Note: Upon re-reading this, I’m irritated by how rant-y it is, and have added what I hope is a fairly succinct post-script at the end.
For the past two days, the theater Internet has been blowing up in response to a pair of reviews—published in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times respectively—harshly criticizing Steppenwolf’s production of Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval’s This Is Modern Art (based on a true story). A number of issues are in play at once: the role of the critic in responding to art, the obligation of art to uphold the moral good when oriented to children, racial privilege and bias, and, somewhere in there, the merits of street art.
Unfortunately all of this has proven quite difficult to unpack, mainly because Hedy Weiss’s review in the Sun-Times is not only blatantly racist but easily one of the dumbest reviews anyone’s read in a major newspaper in recent memory. This is unfortunate in that it distracts from the more pertinent issues at play across both. The Tribune’s Chris Jones is not overtly racist in his review, giving it the gloss of relative acceptability despite its dubious (at best) moral argument against the play, so it becomes hard if not actually unfair to treat him as on the same side of a debate as the wholly objectionable Weiss.
What the whole thing adds up to, though, is the single greatest indictment of the sorry state of American theater criticism I can imagine. This may not be the most important point (the racial dynamics at play are just plain ugly and ignorant) but the fact these reviews exist demonstrates the complete lack of fucks everyone involved in their publication–from author to editor to publisher–don’t have to give for theater criticism.
The idea that Weiss’s review would make it through an editorial process these days is baffling. The fact that she uses such a loaded phrase as “angry African-American” is really demonstrative of the piece’s collective failings. This phrase has become so synonymous with the white dismissal of African-American perspectives (“They’re just angry“) that it is simply unacceptable that a writer would employ the phrase without even trying to qualify it in some meaningful fashion. (Which Weiss does not; her review leaves readers to piece together for themselves why this character would be angry, a position that Weiss herself simply cannot herself conceive of, apparently.) To use it as Weiss does suggests she’s simply unaware of what is widely regarded as a racist and condescending characterization, one that she in fact employs as a mere character type as she runs through the dramatis personae. And the offensiveness of the phrase, I would add, should come as no surprise to even those occasionally interested in cultural criticism, let alone a cultural critic with any sense of professionalism. It was precisely this phrase that led to a substantial controversy over a New York Times article covering Shonda Rimes just six months ago.
I realize that the use of a loaded and controversial phrase may not seem like the most objectionable thing about Weiss’s article (which characterizes street artists as “terrorists” among other nuggets of wisdom extolled), but it captures her sheer lack of credibility in a nutshell.
This Is Modern Art, which I’ve neither seen nor read, may well not be a very good play. In fact, based on reviews, it does sound a bit like a didactic “issue” play. The “issue” in question, however, is actually a very important one that shouldn’t be ignored: namely, how value is applied to artistic expression, and how institutional embrace often operates on lines of class and race. Specifically, the story centers on a group of young street artists who concoct a plan to protest the lack of inclusion in the Art Institute of Chicago’s contemporary art wing by tagging its exterior.
This is not a random story, as any writer employed to discuss it could easily determine. (And I don’t actually mean the story the play is based on.) In fact, a controversy over street art murals on the exterior of a contemporary museum was actually a major news story just four years ago. In an infamous move, Jeffrey Deitch—then the director of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art—ordered the whitewashing of an anti-war mural on the museum’s exterior before it was unveiled. This episode was one of several controversies that ultimately led to a dramatic confrontation between the MOCA’s artist board members and Deitch, and ultimately his resignation as MOCA’s director.
This was easily one of the most controversial stories in the visual art world in the US in the past several years, and just one of the issues This Is Modern Art seems to be exploring. Indeed, if this play does not intersect with these sorts of issues (as well as long-simmering controversies over what it meant that Basquiat’s first gallerist would give him sleeping space in the gallery basement in exchanged for painting saleable pieces, or whether a private dealer can sell a piece of wall illegally removed from an NYC building with a Banksy mural on it, or indeed what it means for white art school kids like Shepherd Fairey to co-opt the artistic practices that emerged as self-expression for a racially and economically segregated minority in the hell of the Bronx in the 70s)… If This Is Modern Art fails to intersect with these sorts of issues, then a self-respecting critic would surely take it to task for not treating the issues it brings up.
Unfortunately, neither the Tribune’s nor the Sun-Times’s critics evince the slightest evidence that either knows anything about these issues.
Instead, Jones pays lip service to such controversy in the abstract (“Is graffiti a legitimate artistic expression accessible to the otherwise excluded, or criminal vandalism that is the scourge of a great city?”), before delivering a moralistic condemnation (“Graffiti comes at a price. It can be invasive, self-important and disrespectful of the property of others — and plenty of struggling folks have had to clean graffiti off something they own or love.”) Whereas Weiss suffices to make a reference to “people like Norman Mailer” who supported street art in NYC’s bad old days, which she experienced so she knows. This is such a baffling reference that I had to Google it, where indeed one can find scans of a 1974 article in Esquire by Mailer on the “youth trend” of graffiti. In other words, Weiss can cite nothing on the topic of street art–the entire thicket of issues I cited above–that’s been written in the past forty years.
Both critics have written articles which reject anything approaching a traditional review, and instead default to producing moralizing op-eds. Each—in albeit dramatically different fashions—take issue with the play on the grounds that it does not condemn the notion of street art as a valid means of expression. This is concerning to both critics because this play is oriented toward adolescents, and both consciously frame their response as outrage over the theater’s shortcomings vis-a-vis its “moral obligation” (to quote Jones) to oppose “vandalism” (to quote Weiss).
While I’m tempted to make a joke about the pair of critics shrieking “Won’t someone think of the children!“, that’s too easy and let’s them off the hook.
On Facebook, I watched a collection of New York critics, bloggers, and artists debate the issue today. A critic here (I won’t name or quote since it’s on the semi-private Facebook platform) asked whether there wasn’t maybe something to making these sorts of moralistic arguments by critics with regard to theater targeted towards adolescents or children. While this is a point that can be argued ad infinitum, what it unfortunately ignores is a more practical reality: Neither Weiss nor Jones actually managed to write a moralistic response that would pass muster as an op-ed. Instead, each trotted out tired, outdated, and uninformed arguments that were completely divorced from contemporary discourse around street art. As moral hand-wringers, both Jones and Weiss are piss-poor standard bearers. Insofar as both retreat from theater criticism into moralistic editorializing, both fail the test their own newspaper would apply to a potential op-ed contributor: that such writer be conversant in the topic at hand. For critics attempting to take a moral stance, neither has the remotest claim to moral suasion. Either you agree with them (“Graffiti is bad and scary!”) or you don’t (“This is a complicated issue which you do not seem to remotely understand”).
So yes, we should talk about Weiss’s racism, the pairs’ unacknowledged racial privileging, and so on. These are, in the end, the truly important issues involved. The ones that the artists who created This Is Modern Art were trying to discuss. I do not want to minimize these issues, and indeed my own final complaint is selfish and minimal in comparison to the more eloquent responses the play’s writers have offered.
But as a theater critic reading other theater critics’ work, I’m doing a face-plant into my palm re-reading this tripe. In what other line of cultural criticism—or, hell, journalism, even opinion journalism—is one permitted to parade one’s own utter lack of knowledge in an article?
Post-Script: Despite my best efforts, what I wound up posting above is rant-y and lacks the sort of punch I wish I could offer. But honestly, I find the reviews in question outrageous, and if I didn’t have my own criticism and journalism to write, I’d put some more effort into this. In any event, I find it ridiculous that a pair of theater critics have both elected (one in an unacceptably racist fashion) to use their positions to attack a play which concerns substantial issues about racial and ethnic inclusion in the contemporary art space, not on the grounds of whether the play addresses these issues well, but rather on moralistic grounds in which both base their opposition on the fact that they consider “graffiti” objectionable. Both writers invoke the specter of the “bad old days” of graffiti-covered subway cars as justification in their reviews. Yet ironically, neither critic disputes that the characters’ actions within the play are motivated by a desire to protest issues of inclusion within the target art institution. In other words, both are so eager to condemn street art as a whole that neither actually credit the specific action they refer to within the play as being a form of civil disobedience. By ignoring the moral and ethical discussion of the play itself (of which readers like me are only aware because, in this most basic descriptive function, they didn’t fail) both critics reveal the degree to which their objection is to something entirely other to the play. If either had bothered to try to demonstrate that graffiti can only be read one way and that was inconceivable as an illegal political gesture, that would have been at least an argument. The refusal to posit this suggest both critics privilege their own biases above their willingness to engage critically with material, up to and including a refusal to occasion re-examining their own biases through consulting sources when their jobs require them to engage with ideas they’re uncomfortable with. Neither critic knows what they’re writing about, and moreover, neither one cares. And therefore, both are not good critics, whose writings lack either moral suasion or critical validity.