Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dance Criticism—Snark Factor

More on snark in criticism, in the wake of a Dance/NYC symposium I attended, and Wendy Perron's blog.:

Snark: great term. I think Wendy Perron coined it. If not, whoever did, kudos. It needed to be defined in one elegant word.

Depends on your readership. Some critics say that they're serving the paying audience. Some offer constructive criticism within their reviews, meant for the choreographers to take or leave. Some write with the field's health in view, which tends to vary from "dazed" to "on the ropes." Most dance writers got into it through a love of dance, with a tendency to support the field. There is being honest, and there's being honest and kind. There are a lot of words and ways to say things that can avoid cruelty.

Was it assigned, or did you choose it? If you're one of the very few writing for a daily large newspaper, and you're receiving assignments, you may get assigned to write about stuff you don't like. (We all have our likes and dislikes, no matter how objective we try to be.) And if you're seeing 5-6 shows a week, you can get cranky and lose a little perspective. It might become more of a burden and responsibility than a privilege, which it also is. If you're a freelancer, you can more easily pick and choose, and unless you're sadistic, you tend to pick the stuff you want to see anyway (see: burden). Which partly explains why freelancers aren't as snarky.

Snark = eyeballs. Remember when John Simon was at New York Magazine, and people read him just to see how scathing he could be and live with himself? Sure you do, because you did too. Newspapers are businesses, and sometimes corporations are NOT in fact people.

Try to keep an open mind, and keep perspective. There are certain writers who are prejudiced against entire subgenres of dance, and yet they are continually assigned to review it. These reviews, unsurprisingly, tend to be as predictable and consistent as the writer's dislikes. So should they continue to be assigned to what they (and we) know they'll slam? Is that fair to the company, the field, or the critic? Chances are there are kernels of truth to their biases, but if these are established companies well-reviewed elsewhere, there may be fundamental things not being understood by the critic. And there is taste (narrative ballets: love 'em or leave 'em), the affect of hipness and the need for newness or novelty, and so on, that should be factored in when assigning. So perhaps it should go to another more open-minded or a critic with better tools with which to assess that genre.

Dance critics must be generalists. In the field of music; there are specialists in pop, opera, and everything in between, and they tend not to cross lines. Dance critics are expected to be able to review hip-hop to Odissi to ballet, but it's a bit of denial to assume they're equipped to do so. At least responsibly. But in a shrinking field covering an impoverished art form, we don't have the luxury of specialists.

Sometimes it can't be helped. There are simply times when you feel so negatively about something that you want that time back. That's when it gets personal. But it helps to remember that the artists you're writing about put a lot of time, energy, and resources into the work, and what you write may affect their ability to fundraise or tour, essentially their livelihood. And if you still feel that way, and you take a time out before filing/posting it, then so be it.

And as mentioned at the panel, ultimately the critic must be honest. I think most critics are, it's the word choice and what you factor in or not that shapes the tone and the snark factor.

Postscript: Let's acknowledge the recent passing of art critic Hilton Kramer. He wrote snarkily and without compunction, consequences be damned—a leading proponent of snark.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

May I also add the following type:

It's about the critic. They are the critics who write snarky (or sometimes positively) to make themselves look cool, hip and more sophisticated than the common audience member. This is especially annoying when the critic doesn't fully understand what they are watching. A great critic can be critical, informative and "honest" without being condescending.