Making the critical rounds the last few days has been this post from an anonymous Philadelphia blogger new to me who goes under the nom de plume “criticcrusader.” He/she takes Philadelphia Inquirer critic Toby Zinman to task for a negative review of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful, now running at the Arden Theatre. Howard Sherman summarizes the story just about as well as anybody could.
Neither the review nor the response is a masterpiece of critical acuity, and as I don’t have a dog in this particular race I can’t say I have much to add about one or the other. But in a follow-up post, criticcrusader cites the recent dialogue about critical generosity launched by Polly Carl and Jill Dolan: “Jill Dolan … published an article in early January discussing the backlash Polly Carl, director of HowlRound, received after asking critics, casual and professional, to be ‘nicer,’ drawing from the concept of ‘critical generosity’ that Dolan had outlined previously. This particular article takes a feminist approach to criticism, particularly regarding the gendered implications of the word ‘nice;’ ultimately Dolan asks our critics for ‘kindness and [sic] rigor,’ for critics to ‘take care [sic]‘ with the work they review.”
This only bothered me because Dolan’s attempt to make negative responses to terms like “niceness” and “critical generosity” equivalent to some kind of implicit sexism or misogyny rankled. More exactly, Dolan said:
A peculiar gender bias haunts this conversation which, as Polly might note, blew up in edgy and quickly accusatory ways on Twitter (a format I find pithy but not really conducive to thoughtful and, I admit, generous commentary). That is, “nice” is quickly equated with a kind of sentimental, non-evaluative, dishonest, non-confrontational, frankly and stereotypically “feminine” kind of engagement. And daily critics — whether or not, I should say, they are men or women or any other mix of gender identifications — are positioned as the brawny, masculine laborers being stalwart and honest and clear as they do the difficult and sometimes painful but always necessary work of telling consumers where to spend their money on theatre.
I don’t believe she had me in mind (though she mentions me in that post), but I must say this is something of a conversation-stopper. I don’t see that a gender bias haunts this conversation at all, really, and to say that it does is a way of detracting from the other very real related questions that such concepts as a “critical generosity” engenders. It’s a perspective that has something of the straw man (or straw woman) about it, and rather than setting these up, perhaps the dialogue is better pursued down along more productive paths.
Back in January I wrote a longer comment about this on Dolan’s post which has, for whatever reason, has not yet been approved for posting there (apparently stuck in the moderation queue). I quote that comment in full below, just so the record is complete:
Thank you for these clarifying points, which are well taken.
I’m fully in agreement with you that, as Adorno and Benjamin demonstrated long before John Berger, criticism is in itself an ideological act, as ideological as aesthetic creation itself, and nobody needs to be a feminist of any stripe to recognize that power and influence are not equally distributed in cultural discourse. Critical thinking requires us to be awake to the abuse of any ideology, including and especially our own, in valorizing or evaluating one work or another — it is only then that we can be aware of the dangers any ideology, of the right or left (however simple this dichotomy), represents. As you’ve demonstrated in your writing and teaching, you’re also quite aware of the ideology that drives an educator as she interacts with her peers and her students. I don’t think we have any difference of opinion about this, only a difference of approach to the questions this generates.
I do not believe, however, that the issues that Croce, Oates, Sontag et al. raised in their writing about “Victim Art” are either “old” or closed; they are quite contemporary, witness the strong responses that ensued when they were raised again in 2014, and not dismissable as a historical footnote.