When Artists Attack: Does Criticizing the Critic Ever Work?

By Robert Simonson
15 Jul 2013


Edward Albee

There have been rare occasions where the blowback from an angry artist has led to a civilized debate. One of the most sustained and literary critic-artists feuds arose in 1958 when the pro-realism British critic Kenneth Tynan published an attack in the London Observer on what he called absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco's "anti-theatre." Ionesco responded with a lengthy piece of writing of his own.

"I've reached out to some journalists personally after reading a particularly insightful review of one of my shows," said Clancy. "I think that's important to do.  But usually, you just hope they get it and like it and you pull some quotes and move on.

"It can create a dialogue," he continued. "I think, for the most part, artists have become too fragile and precious about their art.  Put it out there, find an audience, know that some people will not like it, some people will and as long as you like it and you're taking it seriously and challenging yourself, it all works out.  It's important to really listen to criticism, printed up or not.  You can learn a lot, your work can get stronger by listening to someone who doesn't like it.  If someone says, 'Great. Brilliant. Great,' then it feels good, but you haven't learned anything."

For Cote, most pained responses to critiques spring from a miscomprehension of the critic's role. "This may sound glib, but the artist who doesn’t understand the purpose of criticism doesn’t understand the purpose of art," he stated. "The art exists in dialogue with its audience, with the world — even the most hermetic, abstract, obscurantist stuff. And criticism exists in dialogue with the art and the world. Stanley Kauffmann has a great line in his essay, 'Why Do Critics Persist?': '[O]n the one hand, there is the theater, with good and bad productions and, on the other hand, there is criticism, which ought to be good about both good and bad productions.' In other words, the art can be lousy but the criticism must always be good. Not easy, but that’s my job."

In the best of all possible worlds, added Cote — who is a librettist and playwright, as well as a critic — both sides would pay close attention to one another's work, but otherwise refrain from contact.

"One thing you can say about both critics and artists: They should aspire to total freedom from judgment. Just as a truly independent critic should not worry about being right or wrong, the liberated artist should be indifferent to good or bad reviews. I wish I were that free."