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At a Philadelphia critics’ forum in the early 1990s, a local painter denounced Inquirer art critic Ed Sozanski as a “parasite who lives off the arts community without giving anything back.” To an arts journalist like me, this notion that the media are an extension of the arts community is one of those nonsensical ideas that just won’t die.
In the 1980s, when I was editing the Philadelphia alternative weekly Welcomat, Deen Kogan of Society Hill Playhouse scolded me for neglecting my duty to support the theater community more positively. In 1993, when I launched Seven Arts magazine, Cathy Coate of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance invited me to write about what my new magazine planned to do for the local arts community.
When I launched BSR in 2005, the director of the now-defunct Philadelphia Theatre Alliance informed me that my website was “accountable” to Philadelphia’s arts community. Since the arts community didn’t pay our salaries or invest money in our product, I asked how she could reach that conclusion. “Well,” she replied, “if it weren’t for the arts community, you wouldn’t have anything to write about.”
Car wash trauma
This notion that the media owe something to the people they cover resurfaced this month among the flood of BSR reader responses to Cara Blouin’s essay about her personal reaction to reTHEATER’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Over the past 20 years, Hedwig has only gained in popularity. It's notable among other things for its “car wash” scene, in which the title character wades into the audience to simulate forced sex upon patrons — some plants, others eager volunteers. Blouin, unaware of this background and attending Hedwig for the first time, found the experience traumatizing and said so in her commentary.
Many of the responses to Blouin’s essay — for example, from Hedwig’s director Josh Hitchens, from its lead actor Braden Chapman, and from BSR’s own theater critic Mark Cofta — epitomized the sort of insightful exchange I had in mind when I launched BSR 12 years ago as a place “where art and ideas meet.”
In my vision, BSR would reject the old model of arts criticism —high priests passing judgment on plays, concerts, and exhibitions— and instead embrace a continuing conversation among fallible but thoughtful adults who would grow intellectually in the process of listening to each other.
But many other responses to Blouin’s column reflected the same old bizarre (to my mind) notion that the media must serve the arts. These letters attacked Blouin as uninformed, hypersensitive, and (worse!) a Republican. Some letters complained the essay wasn’t really a review (true), that it neglected to mention all the hardworking performers and crew involved in the reTHEATER production (also true), and that her view differed from the positive reviews the show received elsewhere (true again). Some suggested her essay should be scrapped. Others demanded apologies or lawsuits.
If Blouin had been hired by Hedwig’s producers to promote or advise their production, these complaints might be justified. But we at BSR, like most independent media, are neither publicists nor consultants. Nor are we high priests condemning anyone to eternal damnation. We're observers who care passionately about the arts. We possess no power to coerce anyone to read our posts or act on our ideas.
Blouin — a Philadelphia playwright, director, and frequent contributor to BSR — is one such observer. She is paid by us — not by any theater — for her honest impressions of the performances she attends. Even if she lacked theatrical credentials, her reactions as an audience member might merit exposure. But that’s up to our editor, not to any theater.
One thing in common
Of course, in the process of conducting public conversations about the arts, we in the media do contribute something of value (albeit indirectly) to the arts community: honest feedback. Which is what Blouin provided when she described her gut reaction to Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Arts presenters and critics share an important common characteristic: We both survive by exposing our talents in the public marketplace, for better or worse. Cutting-edge shows like Hedwig can often be misunderstood. An innovative website like Broad Street Review can often be misunderstood.
Both groups — and audiences too — have a vested interest in celebrating each other’s right to unfettered free expression. In that respect, yes, indeed, we are partners.
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