The Art of Criticism in the Technological Age -- Pros and Cons of Our Times

Why is arts criticism important? In a perfect situation, criticism would serve at least three-fold. Worthy artists would receive recognition, audiences could be informed and, in many cases, the work of criticism can be entertaining in itself, offering opinions and expertise with compassion and even an edge, when they feel pushed to the limits of taste and abilities.

Perhaps the "Golden Age of Criticism" was when great artists themselves, George Bernard Shaw and Richard Wagner, etc., put out a body of work, not only in their chosen fields as playwright and composer, but as dedicated critics, producing works that stand up on their own.

There is a saying, those who can, do, those who can't, teach; and those who can't teach, become critics. While that statement can hold water, it is not always the case. If people ask me to defend my stand personally (not that many dare to -- I might be their next critic) I say I waited until I had years of performance behind me and some many reviews of my own work. Now that I write criticism, I admit my reaction to anything other than perfect notices was mercurial at best, certifiable at worst. I hope my "targets" are much more self-actualized than I was.

In the very beginning of my work, I found myself trying to find positives that were not always there, as there is the urge not to make waves in cabaret, since it is such a small world and the critic feels a bit protective of it and themselves. I got over that fairly quickly by deciding not to review people whom I considered "friends" or people I might not care for on some level, that I was already aware of. I steered away from reviewing performers I knew, with very few exceptions. I told press agents beware -- just because you got me into the show and I know you, it will not influence my findings. The main reason I chose to follow my heart is because, rather than make fair-weather friends, I chose to use criticism as a vehicle for my own frustrated artistic goals, and the only way to be a critic of value is to have no agenda, except writing honesty and entertainingly. I do this for the selfish reason of hoping to become recognized as an artist, perhaps not in my original field of singing, but in my newfound outlet of writing. I admit I have nothing to lose by taking this stance, and the folks who have published me have been surprisingly eager to let me have my say.

I propose that the arts would benefit from writers who have nothing to gain except for the above statement that I have put forth, and don't think I need to elaborate further. In addition to all that, there are no longer the same amount of free meals being offered to sway me.

Is there such a thing as objective criticism? I'd like to believe there is. In musical theatre and vocal music performance, one thing to look at is if the lyrics are served by the performer. That is a pretty cut and dry business. If one is swinging a song about a tragic event, or offering a dirge to present a ditty, that rarely, if ever, conveys the lyrical or musical intent of the composer. When jazz musicians do this, I call them out on it. Just because one is creative musically and is adventurous, does not mean they can take a tune like "Lady is a Tramp" and turn the heroine into a schizophrenic (actually that might not be a BAD idea). What I AM saying, is when songs are turned around without contextual consideration, even the most unsophisticated of audiences (often the most emotionally honest) know it and feel uncomfortable, rather than freed by their experience. A friend of mine recently showed me an opera production of Verdi's Nabucco, where the chorus was singing and dancing in bee costumes. Really? I was waiting for the late John Belushi to show up as a Samurai Bee and slash them all to death.

So the first thing I look for is interpretation. In cabaret, having a great voice (whatever that is) is not critical. It is important, though, that the singer is not screaming and vomiting their emotions on stage, taking one captive. You think your story is that interesting? When you are 22? There is a minute chance that that's true, unless you are Edith Piaf, and if you are, I can't wait to see you. Keep it light and flowing and save the tragedy for Greek drama. Cabaret is not that. You are the vehicle to make people feel better about life, so be sure it is on a good day, not a bad one. Even when you sing torch songs, there should be a wink and a nod to the audience, always making them feel enriched by your offerings, not sorry for you. Conversely, avoid being saccharine and overly cute. Don't make your audience want to kill you, because your life is so much better than theirs. I could go on, but will save it, so if I ever do a performance class, I have something new to offer!

Remember, that as much as I WANT you to do well, most of us (unless they are pathological) do want to see something we will enjoy and want to be able to say something positive. It is much easier to write a good review than a negative one, both technically and emotionally, for the writer. I would love to hear someone who is BETTER than me!

My final advice to performers is to be your own advocate. Try to see what is personal in a review and what is truly helpful. Only you can do that. Your friends and family might pump you up, or tell you to ignore or listen slavishly to the critic. There is always a chance that even if the critic does not "get" what you do, it is authentic and valuable (except for my work, everything I say is always true!). Many great artists are not "gotten" on their first try. It is hard to hear anything new. Think of all the great classical composers and painters; few were successes right off the bat.

A note about critics in this day of technology. Due to blogs and the infinite space of the Internet, almost anyone who wants to can get online and express their sentiments. I am sure the annoyance at easy communication started when people learned to write and no longer needed smoke-signals to get the word out. Still, it is pretty daunting when you realize your competition just has to hit the send button and voila, their work is being submitted to the New York Times. I wish typed copy was still required to have the prospective author read, at least before they are hired. I know I find addressing an envelope much more challenging than writing a 2,500-word piece. On the other hand, without the Internet, folks like myself would not be able to keep up with all the details and choose never to write anything.

Right now, with today's economy, the possibility of Global Nuclear Destruction at hand, our real challenge is to avoid Armageddon. The arts as we know them, will take care of themselves as they always have, as they are a representative of society, rather than the other way around. Good luck to us all.


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Hear what performers, directors & critics have to say
about the state of the art of criticism today...

DATE: Saturday, October 29 2011 ~ 1-3pm

PLACE: The Metropolitan Room212.206.0440
34 West 22nd St.
Between 5th and 6th Avenues
New York, NY 10010