The Critic as Artist (a Monologue)

Pine Trees on Top of Blue Mountain
A Critic’s Frozen Heart


Criticism can be dangerous. I’ve been thinking about Pauline Kael and John Cassavetes. Kael was notoriously harsh on Cassavetes’ films, and he took it very personally. Kael wrote that once, Cassavetes lifted her in the air, “…saying ‘Love ya, Pauline, just love ya,’ and I felt that he wanted to crush every bone in my body.” There are other stories about Cassavetes stealing her coat, and throwing her shoes out the window of a taxi ( There are partisans in this feud, but I find that I’m able to appreciate the work of both; still, I find his actions disturbing. (I’m unconvinced by arguments that she was unfair and should have known better than to keep provoking him.)

My daughter said to me recently, “You just love writing bad reviews.” I don’t – it’s agonizing. I start every book, every movie, every performance hoping it’s going to be wonderful. When I feel something is great, I enjoy finding ways to say so. When I don’t like something, I struggle to find words that not only express my opinions but also explain WHY, in a way that is either entertaining to the reader or actionable for creatives (ideally both). In so doing, the critic also practices a craft, often imperfectly.

I was almost fired once for being a critic. I worked as a projectionist at a museum, and for a time I wrote anonymous movie reviews that were handed out to patrons. Objectively, it didn’t make sense that I would endanger my employment just to give an opinion – but I loved hearing some of the conversations after the movies, arguing and expanding ideas I’d expressed. This was engaged participation, not just “entertain me.” (Here’s the essay that ended my run: It’s one of my favorites, and I’d do it again.)

A friend told me yesterday that people who care about me worry that I am cutting off my nose to spite my face – that it makes no sense to publicly criticize local productions when I am also a member of the creative community. It was suggested that people wonder “Who does he think he is?” and that they might not attend my productions, or participate in those I’m part of. Really?

When I buy a ticket to a production, I’m expressing my support. When I write about it later, I’m paying the compliment of close attention. If that attention is not uniformly positive, do I risk people not supporting my work in return?

I sing publicly on a regular basis. Some people are generous enough to praise me, but what can I do with that? I might feel good for a little while, but it’s criticism that makes me better. And criticism is harder to give! The person who says the nice thing can go home feeling good about themselves. The person who risks criticizing knows they might hurt someone’s feelings, and the critic doesn’t get to have warm fuzzies later.

Once after a high school production, I asked a teacher what she thought. Her reply is among the best criticism I’ve received: “I felt like the performers were having more fun than the audience.” I got into a spirited discussion with some New Hartford students back in June. They thought I was criticizing their recent musical (I wasn’t – The students said the most important thing was that they were having fun. Now, I don’t have anything against fun. But it’s pretty narcissistic to make the audience subsidize your fun and also expect them to clap and praise you afterward. (Never trust empty or coerced praise.)

Why do we create? A producer friend of mine thinks about this a lot:

“[Why do] people choose to be artists in this country[?] It can’t be for the money, or the health care, or the fame. Because we know that is not part of the job…You know that you may never have your work favorably reviewed in a major media outlet. You know you will often work for free, just to help a friend or get exposure, or for fun. You may be too tired after working a day job to go to your studio, or to rehearsal. You know all this, right? And yet you persist, as an artist, making art. So I am asking, why?” (@tina24hour)

I do it because I have to. I rarely enjoy it – as Sondheim wrote, “Art isn’t easy.” I want to surprise and delight people, transport them, make them think, and engage as a community. My criticism aims for the same goal (and I’m a better writer than actor, singer or director.) Another friend pointed out that we all criticize – mostly we do it over drinks and out of earshot of those we’re criticizing.

Years ago, our local newspaper employed an arts critic. I didn’t care for his writing – there wasn’t a lot of “why” in his essays – but I remember the electric charge that went through the theater when he arrived. His presence put us on top of our games. The next morning, we’d eagerly look for the printed review; even a negative one was good for ticket sales, and it focused the team – “We’ll show him!”

John Cassavetes didn’t seem to appreciate Pauline Kael (he said, “The way I figure it, if Pauline Kael ever liked one of my movies, I’d give up.”) But I watched his movies because of her writing, and I suspect many others did, too. Maybe he knew that.