Nigel Kennedy, the English violinist, was very late to an interview a few years ago, but his opening words weren’t “sorry” or “hello.”
“Are you a critic?!” he challenged in a shout.
“Good!” he barked. “I hate critics!”
Critics lurk in the shadows, wear wigs to restaurants, leave before the last curtain call -- then have their say in print, or on television, radio or the Internet. But their ink-stained-wretch cousins, otherwise known as reporters, have to face their prey in the stark light of studios, offices, kitchens, dressing rooms and trailers. To look them in the eyes.
Kennedy -- whose hit classical music recordings have long been obscured by critics more worried by his potty-mouthed mock cockney, his ever-punk hairstyle and unconventional performance wardrobe -- isn’t the first artist to lash out at a reporter who became a convenient stand-in for her more elusive colleagues. “I know I’m being paid to do what I love, I might be living my dream,” the artist will say, but does that give them the right to spit on it?
“Do you happen to know critic X or Y?” they will ask. “I mean, what is that guy’s problem?”
The relationship between artist and critic is an age-old battle between process and product, actor and observer, status quo and innovation. To an artist, a critic can feel like a thorn in the side, an impartial evaluator, a necessary evil to be rationalized accordingly -- or one of the malicious, impotent little men and women with nothing better to do than play God with their destinies.
In an age in which 24-hour cable channels, e-pinions, blogs and Zagat Guide-style popularity tests have made everyone a critic, some critics still have the power to make or break a career -- and if not that, the spirit of the artist.
Those who make movies, write books, paint pictures, compose music or pursue other artistic endeavors must ban their internal critics to do the hard work of creating something anyway, so it’s no wonder that they dread the band of fickle-hearted critics who seem bent on misunderstanding them.
OK, so a bad review is just One Person’s Opinion. And most artists insist they have only themselves to please, or their boyfriend/wife/child/pet/mother, etc., or the public. But the constant glare of public scrutiny can haunt the perfectionists among us.
Not long ago in France, for example, chef Paul Bocuse blamed the powerful restaurant-guide establishment for causing the suicide of his colleague Bernard Loiseau of Burgundy’s La Cote d’Or restaurant. Loiseau had killed himself at age 52 after his restaurant lost two points from prestigious GaultMillau. Loiseau’s friend and fellow three-star chef Jacques Lameloise said that the chef had threatened to kill himself if he lost a star from the French restaurant bible, the Michelin Guide, which was due out a few days after his death.
While nobody will ever know the role that criticism played in Loiseau’s suicide, the blessing of the Michelin Guide and GaultMillau is certainly one of the factors that made Loiseau into a culinary empire. In 1998, he became the first French chef whose company -- which included three Paris restaurants and a frozen-food line -- was traded on the stock exchange.
Bothered by reviews? Don’t read
Many established artists, whose careers may be less dependent on reviews, have chosen to avoid the problem by simply not reading their reviews. The convincingly self-possessed John Malkovich makes a point of telling interviewers that he doesn’t read reviews or profiles about himself. “I don’t find it helpful,” said the actor, who comes from a family of journalists. And unlike other media personalities, he does not treat the press as a volunteer arm of his publicity machine. “I figure it’s best to let them write what they want to write -- that’s their business.”
The popular choreographer Matthew Bourne, whose first major success was an all-male dance-theater restaging of “Swan Lake,” goes to performances of his new shows every night, he said, and studies the audience reaction. But the London-based artist stopped reading his reviews several years ago, when only the bad parts stuck with him and he found that even one negative phrase kept him up at night.
Of course, once they have freed themselves from the tyranny of reading their reviews, many artists and performers find that they have a network of friends, acquaintances, exes and former classmates who are more than happy to mail, fax or e-mail the (sometimes bad) reviews that they might not have seen. Or who leave giveaway voicemail messages that start with “I’m so sorry about the Times review! Everyone says she’s a witch, anyway!”
Of course, some artists use their reviews as just another critical tool, a way to gauge how their work is seen from the outside.
“Sometimes I won’t read reviews,” actor Billy Crudup said a few years ago, just after a long diatribe about the trouble with journalists that showed he often does. “But one of the things that I long for as an artist is discussion of the work -- what’s successful about it to people, what’s not successful, what’s important, what theme is profound and evocative.
“Unfortunately, our critical analysis has become simplistic -- I mean it’s become thumbs up, thumbs down, which is pretty sad. I mean, three stars -- what are we talking about? Three stars of what? And which part has three stars?
“We’ve got reviewers like John Simon in New York. The guy is like an encyclopedia of theater -- he’s got a brilliant mind for theater. But he writes about people’s wigs, and their weight. What an ass! And what a destructive and useless waste of paper.”
Of course, those same people who say they don’t care about what the critics think are often the first to use good reviews as validation. Awards mean nothing until you win one, and critics are a bunch of worthless, troubled, talentless wise guys until they say something flattering. Director Robert Altman had thoughts on the folly of taking critics too seriously:
“Every ad you see, there’s nothing but quotes from critics. Most critics you’ve never heard of,” he said. “ ‘Exciting!’ from the St. Paul Ledger. If you go down and look at the list of quotes, you can tell if the film has been panned or not. Movie critics don’t know anything, mostly, about drama, comedy, art of any kind. What they know about is what the standard has been through the decades. Everything is always compared to another work.”
Either that, Altman said, or they spend an awful lot of time just missing the point. “I think that there was no better performance in ‘Gosford Park’ than Kristin Scott Thomas’,” he said. “She was never mentioned. It was always Maggie Smith or Emily [Watson] or Helen Mirren. But Kristin’s character was so well-rounded and so truthful and honest -- not like Maggie Smith, who was playing more of a one-note thing. Because they’re comfortable with that, they know it’s OK to like her, because she’s lauded to start with.”
Praise as a foreign concept
Altman is one director who, like Woody Allen or David Lynch, often finds himself more appreciated away from home. The punch line of Allen’s “Hollywood Ending” was that a wreck of a movie made by a blind, has-been auteur was hailed as a masterpiece by the French.
Diane Johnson had her first bestseller with “Le Divorce,” her 1997 novel about two California sisters in Paris. “It was gratifying but quite surprising to me that people were so interested in France. The French haven’t liked it nearly as well,” she said, except for “French people who have traveled and French people who are my friends. It wasn’t attacked or anything, but the general public didn’t really do much with it.”
French director Francois Ozon said that he feels more appreciated by foreign critics. French critics are much more open-minded when it comes to American movies, he says, even stupid ones. “ ‘American Pie’ and films like that are idiotic,” he said, “but they say something about American culture -- something about adolescence and scatology and vulgarity and all that.
“We don’t have actors in France who work with their bodies, who transform themselves like Jim Carrey, for example. So French critics have a very good open-mindedness to recognize that an American film that can appear idiotic has interesting things in it -- but they don’t have that same curiosity about French films.”
James Ivory said that he often is confounded by the reviews his movies get in the countries in which they are made -- England, France and India. The French said he drew an unsympathetic picture of them in “Jefferson in Paris”; reviewers in India insist that the films show the English characters as noble and admirable, and the Indians as charming, untrustworthy flakes. “Even the English, with films like ‘Remains of the Day’ and ‘Howards End,’ ” said the director, “in what was written about those films in the press, you sometimes detected an attitude that you knew somehow the film had ticked them in some kind of way they didn’t like. That’s just a funny thing.”
His partner, Ismail Merchant, said he felt more deeply wounded when films such as “Surviving Picasso” or “The Golden Bowl” didn’t get the critical praise he felt they deserved. “It breaks my heart,” he said. “It shakes you up, because you have not received the right kind of response. But then your dedication is so much stronger, your passion is so much stronger, that it doesn’t do any harm at all.”
Designer Philippe Starck said recently that his just-closed retrospective at the Pompidou Center in Paris was constructed as an offensive aimed at critics who would accuse him of having a big head. They said it anyway. “It’s discouraging, it’s saddening,” he said, “to try to bring out pretty sophisticated concepts and to find them misunderstood, or that people cling to simplistic, binary ideas. You can’t please everyone. But just because there is always a percentage of reactionary people who are going to say disagreeable things about me doesn’t mean that I’m going to die. That’s been going on for 30 years.”
Starck might have his critics, but his products are bestsellers and he’s one of the few designers in the world who can be called a star. After all, there is nothing like fan mail, record sales or box office numbers to make an artist forget about critics. Britney Spears shrugged off the bad reviews for her screen debut with a handy motto that every would-be artist might do well to needlepoint on a throw pillow:
“Everything the critics like I hate, and everything that they hate I like.”
Take that, critics!