Criticizing the critics- the art of revenge

by Jason Gross

7 December 2006


You think that Idolator and the Voice were having some heated polls, huh?  You have to admit that Time Out New York’s Judgment Day feature is hell of an idea: turning the table on NYC critics and letting some of their subjects judge them back.  And while Apollinaire Scherr (Newsday’s dance critic) in the Foot In Mouth blog has reasonable complaints about how the critics were chosen and how the judging panel was chosen and what criteria was used, it still doesn’t answer the greater question: why is such a poll necessary in the first place?
The whole set-up is based on the idea of turning the tables.  Or revenge, if you like.  The judges will not only be judged themselves but will be examined by some of those that they themselves have judged.  How delicious.  It’s like a reality show, isn’t it?  If you think I’m being a little over the top about this, note that in the TONY poll, all the comments are anonymous so that the panel need not fear retribution from the critics they’re judging.  Which is to say that the panelist might be scared to speak frankly otherwise but it also gives off a faint whiff of pettiness on the part of the critics themselves- surely, they’ll exact revenge right back at their subjects if they get zinged, right?

Maybe not though.  The whole premise works under the assumption that critics are out to nail people, be it musicians or directors or restaurateurs or dramatists when in fact, many of the best ones are advocates for artists that they care deeply about and want the world to know more about and appreciate.  In fairness, some of the TONY comments reflect that.  But let’s face it- that’s nowhere near as exciting or sexy as tearing down subjects or grudges or such where the word “critical” is part and parcel.  But as many wise editors and writers have figured out, their job isn’t just to heap praise on worthy subjects but also to knock down some sacred cows that deserve it and exclaim about the emperor’s new duds.  At some level, even with all the pontificating, they’re also supposed to be telling readers if a CD, play, movie, restaurant or recital is worth their money and attention or not.  Sometimes it isn’t and they should say that- to do otherwise would be dishonest to themselves and their readers.  Of course, it would help if they put some smarts and reasoning behind their arguments and not just throw pies around.

Going back to Scherr complaints, I wonder about the selection myself.  TONY is an NYC publication and their own writers came out looking good in the poll (confession: I write for them every blue moon or so) and frankly, they deserve it.  But why do they act so surprised that the New York Times people come out smelling like roses- hell, they picked their whole arts staff to be included.  For that matter, they included Slate (which pays NY State taxes but is no more local than the Washington Post) but slagged off a number of smaller Gotham publications.  Also, Gotham happens to be home of many publications that don’t just focus on NYC but nevertheless, Spin, Rolling Stone and others are left out of the occasion.  So are for that matter online destinations like Fluxblog and Pitchfork, which in truth have a lot more pull on audiences than many of the writers they cite in the poll.  So does Brooklyn Vegan who’s obviously local and truthfully doesn’t count as a critic but nevertheless has considerable pull as a writer in NYC.

In the end, I agree with Scherr that this poll is an interesting idea but I still wonder what the ultimate purpose of it is other than to provide a little drama.  Maybe it can serve as a system of checks and balance, you know like the one that’s supposed to be happening in government? And one thing they got right in the poll for sure: the Voice’s Jerry Saltz is a hell of an art critic that can teach something to anyone (both writers and audience) in the entertainment realm.

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