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Ed Waffle

Critics bashing critics

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There's no link for it that I could find, but in the current Dance Magazine (November Michele Wiles on cover) the back page is Clive Barnes "editorial" page.

While I admit, I'm not a fan of Mr. Barnes, I've seen him asleep at more performances than I can count. I was quite taken back at his editorial.

It concerns the recent, controversial article by Jennifer Homans in the NY Times "Where is the Heartbeat in the Balanchine Legacy".

Mr. Barnes starts the article saying hope "opinions in the arts are only as good as the people making them" and then goes on about Ms. Homans. who he's never heard of but cites that she "apparently writes about dance for The New Republic" and her dance background(SAB then PNB).

He doesn't really refute any of the points she made in her piece, his response is "spinach" and "double spinach" (I'm completely lost on that meaning) he just expresses dismay at how the NY Times printed such a piece especially since Ms. Homans completely contradicts the "brilliant, knowledgeable and experienced Anna Kisselgoff".

I was completely shocked by the piece. Instead of knocking Ms. Homans, perhaps he should have just written a piece on what good is going on at City Ballet. I still am completely amazed, at what I would consider completely unprofessional behavior.

The last line clinched it

"benighted, foolish editor who either commissioned you or accepted you. Dance history will see you both out, unnoticed".

Perhaps it's time Mr. Barnes takes his 60 plus years of experience and put it to some decent reviews as opposed to bashing a fellow colleague.

I've lost what little respect I had for the man.

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Without having read the Barnes piece (though I'll definitely check it out), I would say that critics whaling away at one another isn't news. (Barnes himself has taken a few whacks in days gone by.) It's not always good manners, and sometimes can create long lasting bad feeling, but on the other hand it can excite genuine and productive debate. In the best of all possible worlds, it would never get personal, but people do feel strongly about these things. Of course, the attacking critic should always cite chapter and verse, and the target should be, ideally, the critic's size or larger. Homans has the chops to get her stuff in the Times, a high-profile venue for one's work, to understate the matter considerably. She can take a hit or two.

Barnes is not my favorite critic, to put it mildly, but again noting that I haven't read the item, this isn't necessarily out of line.

I certainly didn't see anything in the original article to wig out about; Homans said little that others haven't.

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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.

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Re "spinach:"

Although I haven't read the piece either, I suspect that Barnes is referring to a famous New Yorker cartoon from the 1920s in which a little boy reacts to his mother's serving him vegetables by saying, "I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it." The line has become a way of calling a spade a spade.

(In those days, children did not swear.)

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Thanks Ari, I'd asked several friends and colleagues and it's meaning was lost on them as well.

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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 :)

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My gripe was that the Times isn't the only paper to have printed similar pieces. The Observer had a far more controversial one (granted, that may have been an axe to grind) Why not refute the points though? Is Barnes writing the piece more for his peers or for the readers?

Homans is someone who is obviously younger (and perhaps biting off more than she can chew in one piece) but she's the voice of a younger generation. One that didn't grow up seeing what the company was and what it is now.

The way NYCB was "glorified" in so many ways early on, makes it ripe for criticism.

And as Kevin pointed out Kisselgoff writes reviews, not really much in terms of commentary.

Thanks Alexandra for the commentary, I was hoping you'd chime in.

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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!!!!" :)

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It's interesting and important to hear what the professionals think, and I really enjoy hearing about it -- but what finally matters, it seems to me, is what makes it into print. Homans' article was valuable, or would have been valuable if it had been a better piece, in that she was giving an alternative view that readers of the Times might not otherwise see. This is good for readers, and whether Kisselgoff loses face or not thereby is inside baseball.

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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.

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The terrible thing is that New York, in comparison to the rest of the country, is in decent shape newspaper-wise, with several dailies to choose from, including the Wall Street Journal. And it's only going to get worse.

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But on the other hand....

Who better to criticze a critic than one of her colleagues i.e. another critic. I didn't really like either of the pieces because I felt them both to be blatant speculation without any real cold hard fact backing them up. But I guess it is the critics job to put forth their opinion without necessarily any factual back-up.

Obviously Barnes was very affected by Homans' piece to spend his monthly column on it, and that in itself is very interesting.

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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.

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As I see it, the NY Times generally has been too unquestioningly positive about all NY's cutural institutions. The underlying argument, as I see it, is "This is the greatest city in the world, therefore the Arts here are the Greatest Arts on earth." That is often not the case, though. We've seen some terrible crap on the stage and in the museums here at times (more than I like to think about) and seen it praised as if it's the Second Coming.

Homan's article was light weight. I thought it something of an antidote, however, to the rentless boosterism of the Times with respect to nearly everything at NYCB.

It was important that Gottlieb's history with Balanchine and then Martins be known to those who read his pieces, so that they could evaluate his credibility, as a lawyer might say, and reach an opinion as to the weight to give his views. I wonder how many of the younger readers of Dance Magazine will be similarly aware of Barnes's history as critical lap dog for the company, when they read him bashing Homans.

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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.

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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).

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I was really quite surprised to read Clive Barnes' piece yesterday. In my opinion, he was very dismissive of Ms. Homans (as opposed to "the editor") in much more of a personal way than I would think would be considered "professional". I also found it rather interesting that he (Dance Mag.) waited to fire this one across the bow until November! Homan's article was back in May. The timing of this seems to make it even odder - to me.

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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 :)

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Alexandra, I figured there was quite a bit of lag time...perhaps that's a good thing sometimes? Unlike the Internet posting board, waiting for a magazine to go to print does give one some time to reflect. :P

I can understand Mr. Barnes feelings - he's been close to NYCB and ballet in general for many years...I guess to me it seemed odd to bother printing it now. Guess that's the flip side of the Internet (and the newspaper) - you need a lot less lead time. ;)

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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 :)

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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.

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My November Dance Magazine finally came today. I usually find Clive Barnes' back-of-the-book pieces fun to read, but this was really unfair toward Jennifer Homans.

I thought this comment nonsensical: "She complains for instance, that Martins has not called upon the full experience of other Balanchine dancers, forgetting perhaps that teaching and coaching cannot be by committee, as choices must be made and practicalities considered."

To call in Violette Verdy, Patricia McBride, and Suzanne Farrell to coach Jewels, as Edward Villella did for Miami City Ballet is not to teach by committee. It is to recognize the uniqueness of dancers on whom roles were made by Balanchine and who, better than any company director, can perpetuate his heritage for future generations.

I did appreciate Barnes' characterization of the current state of NY Times arts coverage as "roguish, voguish." But I don't think the Homans piece fell into that category. She said nothing that others hadn't been thinking and saying for years.

In the interests of full disclosure, I confess to being Suzanne Farrell's lapdog.

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I too wondered abou the timing of the article. Being cynical ;) , I'd guess it was that it coincides with NYCB's winter season opening in November.

As someone of the younger generation, who reads the Times for the News and the Post for what's really going on, there are a lot of people who don't know Barnes' history and just look at the piece as someone who's "unprofessional" (given that he writes for the Post).

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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......

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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.

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