julia foulkes

Critiquing Critics

In class recently we discussed the role of critics. Much like a curator (our previous week’s topic), critics mediate an artwork for an audience. If a curator has multiple concerns, taking care of artwork, artist, institution, and audience, a critic is more solely concerned with the artwork, how it works, whether it works, for whom.

Sally Banes usefully describes the elements of dance criticism as containing four elements: description, interpretation, evaluation, and contextual explanation. She outlines examples of each, noting the move in dance criticism toward description in the wave of postmodernism when pedestrian movement and rebellious aesthetics reigned. She derides ballet criticism for its tendency to evaluate performers, whether this one’s technique is up to par or that one’s stage presence is waning. What she deems good criticism is the piece that can effectively combine these elements, illuminating a work of art for greater meaning and for wider public understanding.

Arlene Croce’s infamous critique of Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here was our case study. The essay is infamous because she did not see the performance and yet wrote a long negative critique of it, “discussing the undiscussable” as she titled the piece. In her view, Jones traffics in “victim art” in Still/Here, making it impossible for a critic to provide substantive commentary on a dance piece made from and with people diagnosed with terminal illnesses. “I can’t review someone I feel sorry for or hopeless about,” she claims. This does not stop her from condemning the dance, however, and, in that way, she perpetuates the silence, erasure, and dismissal that have crippled artists defined by race, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

While the class found much to discuss in the undiscussable, I was struck by two insights they developed. The first was what they termed as the move from critiques to reviews, from substantive commentary on the structure and meaning of the artwork to largely descriptive writing that focuses on less important elements. (The curtain was a pretty red, as one of the students put it.) This shift could be attributed to the explosion of commentary enabled by the internet and the waning of the role of the high arts in contemporary culture. But it has also been accompanied by the rise of cultural criticism, the other insight of the class. Instead of an in-depth analysis of an artwork, critics use the artwork to comment on a social or cultural issue. (See Croce.)

I found this to be a compelling analysis of how criticism has changed from the days of Lionel Trilling, Meyer Schapiro, and Helen Vendler. I think good criticism still exists. (My favorite example is Emily Nussbaum writing about television in the New Yorker.) But it is far less common than the brief superficial review or an artwork as a talking point in a longer essay about a social issue.

What impact has this had the arts?