect all the information, provide the grades for each category, and select representative comments.

This creates an interesting dynamic. The artistic work is public. A critic puts his or her name on their published reaction to the work. However, responding to the critics is done from the shadows, sotto voce. Why?

It is not about manners — “if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say it.” It is about self preservation — “don’t respond to a bad review, otherwise the critic will write something worse next time.”

You don’t have to adopt this dance of seething in silence. One of New York’s most influential, creative, and significant producers was Joseph Papp of the Public Theater. He would not use anonymity — be it for critics, audiences, or protests.

Papp, it was often told, would never hesitate to let a critic know what he thought about their work. If he read an especially irksome negative review, Papp would call the critic at home that morning, around 6 am. When the critic answered the phone, Papp would launch into a loud and language-rich rant of what he thought about the critic’s point of view. Papp was as artful with his language, as he was with his productions. So, one can imagine that in addition to high volume, Papp was able to create imaginative juxtapositions of language, body parts, and actions. Many were aghast, fearful that Papp was burning unnecessary bridges. His response: The next time that critic comes to my theatre, in the back of his mind he’s going to think about whether he wants to hear me on the phone the next morning!

Alas, these panelists probably feel the need for safety in providing anonymous grades. Even more, the critics don’t score too badly. How nice that everyone appears to get along.

Still, art isn’t always nice. Where is Joe Papp when you really need him?

- Bill Reichblum

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