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Critical Condition

Scott Timberg's May 22 piece "Critical Condition," on the state of cultural criticism, drew a wide range of letters wanting to continue the conversation. Below, a selection of responses:

June 05, 2005

Reveal the rules

I believe the loss of personal style can be partially attributed to critics not clarifying their criteria for judging art, music, film and literature. Perhaps they should specify their criteria -- universality, form-content relationship, fatigue factor (how often can the work be experienced and still yield fresh insights?), originality and others -- rather than force their readers to infer shifting criteria. They could also make explicit the difference between their aesthetic judgment and their aesthetic preference. Although we readers of critics may dislike authority, we do like to know that the critic has standards.

For a critic to fall back on the idea of being "a competent judge" because he has had frequent exposure to a particular art isn't good enough for readers who need some way to answer a basic question: Why is this work of art worth or not worth my time?

Don Heidt



Critic's credentials

I have often asked myself, "What is the skill of a critic?" "What is her discipline?" "What does he practice every day?" "What do they do?"

When I performed my solo play, "Throw Pitchfork," off-Broadway, it was the result of a daily regimen of writing which turned into weeks, which turned into months. Then a couple of years of flying back and forth to New York for workshops with groups of seasoned professional writers, directors, actors and dramaturges who gave feedback and insights based on their years of activity and experience, forcing me to rewrite and restructure the piece that I had already worked so diligently on.

Then came the rehearsal process, since I perform my work as well. A grueling three weeks of rehearsal at New York Theatre Workshop: seven hours a day, six days a week on my feet going over every moment, every movement.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not an artist who got bad reviews and wants to whine about it. In fact, I had many excellent reviews from impressive New York sources, and only one bad one.

But still I asked myself those questions I posed earlier: "Who is this person that comes, sits on their butt for the length of my show, does not talk to me or any other artist connected to the production, does not talk to an audience member (in short, does no work), goes home and writes a not very skillfully written critique of my work?

"What do they do? What are their skills and discipline?"

Alexander Thomas

Los Angeles


Wheat from chaff

As a critic, I see myself as an educator amid propagandists. What is important to me is the validity of a reaction to a movie. If one wants affirmation, one can read Larry King, Earl Dittman or Shawn Edwards. However, you won't ever learn anything from any of them. They write about standing up and cheering the best movie they saw that day.

There can be a hundred valid reactions, some more perceptive than others. The most perceptive are the ones that make people think about something they might not have thought of on their own. I want to know the best of the opinions that disagree with mine.

Yes, movies have targeted audiences, and many critics -- me among them -- write about whether they deliver to that specific audience. But we also consider how much value and quality there is in the delivery.

Reviewers are as valuable as propagandists, but critics are as valuable as teachers.

Tony Macklin

Las Vegas

Macklin is a former film professor at the University of Dayton, the former editor of Film Heritage, and a radio film critic in Las Vegas.


Compelling prose

I owe a lot to the National Arts Journalism Program (NAJP) for landing my first critic's gig with the Times in Shreveport, La., after I returned from New York. Learning to ask better questions about my local arts scene has helped me make stronger connections with readers. But I read what people have written and said as a call to arms: not only to support the future of NAJP, but also to be part of a solution that makes our daily writing essential to the arts world and the reading public at large.

I was initially frustrated by [former critic Joseph] Horowitz's comment about our writing having "no style at all." But with a few days' distance, I understand and read his criticism as constructive. As a new critic, I do at times feel cautious about what I write and how I write it. This caution, I think, leads to writing without style. But I feel our shared problem, if we have one, is finding personal styles that liberate our sense of caution and inspire readers to take active interest in what we write.

Alexandyr Kent

Shreveport, La.

Kent is an arts critic for the Times in Shreveport, La.


Web as equalizer

Wasn't it inevitable, once the Internet got going big-time, that the old way of waiting for art to get processed by a Greenberg or a Leavis would be gone with the wind? In Australia, newspapers' arts criticism tends to play favorites, a "very cosy club, with a strict code of nepotism and brain-numbing conformity to fashion" (according to John McDonald of the Sydney Morning Herald). I'll bet things aren't much different in the States.

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