What's Good About Bad Reviews?
By Joan Acocella
copyright 1992 by Joan Acocella
[Note: This piece originally
appeared in the now-defunct Dance Ink in the spring
Criticism written without personal
feeling is not worth reading. It is the capacity for making good
or bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic. The artist
who accounts for my disparagement by alleging personal animosity
on my part is quite right: when people do less than their best,
and do that less at once badly and self-complacently, I hate
them, loathe them, detest them, long to tear them limb from limb
and strew them in gobbets about the stage. GEORGE
Whenever political sentiment runs
high, the idea of a free criticism is called into question. That
is the situation right now. Multiculturalists have pointed out
that esthetic values are culture-bound. Therefore (it is said)
critics, in order to avoid unfairness to things outside their
conditioning history, should write a purely descriptive criticism,
devoid of judgment. The censorship controversy has added its
fuel to this fire. Here the argument is that all art is endangered;
therefore the critic who says bad things about any art
work, particularly any experimental or controversial art work,
is merely aiding the enemy.
But such arguments will not serve
the cause of art. All they will do is wall art off from any living
relation to the public-isolate it in a little bubble of noli
me tangere sanctity beyond the reach of common love or common
understanding. (Try to justify public funding once that happens.)
Furthermore, such an approach traps the critic in a lie. However
relativist we may be in our theories, we are absolutist in our
actions. The anthropologist who knows that values regarding interpersonal
aggression are culturally relative nevertheless comes home from
work and tells the children to stop hitting each other. Critics
who know that esthetic values are culturally relative nevertheless
still have a better time at some performances than at others,
and to lie to the public on this matter is irresponsible.
It is also a misrepresentation
of the very nature of esthetic experience. A criticism that emulates
the objectivity of science, has been attempted before--for example,
by the French positivists of the nineteenth century. What they
tried to do with literature was simply to state the nature of
each novel or poem, describe the conditions that gave rise to
it, and classify it according to type, just as scientists of
the time were classifying living beings according to genus and
species. The result was a very boring criticism that nobody reads
anymore. It was also a criticism that was untrue to what people
actually feel in the face of art. People do not go to the theater
as scientists go to the microscope, studying every detail before
them, weighing their observations dispassionately. On the contrary,
they go to the theater full of hope, like dogs to dinner, and
their experience of what they see there is naturally selective,
subjective, and evaluative. If the thing moves them, it does
so in flashes of illumination, memory, and association. Whole
parts they forget, in favor of other parts. By the next morning
they may have forgotten the whole thing except for certain images,
which they can't forget for days. They have had a big experience.
That reaction in the viewer is what most artists seek. So a purely
descriptive criticism is contrary not only to the audience's
experience but to the artist's goal.
Actually, what this kind of criticism
amounts to is the imposition of a specifically Western mental
habit, scientific method, on an experience that is probably in
large measure universal. Science is an excellent thing, but it
is a point of view that is only a few centuries old and that,
in terms of general acceptance, is limited to a very small portion
of the globe. Nothing could be more Eurocentric than the idea
of value-free experience, let alone a value- free artistic experience.
But if we allow ourselves to write
a value-based criticism, will this lead us to denigrate styles
of art different from the ones we grew up with? I don't know
what kinds of art other people grew up with, but my parents'
idea of music was My Fair Lady. Their idea of theater
was Gilbert andSullivan. Their idea of dance was no idea--they
didn't go to dance. My values are different. The people who worry
about culture-bound criticism seem to me to have a very poor
idea of people's ability to learn. Art that people see a lot
of they generally come to like.
There is therefore little need
to worry about the fate of "black dance," for example.
It is everywhere around us. The Alvin Ailey company has been
seen by more people than any other dance company in the world.
And African lessons about dancing-syncopation, weight, hips--have
so infiltrated "white dance," both ballet and modern,
that it is really wrong to speak of mainstream American dance
forms as Euro-American. They are EuroAfroAmerican. (Some of them
are AfroEuro-American.) In consequence, it is no stretch for
American critics to appreciate "black dance." That
is what they grew up with, insofar as they grew up with dance.
And because they grew up with this, the purer African-American
forms, such as tap dance, look more familiar to them than, for
example, most contemporary European modem dance. The formalist
esthetics of most American dance critics--the idea that dance
is a story of rhythm and phrasing, like music--is based in part
on their familiarity with the deep musicality of African-American
dance. Compared to that, the essentially literary character of
European dance, its reliance on the logic of language rather
than the logic of music, looks like something from Mars. Maguy
Marin's work looks as much like dance to me as it would, I think,
to the average Senegalese. That is, not much. The problem for
the American dance critic today is not to understand Africa,
or Afro-America. It is to understand Europe.
Of course, if we allow ourselves
to have values, certain things will seem strange to us. Take,
for example, the Dancers of the Court of Yogyakarta, which toured
the United States in 1990. These Javanese dancers definitely
looked exotic to me--beautiful and glamorous in a foreign way.
The exquisite flowering of the hands, the minutely calculated
pivot of the feet, the way the dancers pulled little cloths out
from under their belts and batted them around delicately and
then stuffed them back under their belts--what is this to me,
on one viewing? Something wonderful, but not something I know
a lot about. And neither did most of the critics who wrote about
these dancers know much about their dancing. Hence the Javanese
dancers got the kind of reviews that we normally accord to the
exotic: genteel praise, admiring and distanced.
Fine. The multiculturalist argument
is based on the belief that what people regard as foreign they
naturally hate, or at least try to exclude. I know there is a
great deal of historical evidence for this belief, but it need
not be forever true. We don't have to be primitive all our lives.
Indeed, our only hope, now that different peoples are so much
thrown together, is in learning to regard what is foreign to
us as nevertheless having a right to exist. We cannot wipe out
the experience of foreignness, and to think that we can is a
species of Western arrogance. Eventually, perhaps, the operations
of the global village will render all peoples' experience uniform,
but not in our lifetime. So for the moment we are different,
and we have to learn to act about that in a polite and honest
But the dancing that looks truly
foreign to the reviewers is not what gets the bad reviews. We
save our bad reviews for our homegrown products. And plenty of
them deserve bad reviews. just as there are dogs that
bite and restaurants that give you indigestion, there are dances
that bore you to death. For the critic to say otherwise is not
only to tell a lie but to place him/herself in a relation of
bad faith to the public, the very people critics are supposed
to be serving. This is a particularly urgent matter when it comes
to experimental dance--dance that is hard to understand or that
takes on taboo subject matter or looks strange or ugly by conventional
standards. The public already believes that this work is a protected
industry, shielded and coddled by snobbish people who don't understand
it any better than they do but who support it because to do so
makes them feel stylish. Surely, in the face of this public skepticism,
we should be especially scrupulous in saying what is good and
bad in experimental art, to show the public that we are actually
looking at it, not just supporting it. If all artists who pull
their pants down or shoot themselves as part of their art get
good reviews, then the public will conclude, rightly, that artistic
value is no longer the question.
Aside from the fact that they tell
what is often the truth, or the truth for that reviewer, bad
reviews have a secondary virtue: they lay bare the critic's values.
In the critic's mind, to some extent, bad art is all alike, and
every good piece of art is good in its own way. The experience
of bad art and the experience of good art are not comparable
experiences. When a dance seems good to us, that means it lives
for us, taking on a kind of autonomy and unmanageability similar
to what other human beings have in our eyes. To explain such
a work takes all our mental powers, all our disinterestedness,
for we are trying to show what it is, separate from ourselves.
But when a dance seems bad to us, that means it has not come
alive for us--literally not come into being--and therefore
has never acquired a kind of reality that we can describe with
any sincerity. So we are thrown back on ourselves, on the task
of enumerating the values that we hold and that this work fell
short of. When we write about good art, we write about the art;
when we write about bad art, we write about ourselves. This is
why bad reviews are easier to write.
The more personal character of
bad reviews can be attested by anyone who has ever gotten one.
What do artists think upon receiving bad reviews? That the critics
didn't "get it," that they just went off on their own
track. And that is exactly right, though the critics in question
may have tried with all their might and, having failed, went
off on their own track only in order to explain the failure.
What this means, however, is that
in negative reviews the critic's values are revealed with a kind
of naked clarity that one never finds in positive reviews. When
I look back on bad reviews that I have written, I am surprised
that I was able to make them sufficiently interesting to get
past the editor, for the complaints are always the same. I think
I have four: that the work was oversimple, that it didn't have
anything to say, that it was sentimental, or that it was pretentious.
Basically, that is just a portrait of my values and, I think,
of many critics' values-that art should be reasonably complex,
that it should have something to say, et cetera. It is useful
to have such portraits. Readers can find out from them who the
critic is and whether they want to pay attention to him or her.
But this compensation is not the
only thing a reader can get from a bad review. At their best,
negative reviews can tell us what good art is and reassure us
that it exists--that we had it before and we'll have it again.
Indeed, paradoxically, they do this almost more feelingly than
good reviews, for they are on surer, Platonic ground, speaking
about good art in the abstract rather than in the more confusing
particular. George Bernard Shaw, whose fierce words were quoted
at the opening of this essay, wrote many good bad reviews of
this kind in the course of his career as a music critic. Emboldened
by a thorough knowledge and a fiery love of his subject, Shaw
can tell you, in the course of condemning a singer or conductor
to eternal torment, exactly how Handel should be played or how
Don Giovanni should be sung. He tells you with joy, vividness,
and precision. You can hear the trumpets; you can hear the tremolo
in the strings; you can hear the voices come in--the sopranos,
the altos. He practically sings it for you. The luckless musicians
whose concert Shaw attended may fall, but Handel rises resplendent.
Shaw gives him to you again. This is why W. H. Auden called Shaw
"probably the best music critic who ever lived."
Edwin Denby often performed the
same service in dance. Though he was a much sweeter-tempered
man than Shaw, he could be sharp. When he was, he made it instantly
clear what great dance was. Here is Denby writing in 1939 about
something that bothers him in certain modern dance troupes: "They
don't ... look as if they enjoyed dancing. We all know that expression
of sobriety they wear not only on their face but on their body,
too. It covers a group of them like an unattractive army blanket."
Indeed, we all do know that expression of modern-dance sobriety,
but part of the reason we know it is that Denby told us, and
threw in the army blanket too, thus teaching us to place modesty
and joy among performance values.
This is the ideal bad review. The
critic is showing you what he loves, and offering it up for you
to love. That a little nastiness is involved is no crime. Self-righteous
performing manners deserve a little nastiness, and so do a number
of other things. If criticism tries to avoid meanness altogether,
it simply becomes warm mush-boring, dishonest, and prissy. Tout
comprendre, cast tout pardonner. That's what people feel,
perhaps, when they're on drugs or when they take the veil. Otherwise,
they like some things better than others and would do well to