I Have Some Notes: Criticism in Art and Culture

Victoria Cairl
Nov 25, 2018 · 4 min read
Banksy shreds his own work before anyone else has the chance to.

Literary and music reviews are often my favorite things to read. Maybe I’ll learn more about a book I am dying to read or even learn about a new author I need to get into. When I used to subscribe to “Rolling Stone”, I’d find reviews that made me want to hear a new band or encouraged me to listen to all the songs they never played on the radio.

I used to watch “Siskel and Ebert” religiously growing up. I wanted to learn about film. Each time they sat down inside their “movie theater” set I would be schooled in why the opening sequence of “Do the Right Thing” was genius or how Robin Williams just needed the right dramatic vehicle to showcase his range. They opened up a new world to me that was far more complex than “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”.

When I worked at The Met, art criticism blew my mind entirely. Visual art for me was always more about taste. You like Monet and I enjoy Manet. It seemed like tomato or tomata. Until I made friends with a few incredible curators and came to understand how technique and perspective made a painting or photograph more than something you could either love or hate, you had to respect it.

At the end of the day, I will never be an expert in literature or music or film or visual art. But, one thing I know, and have studied for over half my life, is theater.

If you ever come across the comments I received from my professors at college, you’d learn that although I had a passion for Brecht, I appreciated Chekov. I may have binged on Sam Shepard but I read nearly every Shakespeare play. And sure, Robert Wilson’s “Einstein on the Beach” was groundbreaking but Neil Simon had perfected work that could play in almost any “small town” stage across America. In other words, I understand the Avant-garde but I crave commercial theater. I didn’t love every play I read or admire every production I worked on, but I learned everything I could about theater and continue to do so today. I never became a director or playwright (my dual majors). Instead, I’d end up in the career I was meant for: trying to sell strangers on why they should see all types of theater.

One year after college ended, I found my place at a Broadway ad agency. We’d watch a show be worked on from the “out of town” try out, all through previews until it debuted on Opening Night. The reviews came out. Newspapers were scattered around a conference room table and we’d read everything. Was the show a hit or would it close quickly in the days ahead? Would the reviews matter? Or would a big hit drive “word of mouth” among theater-goers who cared more about what their friend said than the New York Times?

Lately reading professional theater reviews has only frustrated me. Recent reviews for a few shows have seemed like bearing witness to a public flogging or listening to two people bitch about a show in the line for the restroom. Theater-lovers need to be better than this.

On certain level, I get it. After years of working in an artform that I love more than anything else, I have become far more jaded than I ever intended. And yet, every once in a while, I see a show that takes my breath away. This sort of an experience makes all the rest worthwhile. Being in a long-term relationship of any sort requires a bit of patience and hope. I have both for Broadway.

Criticism is meant to elevate an art form. It is not meant to drag down artists or destroy a show. People read reviews to discover what to see or find out what they may like. People who aren’t theater experts, simply want to know what to take Grandma to over Christmas Break not who to nominate for the Tony award.

That said, I hope the critiques continue, whether the reviews are published in a paper or whispered to me by a friend on 42ndstreet. I also hope, we try to think more about why people give their opinions in the first place- to share with the world something you truly love or teach someone more about an artform they admire.

The next time you see a show or read a book or look at a painting, I don’t expect you to love it. But at least respect the work that went into it and the passion behind it. And in the end, maybe learn something from it.

Victoria Cairl

Written by

Writes about women and work and all else

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