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Cut by criticism

We know what reviewers think. But how do artists feel when judgment has been passed? Some benefit; others feel angry, anxious or, in one case, suicidal.

May 25, 2003|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

Nigel Kennedy, the English violinist, was very late to an interview a few years ago, but his opening words weren't "sorry" or "hello."

"Are you a critic?!" he challenged in a shout.


"Good!" he barked. "I hate critics!"

Critics lurk in the shadows, wear wigs to restaurants, leave before the last curtain call -- then have their say in print, or on television, radio or the Internet. But their ink-stained-wretch cousins, otherwise known as reporters, have to face their prey in the stark light of studios, offices, kitchens, dressing rooms and trailers. To look them in the eyes.

Kennedy -- whose hit classical music recordings have long been obscured by critics more worried by his potty-mouthed mock cockney, his ever-punk hairstyle and unconventional performance wardrobe -- isn't the first artist to lash out at a reporter who became a convenient stand-in for her more elusive colleagues. "I know I'm being paid to do what I love, I might be living my dream," the artist will say, but does that give them the right to spit on it?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Ballet cast -- In a May 25 Sunday Calendar article on artists and their critics, Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake" was referred to as all-male dance theater. In fact, women had roles in it.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 08, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Ballet cast -- In a May 25 article on artists and their critics, Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake" was referred to as all-male dance theater. In fact, women had roles in it.

"Do you happen to know critic X or Y?" they will ask. "I mean, what is that guy's problem?"

The relationship between artist and critic is an age-old battle between process and product, actor and observer, status quo and innovation. To an artist, a critic can feel like a thorn in the side, an impartial evaluator, a necessary evil to be rationalized accordingly -- or one of the malicious, impotent little men and women with nothing better to do than play God with their destinies.

In an age in which 24-hour cable channels, e-pinions, blogs and Zagat Guide-style popularity tests have made everyone a critic, some critics still have the power to make or break a career -- and if not that, the spirit of the artist.

Those who make movies, write books, paint pictures, compose music or pursue other artistic endeavors must ban their internal critics to do the hard work of creating something anyway, so it's no wonder that they dread the band of fickle-hearted critics who seem bent on misunderstanding them.

OK, so a bad review is just One Person's Opinion. And most artists insist they have only themselves to please, or their boyfriend/wife/child/pet/mother, etc., or the public. But the constant glare of public scrutiny can haunt the perfectionists among us.

Not long ago in France, for example, chef Paul Bocuse blamed the powerful restaurant-guide establishment for causing the suicide of his colleague Bernard Loiseau of Burgundy's La Cote d'Or restaurant. Loiseau had killed himself at age 52 after his restaurant lost two points from prestigious GaultMillau. Loiseau's friend and fellow three-star chef Jacques Lameloise said that the chef had threatened to kill himself if he lost a star from the French restaurant bible, the Michelin Guide, which was due out a few days after his death.

While nobody will ever know the role that criticism played in Loiseau's suicide, the blessing of the Michelin Guide and GaultMillau is certainly one of the factors that made Loiseau into a culinary empire. In 1998, he became the first French chef whose company -- which included three Paris restaurants and a frozen-food line -- was traded on the stock exchange.

Bothered by reviews? Don't read

Many established artists, whose careers may be less dependent on reviews, have chosen to avoid the problem by simply not reading their reviews. The convincingly self-possessed John Malkovich makes a point of telling interviewers that he doesn't read reviews or profiles about himself. "I don't find it helpful," said the actor, who comes from a family of journalists. And unlike other media personalities, he does not treat the press as a volunteer arm of his publicity machine. "I figure it's best to let them write what they want to write -- that's their business."

The popular choreographer Matthew Bourne, whose first major success was an all-male dance-theater restaging of "Swan Lake," goes to performances of his new shows every night, he said, and studies the audience reaction. But the London-based artist stopped reading his reviews several years ago, when only the bad parts stuck with him and he found that even one negative phrase kept him up at night.

Of course, once they have freed themselves from the tyranny of reading their reviews, many artists and performers find that they have a network of friends, acquaintances, exes and former classmates who are more than happy to mail, fax or e-mail the (sometimes bad) reviews that they might not have seen. Or who leave giveaway voicemail messages that start with "I'm so sorry about the Times review! Everyone says she's a witch, anyway!"

Of course, some artists use their reviews as just another critical tool, a way to gauge how their work is seen from the outside.

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