Arts criticism Has Become a Tongue-Biting Career

Written By Josie Gulliksen
January 7, 2015 at 1:47 PM

Arts criticism Has Become a Tongue-Biting Career

We recently posed the question about being an arts critic in what is now an age of digital media and citizen journalism to a few of our Artburst writers. Just how challenging is it to write an honest review in a time when articles posted online are followed by sometimes endless streams of commentary and when there is perhaps too much information given prior to a performance? How do they remain objective and truthful?

We begin with Miguel Estefan, Jr., who after participating in a Boston residency taught by dancer Bill T. Jones during the company’s time there performing Still/Here, following him religiously and becoming a dancer himself, experienced the harsh criticism of the piece by one particular reviewer.

He recalls when Arlene Croce, then critic for The New Yorker refused to review 1994’s Still/Here claiming that the piece was “victim art” and therefore “unreviewable.” That refusal struck a chord with Estefan, who at first says, “I vilified her, she represented to me the worst of arts criticism and every negative connotation of a ‘critic’”.

However years later, being a critic himself, Estefan learned that most important of all is to be honest and have no personal agenda: “Write about what you see not what you think the artist is trying to tell you. To this day I do not read any liner notes in a program before a concert,” he says. “Many modern dancers feel the need to tell you what their piece is about, what the inspiration was. I don’t need any of that. I want the piece to speak for itself.”

His honest reviews aren’t always well accepted, especially by the groups being reviewed. Once he thought he’d written a positive review yet it was perceived differently by the performing artist.

“The choreographer took great offense and latched on to the one minor detraction I had made about the concert,” he says. “They had written a very angry response, stating if I had just read the notes in the program I would have understood.”

He moved to Miami 10 years ago, encouraged by his dancer friends who knew of his background, so he tried his hand at writing about dance. “It was interesting that the greatest voice advocating the importance of dance criticism came from dance makers themselves,” he said.

His technique for reviewing is to write about his personal experience in the audience and write about the gestalt of a piece within the confines of the actual technical use of space, form, motif, and vocabulary.

And when writing about music “there are varied nuances, translations and interpretations that transcend the written notes. I look for the sincerity, the abandonment of ego. I write about my personal experience in the audience.

“When I write about a piece or performance it’s like writing about a favorite color, smell or flavor — extremely sensory and what it evokes. I’m heavy on metaphors,” he says.

With regards to his work for Artburst, he is mindful that he is writing in support of the community. “I want it to grow, evolve, mature, expand and to develop a questioning and not so easily appeased audience,” he says.

Lately he says he’s been toying with the idea of going back to the stage, or at least choreographing again because “after years behind the fourth wall and three years behind the pen, I wonder what it would be like to be reviewed myself. I wonder if I could handle my own criticism  –I mean review,” he says.

Fellow Artburst writer Juan Carlos Perez-Duthie recalls his early days as a food as well as an arts critic and the harsh reality that, although it was good at first, he says, “soon enough, things went sour.”

He experienced something similar to Estefan in that when his reviews were positive, everyone involved glowed but when they were not, all hell broke loose. 

“People would write the publisher and complain, they would send me hate mail, insult me by phone. One even took an ad against me. And this was all before the Internet,” says Perez-Duthie. The non-informed opinions on the Internet, filled with sarcasm and vitriol, he says “have over the years made criticism become more irrelevant.”

He’s noticed how established media have struggled with all this with many outlets opting not to review new books, plays, restaurants, or shows if they are bad. So it begs the question: “Is this good for the readers? Well, movies can bomb more from word of mouth after people have seen them than from critics’ reviews. It seems movies and television shows can still be given bad reviews because they seem more impersonal and removed from the critic’s personal space,” he says.

There’s also the other extreme, where everything is positive with blurbs praising the artist. These he feels have a whiff of publicity “and so I think, whether it’s a comment or five stars or some other method of rating, they have lost a lot of their power with audiences. Written media can’t compete with people’s tastes and opinions online and how quickly they can spread,” he says.

As a reviewer himself, he feels there’s always some self-importance and ego in a critical review, mostly when the review is negative. “It is such a subjective field, unless there are common elements that most human beings could identify and reach a consensus,” he says.

And so he feels the question is, can reviews still cause damage or boost sales? “I think it depends on the product, the intended audience, the marketing, the outlet, the reach that review may achieve. No one likes to see their work reviewed negatively, and in these hyper-sensitive and politically correct times, even more,” he concludes.

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