Can – or more importantly – SHOULD Critics and Artists be Friends?

I used to think, yes, but now, after almost five years of toiling in that netherworld between the two, I’m not so sure anymore.

The question was brought back to the fore for me by this article HOW I INSULTED SONDHEIM (AND THE WISDOM RECEIVED THEREBY) written by songwriter Jason Robert Brown.  Hat tip to Rob Weinert-Kendt for bringing it to my attention. Though I don’t believe it was Jason’s intent to raise the issue of the critic-artist relationship by writing this fascinating and incredibly personal article, he has nevertheless illuminated something so important about that very relationship that it deserves once again to be explored.

Jason tells the story of how he and his friend (name changed to protect the innocent) pursued Sondheim to show him some new work they were developing. Eventually it happened. Sondheim invited them to his latest show (not sure which production) and then they were to meet afterwards. Jason and his friend were not fans of the new show and afterwards at the restaurant they attempted to avoid the topic completely, until, of course, Sondheim himself brought it up. Here’s how Jason describes the scene:

The curtain rises, and we expect to see Sweeney Todd. We expect West Side Story. We expect Biblical greatness. There is no show on Earth that could have delivered something as magnificent as we were expecting. Two-and-a-half hours later, Franz and I file out of the theatre anxiously.

We get to the restaurant. Steve is sitting there waiting for us. There’s an appetizer already on the table. I am about to sit down with my idol, Stephen Sondheim, for dinner. I’m 23 years old. I’m totally overwhelmed.

We say nothing. I mean, small talk, yeah, sure, and pleasantries. But we don’t even mention the show. For TWENTY MINUTES. Steve is sitting across from us, becoming ever more uncomfortable and upset, and Franz and I are nattering on like the hosts of a morning talk show, oh the weather, the food, the décor, what shows are coming in this season, anything except the performance we just saw. On the night that Frank Rich came.

Finally, after an eternity, Steve mumbles, “So, uh, did you like the show?”

Here’s where you scream in terror.

Actually, however, the blood is already on the wall. It didn’t matter at that point what we said, the damage had been done. Our silence had told the story with astonishing completeness.

So the evening was a disaster. Eventually Jason drummed up the courage to reach out again to Sondheim and apologize. This is how Sondheim replied, and Jason admits that he is paraphrasing Sondheim’s response:

Nobody cares what you think. Once a creation has been put into the world, you have only one responsibility to its creator: be supportive. Support is not about showing how clever you are, how observant of some flaw, how incisive in your criticism. There are other people whose job it is to guide the creation, to make it work, to make it live; either they did their job or they didn’t. But that is not your problem.

If you come to my show and you see me afterwards, say only this: “I loved it.” It doesn’t matter if that’s what you really felt. What I need at that moment is to know that you care enough about me and the work I do to tell me that you loved it, not “in spite of its flaws”, not “even though everyone else seems to have a problem with it,” but simply, plainly, “I loved it.” If you can’t say that, don’t come backstage, don’t find me in the lobby, don’t lean over the pit to see me. Just go home, and either write me a nice email or don’t. Say all the catty, bitchy things you want to your friend, your neighbor, the Internet.

Maybe next week, maybe next year, maybe someday down the line, I’ll be ready to hear what you have to say, but that moment, that face-to-face moment after I have unveiled some part of my soul, however small, to you; that is the most vulnerable moment in any artist’s life. If I beg you, plead with you to tell me what you really thought, what you actually, honestly, totally believed, then you must tell me, “I loved it.” That moment must be respected.

First thought: yes, people should almost never “quantify” a show for the artist immediately after that show, even when pressed. Be kind, be respectful, be positive. Nothing wrong with that. There will always be time for quantification and objective analysis.

Next thought: Sondheim was an idiot to ask. I’ve seen actors come out of shows and approach actual professional critics and immediately ask, “So what did you think?” What an asinine thing to do. Those of you guilty of this sin, please stop. It puts both you and the critic and/or supportive yet intelligent friend in a very bad position. The blame goes both ways.

And now my third thought and I realize that Jason was paraphrasing here but if the response is even CLOSE to what Sondheim actually said, then Sondheim is a fucking arrogant pompous little baby. I don’t care how much of a genius he is – and he is – but the almost demagogic response “nobody cares what you think” after he was the person who pursued the response? Unbelievable. The interpretation of course is, “When I ask what you think of my work I don’t actually want to know what you think of my work, your job is to simply fall down in homage and love me. Your critical faculties be damned. Your opinion is worthless. You must simply worship your God not question him.”

Look, I get it, the faux pas of quantification after a show, it’s bad form, but Sondheim, a man who should know better, a man who should have the magnanimity to rise above the social errors of those who don’t know better, he’s simply a fucking whiny weenie. Sorry to all you Sondheiminities. This is the second time I’ve read something about Sondheim and his dismissal of criticism and it just reinforces his delusional egotistical divorce from the reality that the rest of us have to deal with. The man would be a genius toiling in a vacuum if it wasn’t for the professional critics of the world.

But back to the more important point:

Can and should critics and artists be friends?

I used to think, yes, it’s possible, if only both sides can allow themselves to be open to the possibility that they might be wrong, they aren’t perfect, their opinion isn’t the be all and end all, their work will always be flawed, performance is simply a process as is criticism, critics want their theater to be as good as it possibly can be and artists believe that critics want their theater to be as good as it possibly can be. In other words, if both parties could act as adults and allies, not adolescents and enemies.

But now, I just don’t know. It seems my sentiment was over-idealistic, naive even.

My change in opinion has also evolved from my personal experience of criticizing the critics here at the Lemon. Many of these critics have become my friends and colleagues. It simply makes it more difficult to be honest when you are criticizing your friends. I’ll continue, of course, but the job certainly doesn’t become easier the closer you get to the people you criticize.

And yet, for the sake of the art, it is crucial that professional opinions be un-colored by passion or personal bias. The job requires it. The Art needs it. It is essential.

And so, my opinion, now, is that critics and artists cannot and should not be friends. They can still maintain respect and cordiality, even admiration, but friends? Nope. It just doesn’t seem to work.

It’s a sad state of affairs. Mostly for the critic. I can’t imagine the loneliness involved, the self-imposed solitude, the wall that must be erected to maintain one’s professional integrity. Well, actually, I can, but that’s a topic for another day.

There will always be exceptions. Some artists can manage to separate the professional and the personal, as can some critics, but for the most part it’s a losing proposition.

I always thought being an artist was the loneliest of professions. I was wrong. It doesn’t compare to the loneliness of the serious critic.

Good luck, folks.

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Colin Mitchell About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.

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  1. Kevin Delin Kevin Delin says:

    There’s a good summary and set of thoughts here.

  2. Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

    Great link, Kevin. Thanks.

  3. Corwin says:

    I tend to agree. I regard any critic with the courtesy to acknowledge when I’ve worked on a project (let alone weigh in on my contribution) with respect and appreciation for their honest appraisal of my work.
    I remember getting a note from someone on a play earlier in the year, something along the lines of “video design needs work.” It was among the least useful feedback I’ve ever received, back to my acting days with “do it again, but this time make it not suck.” I would have loved to have a sentence articulating exactly what the critic was responding to, as I’ve certainly not resigned from design with my head held in shame. Just a few extra words – no matter how harsh – outlining exactly what missed for the critic could have changed the course of my artistic development all year. How could I hate someone for that?

  4. Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

    You are clearly one of those exceptions, Corwin, an artist who welcomes productive criticism because he knows it can only make him better at what he does.

  5. Bob Verini says:

    SS invited two kids as his guests to the theater, and I’m guessing he paid for dinner. Common courtesy suggested that they say something, anything, and they did not do so until he threw them a lifeline. Moreover, SS didn’t troll for compliments by asking “What did you think?” He asked a simple yes/no question, which I believe was designed simply to get the kids off the 20-minute hook JRB admits they were squirming on. They could have replied “Wow, it was so exciting to be there, thanks for getting us in” or words to that effect, and nothing would have been taken amiss.

    As for the phone call, he wasn’t offering unsolicited advice, but was approached by JRB. Nor did SS say “I don’t want to hear your criticisms ever,” quite the contrary. His message was simply: at the moment you see it (the show) and me (your friend or colleague) for the first time, just be – how did you yourself put it, Colin? – kind, respectful and positive. That’s all “I loved it” means. Yes, those three words can be uttered hyperbolically, but they can also be offered in a low, sincere tone which says “I was there for you. I know what it feels like, offering up your soul to the general public.”

    I wouldn’t underestimate the verbatim nature of the comments JRB passes on. I once deeply disrespected a famous Broadway director who gave me a play his partner had written. I read the first few pages, loathed it, then set it aside and forgot about it. One day I got a call from the director and – completely taken by surprise – I couldn’t fake that I’d read the thing, let alone say “I loved it” or anything else. I can remember, I assure you, every single word of the riot act he read me: for not being courteous enough to read it; for not getting back to him proactively; and worst of all, for trying to seem as if I HAD read it and thus demonstrating my untrustworthiness. I will stop remembering it now because it’s too painful to revisit. I recall his words as if it were yesterday and not 1988, when a promising professional contact, which would have been valuable to me, was casually tossed away through youthful stupidity.

    Finally, what does the JRB/SS set-to have to do with the farmer and the cowman being friends? Er, sorry, the critic and the artist. JRB and his anonymous pal weren’t professional critics but, how you Americans say, new acquaintances and would-be colleagues. JRB’s story has to do with one’s reactions (anyone’s, civilians’ or critics’) when encountering a friend’s work. And apropos of that I will remember Sondheim’s advice, as I will your troika of adjectives, “kind, respectful and positive.” Very good advice. But the issue of critics v. artistic friends is apples to JRB’s oranges.

    I will say that I have found no impediment to critic/artist friendships if the former can maintain her critical objectivity and the latter can remember it’s nothing personal. In England and Europe, artists and critics are best buddies everywhere you go. (Sure, there are enemies too, but NOT because of a conflict of interest.) Only in America, where we are so beholden to the hit vs. flop mentality, are such friendships somehow seen as bad form or ethically suspect or just dicey. It’s too bad, too. A smart critic and a smart artist can have just about the best conversations to be found anywhere.

    • Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

      Well on that final note I completely agree, Bob. You and I had such a conversation over my fringe show Mission to Mate and I found it very rewarding. But I still see that as an exception. It’s a shame that both the artist and the critic often feel at odds from the start, rather than participants in the process. And I think you make an excellent point that this might be a truly “American” dilemma.

      And though it’s a fair point on the oranges/apples of the article in question, I don’t think it’s quite as clear as that. As I mentioned, Jason’s intent was clearly not to touch on the subject I decided to explore, but I think it was a fair starting point for the conversation, mostly because the critic’s edge often dulls the closer he gets to the artist. It’s simply a fact of human nature. Except for the rare exceptions such as yourself and artists like Corwin. It’s more like the apple opening the door for the orange to walk through, if they so choose.

      Oh. And SS is still a weenie.

  6. Bob Verini says:

    Have you read his two books of memoirs? He’s a mensch.

    • Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

      I haven’t and obviously I’m being a bit melodramatic – I’ve never met the guy – but I have read some of his comments on critics and I find his dismissal to be the symptom of an artist who is losing touch with where he’s come from. His stance now is basically: I am above criticism. And in reality he probably is at this point in his career, but for the younger, hungrier artist, press can still make a career and thoughtful criticism can be very helpful to the continued honing of their craft.

      Two major pitfalls artists in all mediums must always straddle: believing your press and ignoring it.

  7. Bob Verini says:

    Well, his books are (to my mind) required reading, and would disabuse anyone of the notion that he thinks he’s above criticism. I have frankly run into few artists who have ever been so candid about their career mistakes, actually, as SS is.

    His biggest beef with critics, Colin, is that as a group we don’t know music, and yet we still pontificate about the writing and performing of musicals.

    And you know what? In the main, he’s right.