Ways and Means: Criticizing The Critics

Ways and Means: A five-part meditation on writing about the arts

Criticizing The Critics

This is the most fun, obviously.

Not to give him too much credit, but it was Alastair Macaualay’s first piece on Merce Cunningham that riled me up enough to write a full rebuttal. The helplessness one feels when reading a piece of criticism with which one quintessentially disagrees is uncontrollably irrational. But in reality, there is little recourse for critics of the mainstream press; one feels perilously at their whim. Editors are unlikely (or at least very rare) to publish letters disagreeing with critics when there are more pressing opinions about domestic and world events to be dealt with, leaving inept or inaccurate reviews etched into the a wide swath of the popular/intellectual consciousness without any chance of qualification. For many, a review is not just the final word, it is the only word.

Online media is changing that somewhat. Blogs provide a kind of populist forum precisely because any asshole can start one, and everyone can access them. That thought is terrifying for those who feel the written language need be protected or guarded against commonality. For the major newspapers and magazines, the editors remain the gatekeepers of discourse, even for their “blog” endeavors.

Given the situation, I felt it necessary to create a forum where I and anyone else who wished could create a dialogue with the established critical media by praising or rebutting published reviews, or, to put it more web-savvy, to stick it to the critics who write like douche bags, and to high-five the good guys. Thus was born…The Counter Critic.

Not long into this venture, I became mildly worried that my irreverence was a tad out of hand, unorthodox. That is, until I came across a volume of criticism titled, “How To Become A Musical Critic,” by George Bernard Shaw. Reading his vibrant, hilariously brutal criticism, not only of the arts, but occasionally of fellow critics, allayed most of my fears about mouthing off to the big boys and girls of arts journalism.

Shaw was obviously not out to make friends. But more importantly, he personified the spirit of criticism as sport. As much as criticism should be taken seriously, it is also the field for all kinds of rhetorical battles, personal and aesthetic (or is there a difference?). Criticism is wonderful because it is part document and part op-ed. And the op-ed part is what allows the art to move into this other, highly personal, often political territory, where critics can be villainous, vitriolic, barbarous, witty (although fewer actually than are believed to be), silly, or even saviors.

It is a fabulous mode to write in, and one that I relish.

However, the distance that allowed me to fire at will in the beginning, that is, to pass out a flaming douche to whomever I saw fit, has steadily eroded as readership on the site has grown. That is to say, I am no longer anonymous, or, the critics have found me.

It is much easier to mouth off online—in a blog post or in comments fields—than it is to do through direct emails, and much less so in person. The fact of the matter is that through writing about critics, I have inevitably attracted their attention, and in a few cases, have come to know them through correspondence, and have even met several in person. It is not so much that my cover is blown, as much as the desire to maintain a civil discourse with those whom I wish to attain intellectual communion is trumping my need to sustain a fiery alter ego.

Couple that with the recent development that I am going to be writing for The Brooklyn Rail, and matters begin to complicate very quickly. Can I counter criticize my own writing? Or will someone else out there keep me in line?

What all this means for the future of Counter Critic, I cannot anticipate exactly. It might not change much, in the end. I pride the site for its ability to jump back and forth between Gawker-style irreverence and rigorous critical analysis; the ability to provide comment and content. Any effort to free up tone—in the arts, in criticism, in the world—is a worthwhile endeavor.

But it appears that it may have been slightly naïve (in the dearest possible way) to assume I could simultaneously enter the game and tackle everyone on the field. Writing on the internet seems to promote an inflated sense of gumption, which leads perilously into all kinds of bad ideas. The truth of the matter is that, if they don’t know who you are, most people won’t know where you’re coming from, even if you add the wink emoticon. Add to that the ubiquitous compulsion the internet draws from us both to read and to write defensively and you’ve got yourself a series of potential miscues and inter-personal train wrecks. I’m not saying that what I write on this site is in jeopardy, but how I write may well need to change, or at least, become more tactful.

That said, it is still important to me that Counter Critic remain a forum for response to mainstream criticism, so don’t think that I will stop writing about what gets written (readers may have already notices a slight decline in these kinds of posts). But I might just clean it up a little, if anything, to make those who might be scared off by the “tude” feel more comfortable interacting with the site. We’ll see.

I’m curious to know any feedback on this particular article. Feel free to launch.



  1. I’ve really enjoyed this “Ways and Means” series. Although I’ve never written posts on my blog that criticize the critics, lately I worry that my reviews of dance performances are too formal and too tactful. I re-read some of them and think, “Wow, how boring and mainstream. I need to add some attitude to this thing.” Honestly, CC is a role model to me because you’re brave enough to post honest and often harsh criticism of the so-called “real” critics. I’d llike to “free up the tone” of my reviews and write less like the mainstream critics that can, at times, write like douche bags. So I certainly hope you don’t clean up CC too much or change the way you write. The attitude and irreverence is refreshing and admirable. Keep it up.

  2. […] a mainstream critic. I’d like to change that. In the most recent part of the series, called “Criticizing the Critics”, Counter Critic talks about the importance of “freeing up tone” of arts criticism, with […]

  3. I only came across CC recently, and I’m enjoying this Ways and Means series. I have the opposite problem in the criticism that I write – I find it hard to be harsh when the occasion demands it. I might take down some brutal notes on the way home from a concert, but they all get toned down for the review itself. It’s part of the conflict of interest thing: I basically write in order to support new music; but I have a critical responsibility to call people out when they make bad music.

  4. Hey Tim. To take the hard road, being direct as a critic, or calling people out, will serve new music better than letting bad music pass for good. It feels contradictory, especially in an age when the arts are already so marginal; it just makes it feel kind of like kicking someone when they’re already down. (It’s funny. I’ve felt the same way with my criticisms of Joanna Newsom. She’s already a pretty marginal outfit, so why should I tear into her?)

    Everyone will really find this balance on their own. Sometimes I listen to people around me to see how they react to the work. If anything, that can give you backup and let you know that there is something that really needs to be brought to light. Other times, you just have to go out on your own, go with your gut, and hope it resonates with people.

    Even with my Trisha Brown review, it was difficult to really stay harsh, even though that’s all I wanted to do. I was sorely disappointed by the performance the other night.

    I also try to balance harshing by recognizing the positive aspects of a work, which, even in the worst cases there is usually something positive. That shows that your best interest is in the betterment of the arts, which is where all critics should be focused.

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