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Wednesday, 30 August 2006



Theaterboy says: “…the magazine piece reports on a concerted effort to get Zinman fired, plus an organized campaign to pull theater ads from the Inquirer. Neither of those things could possibly help the situation.” I couldn’t disagree more. Critics and newspapers should be held to the same rigorous standards that they apply to the artists whose work they routinely evaluate. Artists should care about how the creative environment in which they work is affected by arts journalism, and should be encouraged, not discouraged, from articulated the (sometimes subtle) ways in which journalism affects artistic choices, programming, risk-taking, and the theatre scene as a whole. If a journalist is thought to be having a particularly pernicious effect, it behooves one to try to do something about it, if one cares deeply about one’s work, and about the cultural landscape in which that work occurs. It is not unheard of for a critic to suggest that an artist or an arts administrator should move on from a particular job that is not being done well, or to suggest that someone involved in some production ought not pursue further work in a chosen field. Why should the artist be discouraged from suggesting that a critic is not meeting an expected standard and should be removed? Newspaper advertising (for my theatre, anyway) is one of the, if not the, biggest expense a theatre faces. Given that, the use of that economic clout should be encouraged, not discouraged, if it may help achieve a desired end, however insignificant it may seem to the elephant that is being bitten by the mosquito. If either of the actions described above result in a better theatre scene, how could they not be helpful? There is this attitude that it is somehow unseemly, or smacking of “sour grapes,” for anyone to take issue with a critic who has said something negative. And, God forbid a critic should lose any work because of something an artist thinks (though the reverse happens routinely) – then things have really gone too far. Statements like Theaterboy’s, whether intentionally or not, contribute to that attitude, but, I say, let the theatre community of Philly be heard.


Indeed, let them be heard. Tboy believes he advocated just that when he wrote that the Zinman-haters blog was "no doubt a useful vent mechanism for theaterfolk who feel genuinely aggrieved."

And Tboy thinks you're on solid ground--to a point--when you talk about playing eco-warrior in defense of the cultural landscape, if an irresponsible critic is genuinely laying waste to it.

But though he is amused by the surface elegance of your suggestion that Zinman and the Inky should be held to "the same rigorous standards" they use to judge theater, Tboy fears that you've tied yourself in an ethical knot.

To wit: If a destructive approach to criticism is what's at issue, whether it's in Philadelphia or in Chicago or indeed in Washington, a destructive approach to the critic and her paper can't possibly make the situation any better. And you did say you wanted to make it better, right?

Today's NYT story on the Hedy Weiss flap closes with a quote from the exec direc of Theater Building Chicago, as it happens, that tacitly acknowledges exactly this: The Dramatists Guild and its members can ride their high horses until they collapse from saddle-soreness, Joan Mazzonelli seems to be saying, but "[w]hat’s in my hands is that Hedy Weiss, who is a major reviewer, is upset with me.”

And while Weiss will doubtless do her level, professional best to put personal feelings aside next time she crosses the threshold of Mazzonelli's theater, it would appear that her editors are satisfied that she's committed no ethical infraction. So she's likely to be on the job for a while. And Tboy's guessing most of Mazzonelli's colleagues are awfully glad they're not in her shoes just this minute. This is part of what he meant by "not helpful."

Similarly, you miss the mark with the assertion that "it is not unheard of for a critic to suggest that an artist or an arts administrator should move on from a particular job," to say nothing of the rhetorical question you append to that assertion.

Yea verily, such waspishness is not unheard of--though again, Tboy is sure you'd agree that it represents precisely the brand of disrespectful, destructive criticism that's being complained about in both of these cases.

(And yes, since you've begun pawing through your archive, Tboy is prepared to entertain the possibility that at some point during these last 11 years, he may once or twice have been driven by a particularly maddening piece of work to be less than entirely respectful or less than thoroughly constructive. But he can't think immediately of any genuinely egregious lapses, and he hopes in any case that any unbecoming episodes have been rare. The problem at hand, he reminds everyone, is supposedly a systemic one, at least in the Zinman example.)

So Tboy, having admitted the faint possibility of his fallibility, reiterates: Why would any passionately fair-minded artist decry a destructive, disrespectful posture in one breath and then assume it in the next? He suspects the answer has more to do with the passion than the fair-mindedness.

And so to the crux of it. Following on the (imperfect) logic of that initial assertion, you ask: "Why should the artist be discouraged from suggesting that a critic is not meeting an expected standard and should be removed?"

The answer: An artist should be encouraged to suggest the first as often as he feels the impulse--and discouraged from suggesting the second. Arguing "that a critic isn't meeting an expected standard"--whether in a letter to the editor, during a meeting with that editor, or perhaps even on a blog--falls well within the bounds of reasonable discourse. (Just as informed, intelligent criticism does, however cutting it may be.) But agitating for the critic's firing, it seems to Tboy, crosses the same line that vicious criticism does.

In any case--and he's surprised that this needs pointing out--an artist who does the first convincingly won't need to do the second. The critic's editors will take care of that, Tboy promises.

So as with the organized call for the critic's firing, a pointed withdrawal of advertising accomplishes what? Merely this: It concedes to anyone who's paying attention that the artist's argument has failed to move the critic's bosses--who, as anyone who's ever breathed newsroom air would tell you, would sack a subordinate in a New York minute if her lapses genuinely imperiled their paper's name.


Whoops...I'm must apologize because I seem to have expressed myself so unclearly that Tboy has, it seems, spent a good deal of time, energy, and Jesuitical training in addressing a position I do not hold. ("Ethical knot?" Ethical, not!) I think it is perfectly fair for a critic -- or anyone -- to call for the removal of someone who is doing a job badly. I don't think that is necessarily "destructive" (though it is certainly destructive to one person's ambitions) if it results in a healthier situation for an institution or a community. (Tboy seems to think it should be out of bounds...maybe that makes him a nicer person than me, although, in my defense, it must be pointed out that I scanned that photo of Bart for you.) My point was that I don't think that critics should be exempt from that scrutiny. So, it can't be argued that, in saying it's fair to call for the removal of a critic, I am contradicting myself, because I am not arguing that it is not fair for a critic to call for the removal of, say, the artistic director who is taking a theatre in what seems to the critic to be a very wrong direction. I'm okay with that. Maybe the problem stems from Tboy's associating me with the criticisms of the critic in question as "vicious" or "destructive." But, I know absolutely nothing about the Philadelphia situation. I don't know the merits of the case against this Toby person or on what side I would be if I were working in that city. I was only reacting to Tboy's suggestion that collective action on the part of the theatre community could not "possibly help the situation." Of course, I posted my thoughts before reading Tboy's "promise" that a critic's editors would address any legitimate concerns before such extreme action would be called for. I suppose that I had assumed that, before moving to collective calls for firing and advertising boycotts, the sorts of less drastic measures suggested by Tboy would have been employed to no avail. If they weren't, and the paper and its editors weren't given a reasonable chance to address whatever concerns the theatre community had, then I agree with Tboy that to begin with such extreme tactics is not helpful.

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