gratuitously cruel jerks (and the readers who love them)
Arts Letter of the Day
posted by Brendan Kiley on August 28 at 11:56 AM
I have lived in Seattle off and on for about 8 years now. And have read The Stranger constantly throughout this time. I am a professional modern dancer here in town (yeah, I know, what’s that?). Time and again I have read hurtful, insulting write-ups of the many performances that people have worked their asses off to produce. I know that The Stranger’s voice is a ha-ha-isn’t-it-so-funny-the-way-we-tore-that-person/act/film(but rarely, if ever, musical act)-to-shreds… I love to read clever writing. I love cutting humor that plays with what we are and are not supposed to say. However, I have repeatedly felt actually hurt by what I have read in your paper. Honestly, I am close to tears after reading yet another disrespectful, humiliating passage in this week’s paper. So here’s my question:Why do you print such hurtful stuff? If anyone has an actual response I truly would love to hear it. If people do not realize the impact of their “witticisms,” please pass my opinion along.
Great questions, Monica.
There are several reasons we don’t pull punches in our arts criticism. And we talk about those reasons with embarrassing frequency, because your complaint—that we’re gratuitously cruel jerks—is not, shall we say, hen’s teeth.
A few of those reasons:
1. We take our jobs seriously. Our first duty is to you, our readers—we’re your advocates, and we slog through a lot of crap on your behalf. As critics, we are occupationally obliged to call out nonsense when we see it. And, sometimes, aggressively bad nonsense demands aggressive criticism.
2. As critics, we don’t have the luxury of white lies. Most people can tell their artist friends, to their faces: “Hey great job!” And then whisper, in private: “Man, that show sucked.” We can’t. Which means lots of people get their feelings hurt and get mad at us. Occupational hazard.
3. It doesn’t really matter how much ass people have busted to make their shows. Effort counts for something, but results count for more.
4. Art-making is not kindergarten. Not everyone gets a gold star just for showing up.
5. Tough criticism can actually build and strengthen your audience. We have to be trustworthy. Even if you disagree with us, you have to trust us to be honest. Imagine this scenario: We soft-pedal a review of a bad play. Somebody who doesn’t go to theater often reads that soft-pedaled review and buys a ticket. That somebody then thinks: “Huh. That was supposedly a good play. And I thought it was a waste of money. I guess I don’t like theater.” You just lost that somebody—a potential audience member and theater-lover—forever. And that somebody won’t take her kids to theater, won’t donate to theaters, won’t support her tax dollars going to theaters. Then you, as an artist, have lost.
6. Jokes—sometimes cutting jokes—are an efficient, strong way to make an argument. Witness the oeuvre of Lindy West. Or just this opening gambit:
"Back in the salad days of the early-to-mid-to-late 19th or 20th century sometime, one bitchy suffragette (let’s call her Susan B. Anthony) was on her period, as usual. “I tire of childcare!” she screeched, “Why can a man not care for a child? Surely a mister can be a mom! A cop can manage a kindergarten! Three men can scrape feces from the buttocks of a baby, and a fat uncle can cook a very, very large pancake, and these things are not beyond the ken of a just and decent society! Also, hand over the chocolate and no one gets hurt.” Then she died. Now, when the president of Hollywood (let’s call him Louis B. Mayer) heard Susan B. Anthony’s idea, he leaned back in his chair and cracked his knuckles. “$$$$$$$$$,” he said to no one in particular, “$$$$ $$$$$$$$ $$ $$$$$$.” And lo, the mother-man genre of cinema was born."
7. Sometimes a joke is just a joke. I’m curious what has nearly brought you to tears in this week’s issue, Monica. I’m guessing that, since you’re a modern dancer, it might’ve been this:
If this is the sort of discussion that excites you, you are a nerd. But you're our kind of nerd, and we want you! This year's session of the Young Critics Workshop an elite writing seminar, taught by Brendan Kiley, for 11th & 12th graders who are interested in critical journalism, will be starting in late October. Interested? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with YCW in the subject line, and we'll send you an application as soon as they're ready.