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Critics bashing critics


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#1 Ed Waffle

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Posted 12 October 2002 - 10:45 AM

Originally posted by Calliope
My gripe was that the Times isn't the only paper to have printed similar pieces.  The Observer had a far more controversial one ....


I wish "The Observer" all the best--New York City needs more newspapers--but "The New York Times" makes something news simply by publishing it. The reach of its cultural coverage extends far beyond its local delivery area (as does its editorial page) so Barnes was going after a target that not only the dance insiders would know about but also a much larger audience would as well.

#2 Ed Waffle

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Posted 13 October 2002 - 03:12 PM

Originally posted by Calliope
As someone of the younger generation, who reads the Times for the News and the Post for what's really going on


I had heard that "Hustler" magazine was purchased in New York City in order to hide copies of "The New York Post" being read surreptitiously in public places.

#3 Kevin Ng

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Posted 09 October 2002 - 08:19 PM

I haven't read Clive Barnes' piece either, but I think that his comments are tactless. I don't really understand why he saw it fit to criticise the decision of the New York Times to print Miss Homans' piece. After all Barnes isn't on the staff of the New York Times, so the editors' decision there are none of his business.

Also I see nothing wrong with a newspaper like the New York Times publishing pieces of different viewpoints. Miss Homans' piece isn't a review, so it's not really contradicting the opposite viewpoint expressed in Anna Kisselgoff's reviews of NYCB.

#4 Kevin Ng

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Posted 12 October 2002 - 05:32 AM

I know that Clive Barnes has been a champion of NYCB since the 1950s when he was still a British critic. And he is as supportive of Peter Martins as Anna Kisselgoff. But I get the feeling (perhaps unjustified) that he hasn't been very enthusiastic about Balanchine's choreography in recent years.

#5 Mel Johnson

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Posted 14 October 2002 - 05:08 AM

Critics bashing other critics, even on the same newspaper, is nothing new! Gautier had his detractors in Paris, even George Bernard Shaw, who was a music critic for the Times (London), took on other staff writers on the subject of ballet. He was as pro-ballet as they were, but had a more aggressive, progressive view of the art. He even suggested that professional male dancers were at such a premium that they should be exempted from the WWII draft and their work considered Essential War Labour! Seriously!:)

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 10 October 2002 - 08:06 AM

I think the question of critics "bashing" other critics is a thorny one. On the one hand, what we write is published, and is fair game for comment. On the other, there is a hesitancy for one critic to correct another critic -- if one reads something in a review that one thinks is inaccurate, it's bad form to write a Letter to the Editor calling attention to the inaccuracy, for example.

If a critic takes a position on a ballet that's different for your own, I think it's petty and unprofessional to say so publicly, and usually when it's done, there's a private agenda. (I've been the butt of this 2 or 3 times, once ten years ago by someone whose article I had rejected for DanceView, for example. Luckily, everyone I knew guessed that!) "Ms. X's notion that the new 'Swan Lake' is the best ever is pathetic," for example, or even the indirect (following a review that says this) "There are those whose who actually believe that mime is relevant to our modern times." If you think the "Swan Lake" is brilliant, say so; forget what Ms. X says. And if you hate mime or think it drags the ballet down, write that.

But nevertheless moreover and however, there is the notion of policing one's own profession, and Mr. Barnes has a right to think he is in that position, particularly on a back page column in Dance Magazine. Ms. Holman's piece caused an enormous amount of comment, along the lines that Barnes mentions, among critics. If one aims to jete into the big leagues overnight, one had better be brilliant, with a solid piece, or people will talk. Writing a piece that's a rehash of what others have written, with the context a bit skewed, about the hometown company in the hometown paper, and taking a position contrary to what that paper's critic has been saying for years, is going to cause comment.

And so I also think that he's right in calling the editors on this. You don't undercut your own writer that way. There are ways that opposing or provocative views can be raised honorably. If the paper's critic is constantly criticizing, say, a choreographer for being too European and wiithout depth or meaning, and those who believe in the choreographer's work and think the critic is Not Getting It in a big way, then it's okay to have a "To the Contrary" piece by someone -- another choreographer, even someone on the payroll (obviously I'm thinking of John Martins, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein to write the "To the Contrary" piece. He wasn't just a board member with a grudge; he had stature in NY intellectual circles beyond his role with NYCB.)

Or if the critic is writing "everything is just wonderful!" you could have an angry To the Contrary. But to publish an article by someone with no standing as a critic? I think that can be called into question. There's a big problem now in journalism and publishing generally with editors who are not general experts on cultural matters, say, as would have been the case 30 years ago. Then, the editors would have seen the company themselves and had a context in which to put an article submitted by someone they don't know. Now, few do -- and that, coupled with the, "Hey, who's to say? Everybody has an opinion. We have a hole to fill" attitude, has produced a lot of puff pieces championing, for example, a choreographer who's about ten years, or lifetimes, away from being "perhaps one of the greatest choreographers of our time." I think those editors need to know that someone is reading what they publish and will speak out when necessary.

I'd held off writing because I hoped that more readers would respond -- we always get the critics chiming in on critic questions, but it's much more interesting to see what the rest of you think :)

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 10 October 2002 - 09:34 AM

Calliope, I think there's an objection to the soundness of that piece. There are young critics who have more of a context. The best way I can explain it to you is this: 50 years from now, someone may well write, "September 10th, September 12th, what's the difference?" It's only two days, but a world of difference.

It's possible to write accurately about a historical period through which one has not lived, but it's hard. And as an editor who has been encouraging the young and the rash for more than 20 years (I've often published the unpublished and have given several critics their start), I can say that an editor should give guidance. The problems with Ms. Homan's piece wasn't the opinion, but the details and the logic. (The issue of whether a contrary opinion to the resident critic should be published is a separate one.) And the context. Gottlieb's piece in the Observer was very negative, yes, but one cannot accuse him of lacking context. :) And Holman's piece also struck many as being formulaic -- it's the same piece she wrote about ABT, only the names are changed. Start with a bold statement -- the age of glamour is dead! How can we expect our new dancers of today to measure up to the past! The age of the ballerina is dead! -- and then meander through the unconventional wisdom (saying what many people have said elsewhere, but cobbling them together in the way that reminded me of a student paper: all the facts are there, they're just not quite put together right.) and coming up with the conclusion that There Are Ballerinas!

Read both pieces analytically and I think you'll find them quite similar (was the ABT piece in the New Republic? I can't remember. I know we discussed it here.)

I don't mean to defend Barnes categorically, by any means (I've found him often too eager to praise his friends and bring that kind of personal element into dance criticism) But I think when one hits one's 70s one is entitled to speak out -- many other people wanted to, I think, but couldn't. Even those who are no fans of Kisselgoff were bothered by this piece.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must add that I have not read Barnes' piece, and so what I've written on these two posts is, in a sense, completely objective! (I'm dealing with the issue in theory, not the reality of the piece.) I can't find the current issue -- when I do, I'll read it, and I reserve the right to come back in and say, "Good, grief! This is way over the line!!!!" :)

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 10 October 2002 - 10:29 AM

These are all interesting questions, and they're good to be raised, although a bit dangerous. I don't want to bash either Homans or Barnes -- I don't blame anyone for being ambitious; like the recent situation in a certain great ballet company, the problem lays more at the feet of the people doing the hiring than the hiree.

There was a lot of inside baseball discussion at the time this piece ran as to whether the editors even realized that this was contrary to what was being written elsewhere in the paper :) I certainly can't say. Or they may and wanted to publish a piece by a new voice -- I think that's fine, although I think there ways to do it besides just plunking it down. I think that causes confusion -- it obviously has. Is this one section of the paper sending a message to another? Is it coincidence? Is it a deliberate contradiction? Or just, "Hey, what a fun piece. Let's be provocative!"???

Once upon a time, when there were lots of newspapers, it wasn't as big an issue. One paper could be rabidly pro-Martins, say, and another just as rapidly anti. And there would be a few in the middle who would neither have to defend, nor attack, his directorship generally, but review each program on its merits. (What a novel idea!)

When there's basically only one newspaper in town, it complicates things.

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 10 October 2002 - 11:26 AM

The question of "back up" is often raised, and I thought I'd throw in my 2 cents here, too :)

First off, commentary is commentary, not a historical piece with footnotes. In newspapers and magazines (as opposed to scholarly journals) it's all about the writing. One has to be responsible, but you're writing to be read, and if someone wrote a piece that said "Sentence A contradicts Sentence B, and if one remembered the performance of January 15, 1982 in comparison with the one on April 12, 1976," everyone would A, say who cares? and B, stop reading.

Secondly, there's space constraints. I've noticed several times in comments about an article or commentary readers mentioning that an article about ballerinas today dealt only with ABT, what about other companies? etc. It's not possible to be comprehensive. It's like a term paper. Don't write about the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Stick to what happened on this street on this day.

#10 Alexandra

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Posted 12 October 2002 - 07:59 AM

The question of Barnes as "lap dog" is different from bashing other critics, to me. (And I agree. He wrote the infamous line, in response to Arlene Croce's "The ballets have their hearts cut out of them": "The ballets have never looked better, and I went to medical school." (Both are paraphrases).

Kevin, I think Barnes has been supportive of Balanchine's choreography from the beginning. And, of course, when a critic supports an artist whom we respect, or who is generally respected, the "lapdog" label is never thrown. I'm just being a Devil's Advocate here -- I'm not an admirer of Barnes -- but would anyone call Arlene Croce the company's lapdog? Sometimes a critic continually praises an artist because they genuinely admire him.

Re the Times coverage, to me it also seems relentlessly positive. I have no idea what the Times' editorial policy is, but at the Washington Post, there is absolutely no editorial directive, and I've never felt pressure from an editor to be positive, or told that something I wrote was too negative. Actually, if anything, there's a hint in the other direction, perhaps unintentional, from the headline writers, at least. Once I got a "Another Wonderful Giselle" headline (that is NOT a paraphrase).

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 12 October 2002 - 08:41 AM

BW, on the timing, I doubt there's anything sinister about it. There's a three-month lag time, for starters. Or it could be timed to the beginning of the season. Or Barnes had written several columns in advance to cover the summer. Lots of reasons.

For possible reasons for being "dismissive" of Homans, see above :)

#12 Alexandra

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Posted 12 October 2002 - 09:03 AM

On the downside, it's frustrating to write something and wait three months -- or in one noted publication, three years! -- and have it come out :)

Official notice that I'll withdraw from this thread now -- I've tried to explain reasonings and possibilities but I don't want to argue with anyone, nor make someone hesitant to post. So if anyone wants to question Barnes' bashing Homans, or critics bashing critics (or the reverse, of course), please jump in :)

#13 Alexandra

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Posted 13 October 2002 - 01:28 PM

Now THAT might make an interesting letter to the editor, Calliope. I think Dance Mag thinks of Barnes as The Most Important Dance Critic in America :) But they always want to reach the young......

#14 Alexandra

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Posted 14 October 2002 - 12:22 PM

You're right, Rachel :) The 1960s and '70s were very contentious in the NY dance world -- lots of animosity to both Barnes and Walter Terry, who were seen by some to be out of touch with new work -- and a resentment of power. There's indication of this, too, in Arlene Croce's early work that's reprinted in "After Images."

#15 Alexandra

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Posted 14 October 2002 - 07:50 PM

Originally posted by dirac

I wonder if using other critics as a punching bag is characteristic mainly of critics who are just starting to stake out their positions.  Pauline Kael's first collection, I Lost It At the Movies, is full of the same kind of thing.



I can't think of many examples -- perhaps others can -- but one of the prime motivations for writing about dance is that you can't stand what other people are writing :)


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