Some of us dance,
and some are critics

An "unresponsive' critic's response

3 minute read
Bazell: Much to bitch about.
Bazell: Much to bitch about.
The choreographer Myra Bazell, responding to two recent positive reviews of her work in Broad Street Review, writes that dance reviews written by “peers” are “bound to be more responsive” than those of pedestrian critics who “shark around desperately,” trying to satisfy … [their] own vicarious engagement of the work.” (For the full letter, click here.)

Though I dance a mean jitterbug, I’m certainly no peer, so I guess that classifies me as one of the sharks. My favorite professor used to advise his students: “Each morning, wash your face, brush your teeth, sharpen your tongue.” Having tucked in my napkin, allow me to bite.

Orwell's verdict on saints

No doubt Arturo Toscanini heard a thousand sounds in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis that I’ll never hear. And, yes, the best essay I’ve read on Dostoyevsky was written by another novelist, Albert Camus: “The Rejection of Salvation” in his book The Rebel. And, yes, Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote novels as well as philosophy, penned a wonderfully perceptive essay on Franz Kafka. So maybe it’s true, as Orwell wrote of saints, that critics should be presumed guilty until proven otherwise.

But on the other hand, Sartre’s essay on Kafka is far surpassed by the greatest Kafka essay ever written, in my view: “The Legend of the Doorkeeper and its Significance for Kafka’s Trial,” by Ingeborg Henel, a scholar and an outsider, not an artist.

Harley Granville-Barker, the English actor-producer-director-playwright-critic, wrote excellent critical volumes entitled Prefaces to Shakespeare. But ultimately, Shakespearean Tragedy, by A.C. Bradley— a scholar, not an artist— is the greater work.

To be sure, these contentions of mine may well be wrong. But I have written two novels. Does that make my insights into Dostoyevsky and Kafka wiser than someone who has written none? It does? Well, suppose I told you my novels are unpublished? Does that fact diminish the value of my comparison of Sartre and Henel? If so, will it be redeemed should my manuscripts be published?

Sidney Axinn, the longtime Temple University philosophy professor, liked to say that Plato, late in life, ceased using Socrates as his protagonist, replacing him with the Athenian Stranger, because he wanted the truth to be true because it was true, not because it was uttered by Socrates. One purpose of art (or art criticism) is to enable us to see more deeply. Isn’t the only valid basis for judging a piece of art or criticism not who makes the criticism, but the depth of insight it provides?

The trouble with artists

I’ve hung around artists my entire adult life. Some of those who strive for a public career bitch about critics. No doubt there is much to bitch about. But the notion that the outsider critic is intrinsically inferior to the artist or insider or peer is an unfounded bitch, in my view. The insider’s expertise may be offset by his lack of honest detachment. When you understand intimately how much work went into a concert, recital, play or painting, you may be hard put to acknowledge that the work just isn’t very good.

When the great theater critic Kenneth Tynan died, one of the leading British actors –– Joan Plowright, if memory serves –– remarked: “He made it worthwhile to try to be good.” Whoever earns a compliment like that is a great critic –– and possibly an artist –– however he’s labeled by himself or by the world.

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