Just Like Candy

Following the Trail of Good Ideas

So have I got a job for you?

You get paid next to nothing, but if you work hard for many years, refine your craft and get lucky, then you will still probably earn less than a first-year associate at a law firm, albeit likely without health care coverage. You will be periodically loathed and disrespected, and as you advance in your career, strangers will blame you for destroying jobs, celebrating frauds, and completely not getting it. They will sometimes be correct. The best part is you can’t complain about any of this, except with colleagues, with whom complaining is mandatory. In fact, if you don’t tediously kvetch with your miserable peers, fuck off. You’re not cut out to be a theatre critic.

The image of the critic in the public imagination has for the most part remained the same since Addison DeWitt tossed of clever remarks in All About Eve: well dressed, acid wit, cheerily sadistic, or weary in a slightly glamorous way. The reality is we are slovenly and masochistic fools one misstep away from disaster. In 2013, going into a career in criticism is as precarious as setting out to be an actor, except with zero chance of fame and fortune. It’s become a job that it’s probably best to do only because you desperately want or need to. The decline of print media and proliferation of unpaid critics online have decimated the professional path of criticism. It’s no longer uncommon for major American cities not to have any full-time theatre critic. The situation is hardly better in other art forms.

In my fifteen or so years on the job, I have known a critic who hocked furniture to get by and another who became homeless. I have heard of critics on food stamps and one who took time off to battle depression. And these are the successful ones. So why would anyone sign up? Isn’t it obvious? Professional critic is the greatest job in the world.

It’s no longer uncommon for major American cities not to have any full-time theatre critic. The situation is hardly better in other art forms.

 

Candy on the floor
The beginning of a critic's career. Photo by Hershey's.

I have the unusual luck of seeing and thinking about art for a living. They do for work what everyone else only gets to do in their leisure time. There’s the excitement of seeing brilliant artists at work and the pleasure of watching emerging ones develop over years. And most of us never lose the hopefulness that builds every time the lights go down before a show starts. And please don’t tell any of them I told you so, but critics are also an appealingly grumpy and surprisingly sweet group of people to be around—pretty much what you would expect of creative types who do what they do more out of love than money.

Which isn’t to say that they don’t think about money. What Harold Clurman, a brilliant critic, director, and one of the founders of the Group Theater, once quipped about artists applies to my profession, too: “To be an artist is to dream like no one else dares to dream. Artists dream in the morning, they dream all day and then they dream at night. And when artists dream, they dream of money.”

But to really understand why smart, relatively sane people would want to become known as butchers and eunuchs in brothels, you must visit the place where our most profound pleasures begin: childhood. My first review was crafted inside a station wagon on the way home from seeing E.T. I was six years old. My parents asked me if I liked the movie. I said I did. They asked why. After meditating on it for a second or three, here’s the considered piece of criticism that I came up with: “I liked that it had Reese’s Pieces in it.”

I should clarify that at that age, I had no strong moral or aesthetic convictions about product placement. But I did like candy. And seeing a delicious and familiar brand on screen along with a friendly alien made the movie seem cool, and at the risk of giving my young self a little too much credit, a little relatable. It wasn’t my most sophisticated review, but three decades later, I can say with confidence: I’ve written worse.

Stripped down to its essentials, a part of what I do now remains the same: I try to understand and coherently explain why I think and feel the way I do about works of art. Criticism also relies on research, intrepid thinking, and a constant testing and refining of one’s own beliefs. But much of its hardest work is internal, an analysis of one’s own mind and personal convictions. We all have our own subjective taste, but it’s the critic’s responsibility to build arguments based on evidence and follow them wherever they take us, even if it departs from our instincts. That doesn’t mean we abandon our taste. We rely on it for guidance, but sometimes, it too should be distrusted.

If the work of criticism involves a process of trying to understand why we like what we do, then the writing of it can be, as Oscar Wilde famously argued, a kind of autobiography. Why we find something beautiful or truthful and ugly or phony says a lot about who we are. Readers understand this, and they make their own conclusions about whether or not they trust us.

Early in my career, a journalist and critic friend told me something that sounds simple but proved to be wise: There’s no more gratifying part of the job than when you come up with a good idea. I think that’s right.

Early in my career, a journalist and critic friend told me something that sounds simple but proved to be wise: There’s no more gratifying part of the job than when you come up with a good idea. I think that’s right. It may be a small idea, a modification of a previous thought, or a clarifying framework to understand something in a new way. Others may not even think it’s that good of an idea—and they might be right. What matters, though, is that it’s a breakthrough for you. In my experience, the work of criticism gives those willing to put the time in to get passably good at their job many opportunities to achieve such modest epiphanies. That’s no small thing.

Of course there are other joys. It’s inexplicably wonderful when you write a sentence you can be proud of. Or champion an artist who deserves more of a spotlight. Some of the most fun I’ve had as a critic is furiously arguing in public with people I respect in a way that probably looks to others like nasty unpleasantness. As artists suspect, there are the pleasures of a sharp put-down. And if you believe as I do that art matters as much as politics, harshness in the service of evidence-based passion has its place. So does wit. I enjoy the tussle and combat of criticism, for reasons that are not just temperamental. When it’s about substance, such debate exposes you to new ways of thinking and communicating, which makes you smarter.

But If I’m honest with myself, the real reason I love this job is less about its impact on the world than about the mundane experience of doing it. The pleasures of seeing your byline or making the case for a deserving show or receiving a kind note agreeing with a point you made are real. Immediate feedback is stimulating, but its appeal is fleeting. After years of writing reviews, my skin has thickened to the point where most of the time, I can take an insult or a compliment and not feel more than a gentle tap.

What endures more, for me at least, is the pleasure of thinking about a work of art, arguing with myself over it, getting frustrated while going nowhere and then coming out of that mess with a slightly clearer sense of what I believe. Or maybe it’s a better context to put the work in. Or it could be as minor as solving the problem of striking the right tone to end a review in a way that captures exactly what I think with a bit of flair. The privilege of calling that your job is, to steal a phrase from Hamlet, devoutly to be wished.

That last phrase is from the “To be or not to be” speech, which turns the thought process of considering the arguments for and against suicide into timeless poetry. Criticism (which can at times feel a bit like killing yourself) requires such a vacillating mind, a willingness to struggle with and transcend intellectual paralysis. That makes it sound dreary, I realize, but it isn’t. At its best, criticism captures some of the fun I had weighing in on E.T. I would go so far as to say if Hamlet went into criticism, he would have complained just as much, if not more, but he would have been much happier.

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Thoughts from the curator

A series of artists give commentary and reflection on criticism in theatre.

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Wouldn't you say Hamlet IS in criticism? -- assuming that criticism is an ongoing act of understanding, and his critical field is pretty much life writ large? When we say everyone's a critic, we mean everyone's involved in this same large endeavor, albeit some more skillfully than others. Theater critics simply tend the theater section of that field more intensely, but since theater holds the mirror up to all nature, we have, like Hamlet, all human life in our purview. // Good thoughts, Mr. Zinoman.

I like the way you put that. And i agree. On the one hand, you can say much of the play Hamlet is failing to act. On the other, you can say he is doing hard critical work inside his mind. He's preparing to, you might say, write his review. He's the Butcher of Denmark.