To Learn Who Rules Over You, Notice Who You Cannot Criticize

Kate Mattingly wrote an excellent short piece for the Washington City Paper recently questioning the value of a particular DC arts festival. “Is Velocity DC Doing Right by Local Dance?” she asked.


The author/philosopher Voltaire once wrote, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize”, and as an artist surely the two groups one can’t criticize are funders and presenters. Who would want to? But there’s a nifty parallel from Mattingly’s piece to the hootenanny arts writers been having about criticism being generally too friendly.

Clearly not all criticism is too friendly. But last week Jonathan Jones in the Guardian accused art critics of “fawning”, and asserted, “the real reason for critical timidity is that everyone is scared of the young, and art has allied itself with youth.” His sentiment is echoed in the piece David Hadju wrote back in 2009 for the Columbia Journalism Review (Can Arts Critics Survive the Poison Pill of Consumerism?) which quoted LA Times music critic Anne Powers saying, “People are afraid. There’s this fear that you could hurt your career or your image if you go out on a limb and say, ‘I don’t like The Hold Steady or Arcade Fire.’”

The Columbia Journalism Review piece by Hadju goes on to cite Alisa Solomon, director of the Arts and Culture Program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism arguing, “In an environment where there’s disdain for expertise, and where intelligent conversation about a topic is considered elitist and therefore oppressive, critics look not only dispensable, but somehow evil or wrong.”

From the get go, critics are assailed as anti-populist, and are reflexively under pressure to be populist. And the exact same pressure exists for arts programmers. Mattingly interestingly critiqued the Velocity Festival noting, “It was populist to a fault.” I’ve written with concern about populism (You Like Me – You Really Like Me!! for DanceUSA), and while there is nothing wrong with being popular, it does sometimes feel like as a culture we are in danger of holding populism as a good above all others.

Perhaps we are not articulate enough about what other goods exist. As Alisa Solomon stated, “Our attitudes toward the arts have been framed within this notion that they have to have some kind of utilitarian or commercial value, and we’re losing our ability to talk about them in other terms.” In addition to saying that thing about who rules over you I quoted earlier, Voltaire also said, “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do”.  And sometimes, that good is pointing out the bad.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.