True art critics offer more than stars and thumbs
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Sunday, September 09, 2012
9/09/12 at 3:03 AM
Personally, when it comes to reviews, I've never been one for using stars.
The few times I've been assigned to review a film, for example, the one part of the review that takes the longest time for me to figure out is how many stars the thing deserves.
It's the same way with thumbs being either up or down, or the pose a stick figure strikes, whether standing in ovation or slumped in bored despair.
The reason for this disapprobation is that such symbols are antithetical to what I am trying to do when I write a review. Stars and such are really marketing tools, attempting to put a quantitative value on a work of art, the way an advertiser might claim that its toilet bowl cleaner kills 33 percent more germs than a competitor.
A review, on the other hand, is supposed to go beyond that, analyzing and explicating why the book or film or concert or painting or whatever is under consideration succeeds or fails. It should be a combination of reactions of the mind and the gut, and because of that, it should be very difficult to distill into a handful of yellow stars.
But a lot of people really like stars - the more stars the better. And there are people out there who are more than happy to meet that demand - and make the whole process of critiquing the arts seem corrupt.
One is a Bixby resident named Todd Rutherford, who was recently profiled in the New York Times. He ran an Internet business that created glowing made-to-order "reviews" for aspiring authors, wanting to get their books noticed on Amazon.com, for $99 each.
It made Rutherford a great deal of money - according to the New York Times, as much as $28,000 a month - until one of his clients went public with her complaints and the whole thing collapsed.
(I made attempts to contact Rutherford and was told politely but emphatically, "I have decided not to do any interviews about the (Times) article or the now defunct business it mentions.")
Another case is that of novelist R. J. Ellory, a British writer of thrillers. Ellory - whose works have won national awards - would log onto sites such as Amazon under pseudonyms to extol his own novels as "modern masterpieces" while trashing the works of fellow thriller writers.
Such activities aren't really surprising, or even all that new. People have been paying others to praise what they do for centuries, and the illusion of anonymity the Internet affords has been taken by some as a license to say or do anything without the risk of consequence.
The actions of Rutherford and Ellory are undoubtedly suspect from an ethical standpoint - passing off manufactured opinions as genuine beliefs. But then, one might argue, their behavior isn't terribly out of line if you think of what Ellory and Rutherford did as "marketing." Rutherford is quoted in the Times article as saying that what he was doing was "marketing reviews, not editorial reviews."
It was, to paraphrase "The Godfather," just business.
And that's the problem. Being a critic - a true critic, an honest critic (and no, those are not oxymorons) - is not a business.
I've been asked a number of times in the past, "How much does it cost to get a review of my (insert your choice of creative endeavor here) into the Tulsa World?"
And, in the days since the article on Rutherford appeared, it's a question that I've been asked - sometimes in jest, most often in accusation - a little more often.
If I were more mercenary - or should that be "entrepreneurial"? - in my thinking, it's highly likely that you wouldn't be reading this piece. I could have made enough in "contributions" to have retired by now. Either that, or gotten myself fired.
But I couldn't do that. I can't even bring myself to post anything on the Internet under any name other than my own. I think it is important that I take responsibility for the words I write and the thoughts I express.
That's because reviewing the arts - and in my position, I have the opportunity to write about everything cultural except yogurt - is something that I believe to be important. Not just an important part of the job I have been given by the Tulsa World to cover the arts, but of the creative process itself.
No matter how comprehensive a given review might be, it is never the last word on a work of art. The arts are one of the best ways of showing how a community treats ideas; a review is the first statement in what should be an ongoing conversation about how literature and drama and music and art show us what is best and should be celebrated, what is base and should be changed.
"The good critic," Anatole France once wrote, "is he who recounts the adventures of his soul among the masterpieces."
That's what I try to do, anyway.
Original Print Headline: Critics offer more than thumbs, stars
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478