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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Without critics?

Over at Parabasis, Isaac brings up the "death of criticism" issue that certainly has hounded the Critic-O-Meter project. On a similar point, Rob Weinert-Kendt does a run down of the John Lahr Q&A at the New Yorker, where Lahr paints a stark contrast between critics and reviewers.

Issac asks:

What if the major newspapers and magazines didn't have critics at all? What if instead they printed excerpts of the art critics used to cover? Instead of reviews of gallery shows, pictures from the show. Instead of reviews of plays, excerpts from the script with a press photo or two. Instead of reviews of books, a chapter from a book. (Obviously with film it'd be hard, although the web would allow you to show like a ten minute excerpt from the movie). And then let's say it was paired with a brief, substantive interview with the creator. And then, just to further the hypothetical, some portion of the money that would've gone to a review goes to the artist instead as a license for the preview of their work.
My thoughts:

The public discourse plays an essential role in keeping any art form in the center of the public consciousness. A critic may disdain the mere reviewer, but the fact is, they are, when all things are working properly, both a piece of the larger conversation about any given play or painting or poem. In fact, the less talk there is about any given piece of art, the more that work becomes isolated to an individual experience.

Reading a poem can have a simple, profound effect on one person. You don't have to read three reviews of a poem in order to get something out of it. In some ways, reviews, criticism, changes your relationship with anything you experience. That's why a lot of people see things before they read reviews: they their impressions are untainted by outside influence. But if you read a poem, have a strong individual experience with it, and then take that experience out into the world, your thoughts can be enlivened, enriched.

It could obviously be argued that a play is an end unto itself. That the purest way to experience a play is to sit with it, watch it, think about it, and leave it at that.

But that, thankfully, is not the way human beings have constructed their world, and not the way in which most of us process anything. In fact, art is in conversation with the world, and the world should be in conversation with art. When we get together for drinks after seeing a play and talk about its merits, we're all playing roles. Some are reviewers ("I really enjoyed that!") some are critics ("I feel like this really sticks out in this artists body of work because it touches on familiar themes...") some float in-between.

In my mind, the news media captures this spirit and puts it into a larger context. That's why I actually am very happy to see many different responses to a work. Those responses don't have to destroy or create one's own opinion, but they can augment the reason the show exists at all. We're creating work in order to inspire not only gut level responses, but complex ones, and everything in between.

Part of the public discourse is simply about itself. Critics discuss reviewers, reviewers discuss critics, the public has favorite commentors, etc. That's part of the fun of it all. The more of that, the more we all, frankly, care. Not only about the work itself, but the cultural conversation that grows from the work.

Newspapers and magazines do more than provide the public with legal notices and objective reporting. They contribute to the idea of an informed public, to the idea of a thinking people. I say, the less criticism, the less we are encouraged to think, engage and debate. We'd be the poorer for it.

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