Is there more to criticism than meets the eye--especially when the subject matter on stage deals with minority perspectives? Do reviewers' personal backgrounds cause bias, no matter how well informed and open-minded they might be?
A number of critics, backed up by several outspoken choreographers, answer a resounding yes to both questions. But that doesn't necessarily bode ill for the reviewee. An establishment newspaper serving the interests of a white middle- and upper-middle class, for instance, can function as an advocate for a minority art form even if the critical evaluation does not bring whole-hearted endorsement from the minority itself.
Tim Miller, a gay performance artist whose thrust is social commentary, explains the point by way of what he calls "the critic's adversarial role" and says he believes that content-based work such as his thrives as much on "scrappiness as mutuality with the press.
"I think we should all be wildly doctrinaire. The engagement between critic and artist can be thrilling . . . but it must not bog down in passivity. After all, pieces about social revolution demand strong reactions."
But generally there is vast disagreement with Miller, especially among performers representing racial minorities. Often, for instance, a white critic writing a less than favorable notice of a black company is accused of bigotry--regardless of what issues the writer is addressing. Any negative words are construed as prejudicial.
Similar negative words, however, go down without the protest of interest groups in the case of non-minority performers. And if complaints do result, they are more commonly lodged on a point-for-point basis rather than on any charges of bias.
The question of mainstream critics dealing with minority culture has become so volatile that a recent conference in New York of the Dance Critics Assn. even devoted a panel to the subject.
Julinda Lewis, a black writer for Dancemagazine, told the panel she never runs into the problem: "Besides the color of my skin, there is the assurance among performers that I'm familiar with and appreciative of all the culturally tinged details to be found in black choreography. And it's true. I tend to be more sympathetic."
True, Lewis reports understandable disappointment in being typecast by editors and assigned mostly to her specialty. "I began as an ethnocentrist," she explains, "but no white person has ever criticized me for being a black critic. Nor would anyone tell me I'm incompetent to review 'Swan Lake'--though God knows, I wouldn't want to. I'm happy to leave ballet to the uptown critic."
But the subject of reverse discrimination, the kind practiced by many editors of minority publications, can become grist for the critical mill. Marcia Palley, who writes for Film Comment, complains that she rarely is allowed to review anything dealing with the homosexual life style because she does not personally represent it.
Enrique Hernandez, a columnist for the Village Voice, feels "a certain gene pool does not render a critic more susceptible to one subject than another" and therefore the whole issue of who reviews what is academic. Like most of his colleagues, he believes that critical perspectives should transcend a writer's personal identity.
But Barry Laine, editor of Stagebill, prefers to look at the subject more politically. "My role as a gay critic," he says, "is to fill in a gap, to call attention to what has been discussed before only with reluctance.
"I grew up as a Jew, conscious of living in a Christian world. In the process I discovered that one can be a despised outsider and yet hold on to a certain integrity. I've been able to use this strength later as a gay. Maybe it is this very outsiderness that allows a critic to ask questions, rather than make assumptions."
Indeed, Laine uses his analytic disposition to focus on such issues as sexism in classical ballet: Are toe shoes and tutus instruments of subjugation or tools of supremacy? In a recent article on this subject, he concluded that women, in fact, come out ahead and, more important, that the arts keenly reflect society's values and attitudes.
How the editorial position represents those values and attitudes is of great concern both to performers and writers. "Newspapers have an implied political agenda," comments Miller. "It seems to me that they discourage the ghettoizing of criticism and I think that's good. By having a white straight male review (the film) 'Parting Glances,' the (Village) Voice editor helped the movie make an impact on the world.
"I even think the open, non-specific critic is more sympathetic. The gay critic comes to the situation with greater needs. Sometimes he makes the toughest audience and writes the harshest commentary on his stigma-loaded identity."
Johanna Boyce, who calls herself a feminist, says she doesn't care either way about the critic's persuasion. "But I feel the (dance) work must deal with issues that go beyond a viewer's bias or experience," she states. "On the other hand, I prefer performing before liberal New York audiences to those in Vermont, where there is likely to be a fair amount of homophobia and therefore a rejection of the material I depict."
The fact that so much energy goes into analyzing personal stances behind review and editorial judgments says, in itself, a lot about the state of criticism today.
As Lewis points out: "What we are doing is identifying the influences of style and fad and fashion on criticism. But there's one thing we do now that puts us ahead of our predecessors. We own up to our subjectivity and play with that fine tension between the personal and clinical response."