Dance Criticism; The Relationship Between Critics and Artists

By David Orzechowicz

November 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

As a sociologist, my understanding of the dynamic between critics and artists begins with the assumption that art is a social thing. This idea is central to Art Worlds by Howard Becker, one of the most prominent American sociologists of the century. Becker argues that the common notion of the lone artist—whose artistic genius alone enables her or his works to be known and canonized as great art—is a myth. The process of taking art work from conception to audience often involves the work and cooperation of a large number of people. These relationships and collective activities are what Becker refers to as an art world. He discusses the different social forces within these art worlds that shape the production of art: pre-existing artistic convention, availability of resources, changes in technology, state governments, and most importantly for this discussion, critics. Becker sees critics as a type of gatekeeper, uniquely positioned between artist and general public. I begin with some thoughts on critics as social beings. Then I explore the relationship of critics to artists, using examples from various art worlds. I conclude with some thoughts on why these relationships are important to keep in mind throughout a dialogue between dance creators and dance critics.

Critics are uniquely positioned between an art community and a broader audience. Although the job of the critic is related to the artist, they are first and foremost audience members—attending premiers, performances, and gallery openings. But critics are a special type of audience member, with access to a venue to voice their thoughts about these events that others lack. Even the internet has not equaled this playing field; people are more likely to read a review in the San Francisco Chronicle than in my blog. Access to this venue ties critics to a particular art community. Yet they are tasked by the broader public to report back what they see as the merits and shortcomings of a particular work. They are not responsible for explaining artists’ process or intentions and should not be expected to champion their work. This can put them at odds with artists in the community.

The task of critique has become harder in the past 30 years. Avant-garde art movements have complicated the definition of art, the distinction between good and bad art that exists beyond any individual, and the importance of technical skills. The absence of agreed-upon, well known criteria makes the job of criticism difficult if not problematic.

Critics deal with these issues, consciously or unconsciously, with profound effects on artists. On a personal level, criticism (even constructive) can provoke very emotional responses from artists who invest a great deal of time and emotion into their work. On a professional level, critics play a role in the reputation of an artist. They are not the only important influence on artistic reputation, but their role is the one I am interested in exploring.

Lang and Lang (1988), whose research cover a range of topics in public discourse including the arts, television, and politics, argue that reputation has two parts: recognition, or the esteem held by artistic peers; and renown, or a broader recognition from people outside of an artistic community. Located between the art community and a wider audience, critics are in a position to influence renown. They can shape who sees an artist’s work and the canonization of an art work. For example, looking at the careers of painter-etchers, Lang and Lang found that the visibility critics can offer “provides the artist the sort of momentum that propels him [sic] into posterity.” This reputation potential critics offer comes not necessarily through their personal intentions, but through the renown they do or do not help build. It is a power that they may not want, but one which they nevertheless wield.Critics can help build more than just artistic reputations. They also play a key role in helping entire activities become culturally defined as artistic practices. Film’s transformation from entertainment to art medium came in part because critics used intellectual discourses to discuss the merits and shortcomings of films. Jazz went from popular music to high art also with the help of critics who saw, extolled, and legitimized the creativity, work, and innovation of the musicians .

Perhaps most importantly, critics are able to influence reputations and art worlds because they are in a unique position to shape public discourse. This is a point made by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, a cultural sociologist and professor at Columbia University, in her analysis of the development of gastronomy in 19th century France . She argues that critical to the advent of French food-as-art are the writings of major chefs and critics of the period. Grimod de la Reynière and Brillat-Savarin, two major food critics of the time, disseminated the relevant ideas and discourses of fine food to the broader public. This made it possible for consumers to use the professional’s standards to critique the work of individual chefs, in the same way that the writings of John Martin helped to champion choreographers like Martha Graham and circulate ideas about modern dance in the 1930s.

Once made public, the discourse of an art form can be used in other social activities and enterprises, changing in fact how we think about and view ourselves and our culture. This is a point Ferguson makes about gastronomy and writing in France. Food played an important role in the realist novels of Honoré de Balzac, both as an activity for the characters and as a “social and psychological indicator.” Charles Fournier drew on gastronomic discourse in his philosophy on the social utility of pleasure. Certain ideas about food, then, became an important part of daily culture because these ideas were accessible to a broad public through the work and efforts of key critics.

As I have argued here, critics are in a position to shape artistic reputations and disseminate the important ideas of a given art world. The power to shape discourse on artistic activities is possibly the most subtle and important power held by critics and it is the very reason that a dialogue between artists and critics is so important. Historically, those critics that we remember and canonize—the Grimod de la Reynières and the John Martins—are the ones who recognized and took seriously this power. A dialogue between artists and critics can help generate a shared sense of what is exciting and engaging in an art world—one that draws on the interests of everyone involved, from artist to audience member. This type of call and response can help generate a discourse that artists, critics, and audiences share, one that can change with and influence the art form.

David Orzehowicz is an actor/dancer and a PhD student in the sociology department at UC-Davis. His current research interests include the production and consumption of cultural goods, emotions in social life, and art as work and occupation.