When Artists Attack: Does Criticizing the Critic Ever Work?

By Robert Simonson
15 Jul 2013

John Simon

"Social media makes it much easier for someone to reach out and shake your hand," said Cote, "or dump a plate of virtual spaghetti on your head."

The "spaghetti" refers to what may be the most famous and colorful incident of  artist rebellion of the modern era — the 1973 occasion when actress Sylvia Miles, stung by an unflattering review by John Simon, dumped a plate of food on the critic's head.

"It's been called every possible food imaginable," recalled Simon. "The nation of China could be nourished by the many things the dish has been called." (For the record, it was steak tartare.)

Simon is perhaps the most attacked critic in theatre history. The acid-tongued writer, who served as New York magazine's drama critic from 1968 to 2005, seemingly raised hackles from the moment he laid pen to paper. In 1967, playwright Edward Albee said, "Mr. Simon's disapproval of my play has been a source of comfort to me over the years." (Throughout his career, Albee has never been shy about letting it be known when he is unhappy with a critic.) In 1970, producer Joe Papp (who lashed out at critics like clockwork, once verbally threatening Clive Barnes), stung by John Simon's bad review of The Black Terror at the Public Theater, complained of the critic in a letter to the magazine, saying, "Why the hell doesn't he grow up?" In 1977, following a famously savage Simon review of Liza Minnelli in The Act, Harvey Sabinson, of the League of New York Theatres and Producers, likened Simon to "a sadistic guard in a Nazi camp."

Even critics haven't liked Simon much. In 1969, the New York Drama Critics Circle voted 10 to 7 to deny Simon membership owing to his unusually harsh reviews. (They reversed their stand the following season.)

None of this seems to have rankled Simon much.

"I don't think so," he said, when asked if he ever finds artist retorts constructive. "I think, as a critic, you're an individual uninfluenced by other opinions. You are confident in your tastes, whether merited or not. You don't really pay that much attention, unless it becomes vehement. I think it gives a measure of satisfaction [to the artist], that their disagreement is given visible form. But whether it makes any difference in the long run, I doubt, to the artist or the critic."