Thinking like a Critic: Making the Case for Arts Journalism and Criticism in the 21st Century

By Irwin, Matthew | American Theatre, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Thinking like a Critic: Making the Case for Arts Journalism and Criticism in the 21st Century


Irwin, Matthew, American Theatre


ARTS JOURNALISM HAS CHANGED, BUT THE fundamentals of good criticism have not. Those of us who lament the paucity of informed, long-format criticism and the rise of ephemeral opinion could complain about lost values--or we could pass out copies of A Theater Criticism/ Arts journalism Primer: Refereeing the Muses, a new book by Ohio-based critic-scholars Bob Abelman and Cheryl Kushner.

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Over the course of 271 pages, Refereeing the Muses makes the case for arts criticism at large, and provides the tools for budding critics to navigate their field. Structured like a textbook with abstracts, bullet points, copious enclnotes and more than 40 case studies, it covers the roles and responsibilities of critics and the history of theatre criticism within a condensed. history of theatre. The advent of "instant criticism," readers may be surprised to discover, did not come with Twitter, but with the turn of the 20th century, when newspapers intent on scooping one another began publishing reviews written hurriedly for their morning editions.

The book also moves right into the present, describing the effect of new media (yes, Twitter) and how some of today's best-known American theatre critics--David Cote, Ben Brantley, Terry Teachout--prepare and execute their craft. But the foundation for the dialogue in this book is based on the classics., from Plato and Aristotle to Francis Bacon. Attention is duly paid to methods of critical thinking ("theatregoers think, critics engage in critical thinking," the text emphasizes), ways to approach criticism, and how to deconstruct a review, so the lessons of the book could as easily apply to critical writing about art, music and dance as they do to theatre.

Any document that attempts to outline a process for thinking about a particular subject risks scholarly over-cod i fication, but Abelman and Kushner avoid that pitfall by acting more as reporters gathering information than as scholars arguing a thesis. For instance, their account of the evolution of theatre criticism--which could double as the history of journalism--comes without commentary 'from the authors; the only trace of their points of view is in their decision of which voices of the past to include. So when we read that a particular critic's opinion is presented "with the sense that any other proposition is incorrect, woefully misguided and must be corrected," we feel free to think something like, "But that's why people hate critics!" rather than faulting the authors for being judgmental. …

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