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toeprints

Critiquing the Critics

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Nearly everyone has favorite critic. We love them or hate them, but we always read or listen to them (often mumbling in disagreement). I have deep respect and admiration for a few; Clive Barnes, John Percival, Patricia Boccadoro, Jennifer Dunning, and Anna Kisslegoff.

Who are your favorites? Who are the prominent critics that we should be heeding today?

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I like Joan Accocela at the New Yorker. Her talk at Berkeley "Balanchine and Sex"--actually the original title was racier than that--was nutty and good. Judith Flanders at the TLS has a clear eye for ballet and Alastair Macauley has done more for uptown dance at the New York Times than anyone there in a long time. I like his little overarching comments, such as there were only two great geniuses of the 20th century: George Balanchine and Samuel Beckett, which I don't necessarily agree with but do admire the sentiment of.

For classical music I used to find myself in agreement with Anne Midgette, who has happily moved to from the New York Times to the Washington Post where she is their chief music critic.

[And whatever critics we like, we should all remember to regularly click onto their reviews, so that they get good internet traffic marks with their publishers.]

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[And whatever critics we like, we should all remember to regularly click onto their reviews, so that they get good internet traffic marks with their publishers.]
A great idea. And one, I confess, that never occurred to me. Thanks, Quiggin.

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I like Joan Accocela at the New Yorker.

Yes, Acocella is excellent, and I also like Deborah Jowitt, because she said things other people weren't saying, and doesn't seem self-conscious, while being very knowledgeable.

I like his [MacAuley's] little overarching comments, such as there were only two great geniuses of the 20th century: George Balanchine and Samuel Beckett, which I don't necessarily agree with but do admire the sentiment of.

Is it the total outlandishness and outrageous decadence of such a remark that makes it somehow endearing? Thanks for reporting it, though. I think this kind of remark should be the province of the artist like Balanchine or Beckett themselves, not because it's any more true when they say it, but it still seems like an 'earned irresponsible flourish'; whereas when a critic says it, it just sounds to me like the most preposterous and pretentious posturing one could hope to never hear. Because it is grounded in absolutely nothing of substance, and reminds me of once looking through a Judith Krantz novel and seeing the sentence 'Jews are like Paris'. My girlfriend at the time and I howled over that one, got a lot of mileage out of it. Macauley's 'cute remark' is on no higher level--senile. It is interesting to me that certain arts critics get to the point when their idea of daring is to see what the most jaded possible thing is they can possibly manage to float. But I'd never take anything of Macauley's seriously again after hearing such tripe. That remark qualifies as the single silliest remark I've ever heard a critic make--it is as if he were channelling Oscar Wilde--and even makes me long for the halcyon days when the Queenan article was still fresh--two long days ago. Queenan almost seems green and just got off the bus by comparison.

Oh well, Ada Louise Huxtable has always been worthwhile.

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Is it the total outlandishness and outrageous decadence of such a remark...

I must apologize for my haste in quoting Mr. Macaulay without double fact checking--and making him sound more decadent and outlandish and absolutist than in fact he was. His whole statement was more limited in reach:

Watching this, as so often when watching the Balanchine repertory, I think it is reasonable to suggest that Balanchine and Beckett were the two supreme dramatists of the 20th century.

This was from a review (NYT: 2/9/2008) of Christopher Wheeldon's "Rococo Variations," in which Macaulay was faulting Wheeldon for his slow ear for variation form, and for his lack of a sense of interesting dance theater. The Balanchine pieces he was comparing "Rococo" to were "Divertimento from 'La Baiser'" and "Stars and Stripes," which were on the same program.

"Neither is among Balanchines greatest. Yet either is an object lesson in both dance making and dance theater."

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Cyril Beaumont, Richard Buckle and Peter Williams, sadly all dead. Of the present UK critics nothing would make me happier than to see the whole lot of them made redundant by the internet, except for John Percival.

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Is it the total outlandishness and outrageous decadence of such a remark...

I must apologize for my haste in quoting Mr. Macaulay without double fact checking--and making him sound more decadent and outlandish and absolutist than in fact he was. His whole statement was more limited in reach:

Watching this, as so often when watching the Balanchine repertory, I think it is reasonable to suggest that Balanchine and Beckett were the two supreme dramatists of the 20th century.

Well so much for Richard Strauss.

Among others ..

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Is it the total outlandishness and outrageous decadence of such a remark...

I must apologize for my haste in quoting Mr. Macaulay without double fact checking--and making him sound more decadent and outlandish and absolutist than in fact he was. His whole statement was more limited in reach:

Watching this, as so often when watching the Balanchine repertory, I think it is reasonable to suggest that Balanchine and Beckett were the two supreme dramatists of the 20th century.

Well so much for Richard Strauss. Among others ..

Statements like that aren’t criticism, they’re attention-getting devices. In a daily review aimed at the general public, I’ll excuse it.

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Is it the total outlandishness and outrageous decadence of such a remark...

I must apologize for my haste in quoting Mr. Macaulay without double fact checking--and making him sound more decadent and outlandish and absolutist than in fact he was. His whole statement was more limited in reach:

Watching this, as so often when watching the Balanchine repertory, I think it is reasonable to suggest that Balanchine and Beckett were the two supreme dramatists of the 20th century.

Well so much for Richard Strauss. Among others ..

Statements like that aren’t criticism, they’re attention-getting devices. In a daily review aimed at the general public, I’ll excuse it.

I don't find it a surprising thought for a dance critic. If it was a pronouncement I might see it as attention-getting, but the way it's couched I find it unremarkable.

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I like Robert Gottlieb. His opinions can be very harsh, but he has a great sense of humor, a genuine and obvious love and knowledge of ballet, and is a great writer. Moreover, as an important editor, his wide knowledge of culture, politics, and history infuses his work with a delightful "wow he knows THIS too" quality. I love reading his reviews not just for his opinions on dance but for his knowledge, wit, and style.

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My other favorites having been mentioned along the way, I'll just add Robert Greskovic's name to the list. But I don't consider anyone writing today quite so valuable to read as Edwin Denby and Arlene Croce, not just in "their" time, but today as well, for part of the value I find in reading good criticism is the way it exercises your mind, tones it, gets it in shape for its present activity, not just for its use as a consumer guide to ticket purchases.

As for (classical) music critics, I pay attention to Mortimer H. Frank and Michael Ullman as scouts to rewarding recordings available today (Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself...), but no one I know of working today really compares with Bernard Haggin.

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The Critic's Point of View: "Why Do They Say What They Say?" by Joseph Carman.

“Being a critic is a very good education,” says Macaulay. “You are learning all the time. That is the most interesting thing about the job. If it stopped being an education, I would move on to something else."

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I enjoyed reading that, innopac. Food for thought there.

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Thanks, innopac, for that link -- and for reviving the thread.

I've started a new thread based on one aspect of the article: the question of how far a critic can or should go in writing negatively about a dancer.

http://ballettalk.invisionzone.com/index.p...mp;#entry265562

For all other aspects of toeprints' original topic, please keep posting on this thread. There's still LOTS to say. :wub:

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Here is an example of the reverse - protecting dancers, especially those who are stars.

There was a performance where a very important visiting ballerina fell and none of the critics, at that performance, mentioned it. I would hope that if it had been a member of the corps who had fallen the critics' restraint would have been the same.

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I read Macauley's statement about Becket and Balanchine as an extraordinarily emphatic statement about Balanchine and the theatrical/dramatic elements in his work (a side of him that became relatively less evident in his final phase as he de-emphasized production values - just compare the earlier Apollo's, the ones with the birth scene, with the final one, for example) - and reading it that way didn't find the statement too outlandish. More a little ill considered, not off the wall. I would have considered it off the wall if I took it literally as being about every one else in the dramatic arts during the 20th century - it's quite insupportable from that point of view. But if you take it as primarily underscoring a point about Balanchine, it's nothing to get very upset about.

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Very true, Michael. I've gotten used to some of Macaulay's idiosyncrasies by now, and don't notice things like that as much as I did. One can mature a bit even in middle aged and with 'set ways' :P

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The Balanchine Beckett pairing may go back to Edwin Denby in "For a Foreign Tour" -- which I just came across -- where he is talking about Balanchine's "condensed energy of ... a counter-classic classicism." "In his 'Agon' it looks ebullient," Denby says. "In the Webern 'Episodes' ... the lucid abnormality has a wit like Beckett's."

It's always a problem with artists you admire, you want to link them with someone. These days I might link Beckett (who is problematically both loquacious and laconic) with Mies van der Rohe or with the painter Robert Ryman. I no longer can pair up Balancine so easily -- Matisse? Cezanne? Wallace Stevens? Horace? All boundlessly inventive with form.

As far as critics go, Macaulay does see and report on a lot of different dance companies that I am interested in (Acocella less and less), and so once you factor in his mild but consistent biases -- like Roberta Smith's in the art section or Nicolai Oursoussoff's in architecture -- his comparisons are valuable.

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Balanchine and Picasso make an interesting comparison. Protean in styles; persona factors too; very good at staying on top of, capitalizing on, always appearing to be of their times stylistically - and ended up codifying and forming the stylistic elements of their period; pretty much contemporaries; had pre war paris in common, as well as Diaghilev connections (though far more fundamental with Balanchine).

Switching sub-topic: I think you get a statement from Macauley of the Beckett/Balanchine type when a critic is speaking very much from their inner universe of experience. No one has read everything; seen everything; but an interesting critical intellect is always placing things in his or her own context, and cross referencing things they know in that context. Thus if major intellectual events for you personally were Beckett and Balanchine, that's going to be a reference you make. An academic will be trained not to shoot from the hip in this way; but someone writing every day newspaper copy may fire off an impression like this, almost conversationally - a point that someone building a more considered, academic or historical argument would hedge in with qualifications.

Some of the most important things that Victor Hugo wrote critically in his Preface to Cromwell and Preface to Gil Blas proceed from just this kind of intellectual shorthand; undoubtedly Hugo felt licensed to say anything he wanted in a preface to his own work; but really you wouldn't want a fine mind to qualify or self censor themselves too much. The question really is whether the internal universe of the critic who's writing this way is a beautiful one and whether the observations are insightful. In that case I tend to forgive them the intellectual shotgun blasts - that is unless and until one of my own sacred cows gets wounded.

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Balanchine and Picasso make an interesting comparison. Protean in styles; persona factors too; very good at staying on top of, capitalizing on, always appearing to be of their times stylistically - and ended up codifying and forming the stylistic elements of their period; pretty much contemporaries; had pre war paris in common, as well as Diaghilev connections (though far more fundamental with Balanchine).

Switching sub-topic: I think you get a statement from Macauley of the Beckett/Balanchine type when a critic is speaking very much from their inner universe of experience. No one has read everything; seen everything; but an interesting critical intellect is always placing things in his or her own context, and cross referencing things they know in that context. Thus if major intellectual events for you personally were Beckett and Balanchine, that's going to be a reference you make. An academic will be trained not to shoot from the hip in this way; but someone writing every day newspaper copy may fire off an impression like this, almost conversationally - a point that someone building a more considered, academic or historical argument would hedge in with qualifications.

Some of the most important things that Victor Hugo wrote critically in his Preface to Cromwell and Preface to Gil Blas proceed from just this kind of intellectual shorthand; undoubtedly Hugo felt licensed to say anything he wanted in a preface to his own work; but really you wouldn't want a fine mind to qualify or self censor themselves too much. The question really is whether the internal universe of the critic who's writing this way is a beautiful one and whether the observations are insightful. In that case I tend to forgive them the intellectual shotgun blasts - that is unless and until one of my own sacred cows gets wounded.

Thank you.

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A huge mea culpa - I just re-read my original posting and realized that I neglected to include two people I greatly admire - Jane Simpson and Robert Greskovic. Both are very thoughtful as well as possessing a great deal of knowledge and perception.

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Balanchine and Picasso make an interesting comparison. Protean in styles; persona factors too; very good at staying on top of, capitalizing on, always appearing to be of their times stylistically - and ended up codifying and forming the stylistic elements of their period; pretty much contemporaries; had pre war paris in common, as well as Diaghilev connections (though far more fundamental with Balanchine).

I liked the whole post, Michael, but abbreviated it to this, although do want say, of the parts I didn't re-paste, I think this is excellent: "An academic will be trained not to shoot from the hip in this way; but someone writing every day newspaper copy may fire off an impression like this, almost conversationally - a point that someone building a more considered, academic or historical argument would hedge in with qualifications." Exactly.

But back to Picasso and Balanchine. Everything except 'persona factors too' I would agree with. Picasso had an enormous selfishness that was not really excusable, and went into cowardice, as is well pointed out in Mailer's book 'Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man'--his betrayal of Apollinaire is quite appalling, as was his cowardice during wartime, although I'd need to get the book in front of me to be more specific--a good bit of parading of his vanity at quite the wrong time, I remember reading and seeing photographed.

It could be Balanchine never was faced with matters quite so 'testing of character', and certainly was not without flaws in his character, as is obvious enough (who is, of course?), but I never have thought of him as a cowardly man. As an artist, you can, of course, say that Picasso's courage shows in his artistic determination at all costs, but I've ceased to buy that argument--even the most monumental oeuvre does not excuse some things, although it doesn't lessen their greatness necessarily (or it's hard to see where and how it may have). A great artist has to be selfish (I know that may raise some eyebrows, okay, fine, let them be raised, I'm writing to some degree in a shorthand here), but there has to be generosity and kindness too, and perhaps Picasso was generous in certain ways, but there are basic decencies among friends that really went too far with Picasso. It may, of course, be that we all show lack of courage at times, but when you betray a close friend so callously as did Picasso did to Apollinaire, that's a bit different. In all the artistic 'Olympianisms' and the shrewdness as well, that you have enumerated (although I'm sure Picasso was much wealthier), I do agree with you, though, and very precisely you have put it.

Of course, it's possible that some kind of parallel egregiousness existed in Balanchine and was acted on, but I'm not up on all the details of his life to know. I never heard of it, but someone once posted something about Balanchine in Paris and it seemed to be about some rich lady who adored him, but the post gave some impression of slight frivolity, superficiality--but I have no certain memory of it, and it's impossible to search out in the archives here, which is where I am fairly sure I saw it--it might have been a quote Quiggin put up from someone, but that's just a wild guess.

I mean, in that one way, Picasso might even be likened to Fritz Lang, who had grotesque cowardice, and although his career was not quite as stellar as Picasso's, it was still pretty outstanding, and I happen to be one who even admires his Hollywood films as well as his German ones.

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Of course, it's possible that some kind of parallel egregiousness existed in Balanchine and was acted on ... it might have been a quote Quiggin put up from someone, but that's just a wild guess.

I think I quoted Christian Berard on Balanchine as related by Lincoln Kirstein, when Kirstein didn’t know if Balanchine was the dance genius he wanted to take back to the States with him or not. Berard was a great artist, but his verbal portrait of Balanchine was a bit of a Berard performance piece though an interesting one -- it cut deep in parts.

I was trying to find a double for Balanchine, someone in the visual arts, who could toss things out quickly and brilliantly. At first I shied away from Michael’s suggestion of Picasso, but then I thought of the late late Picasso Mosqueteros with all the gooey lush paint -- the paintings that were at Gagosian gallery recently and caught Roberta Smith’s eye in the Times (and Holly Solomon’s keener eye 20 years before that).

The Picasso of the sculpture/costumes for Parade and Mercure may also work. Definitely not the interior nightmarish painter/model stuff that led up to Guernica, when real life broke into Picasso's studio -- the subject of T J Clark’s Mellon lectures last year (“let’s play at hurting each other” Clark cites). But then there's Balanchine's no less intense Bugaku and Agon and even the 4Ts ...

... I thought Apollinaire and Picasso were close, at least according to the ongoing and exhaustive John Richardson biography of Picasso. Richardson says Picasso also had the same sort of closeness to Satie and felt his death in the same way that he felt Apollinaire's. It was Cocteau Picasso was ambivalent about.

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Quiggin--thanks for clarifying about Berard, my memory still halfway decent. Picasso and Apollinaire were close, that's the whole point: He denied even knowing Apollinaire to the police in the matter of that Louvre theft. I'll try to get the Mailer book out of the library again, and tell you the rest. Such acts tend, in most perceptions, to cancel out claims of 'feelings of closeness' that may or may not have been exactly pure and unalloyed, tied up as they are in guilt--and often 'experienced' after all personal culpability has been, if not paid, at least substantially covered up.

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He denied even knowing Apollinaire to the police in the matter of that Louvre theft.

Patrick, check out Richardson's v.3 Picasso life (Mailer’s Picasso claimed “no original scholarship”), it's as if the Louvre incident didn't happen, a blip.

I also wanted to add that another protean visual artist Giambattista Tiepolo is the subject of a new study, "Tiepolo Pink" (Odette’s favorite colors in Proust) by Roberto Calasso and reviewed in the TLS by Ferdinand Mount.

The Rescue of Tiepolo

Mount says:

The disdainful ease, the sprezzatura, which had been the glory of high art for so long was now written off as trumpery show.

“And so”, Calasso tells us, not without a touch of sprezzatura himself, “painting took its leave of us – at least in the particular, singular, irretrievable sense it had acquired for roughly five centuries in Europe.” Afterwards, we were left merely with artists, with their personalities and idiosyncrasies. No longer were their names written in water, like those of Keats, Mozart and indeed Tiepolo, but rather in blood and biopics. Caravaggio not Tiepolo was declared the first modern painter ... The nineteenth century, Calasso declares, had “irrevocably lost the knack for dealing with the past”.

&

... We must never forget how much Tiepolo had in reserve as his hand moved with amazing speed over the damp plaster. But the speed caught the vision, rather than smothering or coarsening it.

Getting back to the critics, if Balanchine & Ashton are our Picasso and Tiepolo, where are our Sventlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall and Calasso and T J Clark who can discuss dance in a larger way? Macaulay tries -- but maybe dance by its very nature eludes the new critrical tools of art history.

And at the least, the British critics -- though Ismene Brown was very witty (“arabesques held well past their bedtime”) -- could have done with more depth and perspective in the their reviews of the recent Cuban Ballet Nacional performances at the London Coliseum.

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