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A Debate on Snark

OK, I’m rolling up my sleeves. Robert Johnson and I were polite with each other in a “Meet the Press” panel at the sold-out symposium sponsored by Dance/NYC on Feb. 26. Since then, Robert has put his “Defense of Snarky Reviews” in writing.

So now I’m gonna say my side of it.

I have no problem with a critic getting sarcastic once in a while. But I think the snarky negativity has gotten out of hand. Sometimes it’s an automatic response, and sometimes it’s got just a bit more venom than is necessary—under the guise of “just being honest.” When I talk to dance people, the conversation often turns to this troubling topic. People are upset by the uptick in snark in NYC’s main daily paper. Jamie Bennett of the National Endowment for the Arts, who moderated our panel, picked up on this and plunged right in. He asked each of us (me, Robert Johnson, Brian Seibert, and Gus Solomons jr) where we stand on “snark.” (Do I need to define it? I think it's somewhere in the neighborhood of snide, condescending, dismissive.)

Jennifer Edwards (introducing the panel), Jamie Bennett, Robert Johnson, me, Brian Seibert, and Gus Solomons jr. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Dance/NYC.

Robert’s point is that if a performance is bad, the critic should say it's bad. Our fellow panelist, Brian, who writes for The New York Times, said that sarcasm is useful when you are trying to write a coherent review of an ephemeral art in a short space.

I can basically agree with both those points. (Though, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, critics have gotten snarky about excellent performances as well as bad ones.) And I appreciate how eloquent both Robert and Brian were about the challenge of putting dance into words.

What I object to is excessive snark, either in frequency or intensity. I don’t think either Robert or Brian is guilty of this. But I think some critics don’t realize when they’ve slipped into a default setting of snark. It’s easy to throw the darts once you get into the habit, and I don’t deny that snarky reviews are fun to read. So I get it that readers and editors want a certain snap.

Robert wants his reviews to protect the ticket-buying audience. But I’ve seen audience members who enjoy a night out at the ballet and then are appalled two days later when they read a totally dismissive review. I’ve heard one person say, “Are the critics trying to destroy the dance world?”

I do think that the snark habit is destructive—not only to dancers’ psyches but also to ticket sales, bookings, and reputations. I think critics should feel free to write in their individual voice, but also have a sense of the responsibility that comes with their power.

And The New York Times has more power than most papers in most big cities. Wayne McGregor told me recently that when he does a premiere in London, there might be 15 different reviews. As Gus pointed out, NYC used to be a multi-newspaper town too. But it’s more centralized now, which is unfortunate. And that’s where the blogosphere comes in; it can add more voices.

In NJ.com, Robert writes, “In my opinion, snark is an especially appropriate gift for the high-and-mighty. It’s the pin-prick that makes over-inflated reputations shrivel and sputter.”

I wish snark were used that judiciously. But let’s face it, there aren’t many high-and-mighty people in concert dance, and the critics who get nasty are pretty indiscriminate. If a critic punctures the reputation of a TV personality or a movie star, it can be entertaining, but it doesn’t ruin a career.

Deborah Jowitt wrote in her collection The Dance in Mind: “Long ago I decided that it was pointless to use heavy artillery on small targets.” I like how she keeps the bigger picture in mind.

I’ve been both an artist and a critic, and I see misunderstandings on both sides. Dancers don’t understand that the critics’ first commitment is to their readers, not “the dance community.” (See the Dance Magazine feature “Why Do They Say What They Say.”

And critics don’t understand that for dancers, it goes beyond being hurt by an individual insult. When the arrows get slung with venom—or condescension—it’s disrespectful to the art of dance, and that’s what hurts.

I am not asking for critics of big publications to forgo their honesty. But I want them to have some sense of balance, so that one annoying thing about a work doesn’t eclipse whatever is strong about it. (I’ve written about this kind of reaction in a previous blog.) And I want them to have an awareness of how precarious our art is economically.

Gus has breached the dancer/writer divide nicely. At the panel, he said he tries to write reviews that are both engaging to the readers and instructive to the creators, while respecting the integrity of their efforts—however effective or not they turn out to be. I don’t think a critic has to also be a dancer in order to have that basic respect.

Now, here are some of the remarks I’ve gotten about snark through twitter:

•  “I think there are plenty of ways to criticize without 'snarkiness' being part of the equation."

•  “Definitely value in snark. The worry comes I think when reviewer appears to be glorying in his own cleverness.”

• “What I want from reviews is to learn something about the artist. Snark only tells me about the reviewer.”

I used to have a fantasy of a Devastated Dancers’ Hotline, similar to a suicide hotline. Whenever a nasty written comment cuts you to the bone, you could call in and talk to a nice, balanced person. That person would assure you that the seemingly indelible remark is only one writer’s point of view. But the Hotline attendant would also ask you to examine yourself and your work and see if there is any truth to the critic's perception.

But to bring it back to reality, I think we need more dialogues like the panel at Dance/NYC to forge a greater understanding. My thanks to  Dance/NYC and Gina Gibney Studios.

If you have a comment, find me on facebook, or on twitter at wperrondancemag.

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