Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 18, No. 1, 2019
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
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David Solway
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Nick Catalano
Lynda Renée
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Jordan Adler
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then and now



Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:

Critical reviewing began with the ancient Greeks and soon became one of the most controversial of all voluble writings. Most of their ancient pronouncements were intended to instruct and not to sermonize; they have remained pivotal in helping people to understand and enjoy the creative process. Aristotle’s Poetics and Polyclitus’s Canon brilliantly succeeded in helping learners to absorb the genius of drama and sculpture respectively. Their work still towers over other early efforts. Incisive Roman critics followed – Longinus, Horace, Seneca, Ovid, Virgil, and others – continuing the idealism of instructive, educative reviewing.

Reviewing and much art for that matter went into hiding during the Dark Ages. As the Renaissance came into being, helpful reviewing arrived on the scene mostly in England and France. Montaigne’s essays led a host of English critics -- Philip Sydney, Thomas Rhymer, Ben Jonson and others -- whose writing came about because of the cascade of drama and poetry during Shakespeare’s time.

Regrettably, this is the time that hubris and pedantry creep into reviewing. In English circles, erosion of divine right monarchy and the advent of parliamentary republicanism at the end of the seventeenth century encouraged freer opinionated writing. Magazines came into being (Blackwood’s, The Critical Review, The Spectator) and with them new aesthetic power in the hands of reviewers. Predictably, newly hatched critical egos ruled over much commentary and objective analysis suffered.It can actually be amusing to see how reviewers (some very distinguished names) could be snobby and ridiculously shortsighted. Here are some classics:

On Hamlet “It is a vulgar and barbarous drama . . . one would imagine this piece to be the work of a drunken savage” Voltaire 1768

On Othello “Pure melodrama. There is not a touch of characterization that goes below the skin.” George Bernard Shaw 1897

On Romeo and Juliet “It is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life” Samuel Pepys 1662

On Gulliver’s Travels “ . . . evidence of a diseased mind and lacerated heart.” John Dunlop 1814

On Huckleberry Finn “Mr. Clemens has no reliable sense of propriety.” Springfield Republican 1884

On Wuthering Heights “ . . . the only consolation that we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.” North British Review 1847

Many reviews did real damage. With cruel hubris, the Edinburgh Review condemned Lord Byron’s brilliant satire, and the Quarterly Review destroyed John Keats’s revolutionary poems. The Odessa Courier greeted Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as “sentimental rubbish . . . show me one page that contains an idea,” and the San Francisco Chronicle observed that Rudyard Kipling “just doesn’t know how to use the English language.”

After decades of sophistic critics whose considerable magazine readership gave them a sense of importance that evaporated their objectivity, the Age of Romanticism gave new impetus to the craft of reviewing. Samuel Taylor Coleridge led the way elevating Shakespeare’s plays to a new level of greatness. Earlier neo- classicists insisted that the Bard could never attain the heights of Ben Jonson and other Elizabethans because he violated the classical rules of unity (time/place/setting). Coleridge showed how Shakespeare’s expansion of theme gave his plays a universality far beyond the narrow rules his peers followed. Thomas De Quincey, in his pivotal essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” punctuated Coleridge’s insight showing how a drunken comedy scene after a bloody murder illustrated how diverse and mysterious reality could be. Indeed, violence does occur in one place where people are partying next door.

The romantic reviewers (Hazlitt and Lamb stand along Coleridge and De Quincey) insisted on three simple questions to be asked of an artist and to educate lay observers: What is the artist trying to do? How well does he do it? What is the significance of his creation? With this approach art criticism returned to focus on the artist and away from wanna-be critics. (“Those who cannot do, teach.”). After the giant leap of the Romantic critics, the craft assumed a predictable human evolution: great reviewing continued but alongside the truly gifted critical writers stood the pedants who much preferred insisting that their critical reactions were far more important than the work they were writing about.

Given the maze of reviewing that abounds in our present-day media blitzes, how is the modern audience supposed to know who the best reviewers are? That is a tough question never easily answerable.

An example of the difficulty is discoverable in The New York Times Book Review – very important because of its long-standing reputation of uncovering talent, indicating creative shortcomings, and doing an excellent job of educating readers. Yet even here there are no guarantees.

Recently Geraldine Brooks wrote negatively about Pat Barker’s novel The Silence of the Girls which explores the subject matter of Homer’s Iliad and uses the voice of Achilles’ famous female captive Briseis to show the myriad horrors undergone by women as the Greeks and Trojans fought their pointless war. In addition to the raping, total physical and psychological dominance, and human ignominy the women undergo, Barker realistically describes the foul-smelling, disease-ridden, garbage that was strewn daily on the plains of Troy. The author’s painstaking description of all of this in addition to the sculpting of female characters whose lives are inarguably horrific in any war is provocative. And, as you read Barker’s prose a huge irony looms; despite his unchallengeable greatness, Homer never attempted to focus on the sordidness of war: his theme is the epic panorama of war, the achievement of larger-than-life warriors, and the omniscience of the Olympian Gods. His epic is titanic but he doesn’t tell the whole story. It is left to a contemporary novelist to fill in gaps that aren’t always fun but certainly part of the cosmos of war.

Brooks’s review ignores the irony, and disavows the characterizations. The voices employed by Barker in a useful point of view shift are “flat” and “banal.” Breiseis’ description of her ambling on her home streets of Lyrnessus contains “jarring inauthenticity . . . characteristic of the novel as a whole.” This is pedantic language. Barker’s description of Achilles’ revenge is labeled “blokey.” The cries of the epically violated women are “dissonant and unpersuasive.”

Barker won the 1995 Booker prize for her mastery in describing World War I. If you read The Silence of the Girls you’ll understand why she won. In a later issue of The New York Times Book Review comes a truly brilliant review, written in the old tradition of educating the audience. John Adams, a noted composer whose Pulitzer prize-winning career includes the critically acclaimed operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer has turned reviewer himself and, not surprisingly, contributed adeptly to our appreciation of Claude Debussy. Although long admired as the master of Impressionism, the mystical Frenchman’s revolutionary musical transformations have never been properly explained. Adams’ review of Stephen Walsh’s new bio Debussy: A Painter in Sound astounds because it manages to illuminate the specifics of Debussy’s genius without using prolix musical terms that would go over the heads of even ardent music lovers. His review hearkens back to the days when reviewers were teachers and not pedants.

It becomes clear in the reviewing world of subjective opinionating that there is no template readers can utilize. Because art transcends factuality and relies on imaginative and emotional instrumentation to convey meanings and themes, scientific evaluation is not achievable. But, of course, that conundrum is welcome because, as the great reviewers of yore have taught us, art is the greatest expression of the human spirit. And, in the context of spirit, readers must always be wary of pedantry, snobbishness and hubris in a reviewer. Educational aim and empathy are primary qualifications for any reviewer worth reading.


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You've offered a historical, poignant, gracious and solicitous explanation for those self-important and/or self-anointed critics who are incapable of discerning the value of any art form that's unfamiliar, beyond their realm of comprehension, or might frighten those reliant on their "opinions." Good salve for the countless artists who've been shunned by audiences because of one, or a few bad reviews. On their behalf: THANK YOU!

By Nick Catalano:
The Vagaries of Democracy
Racism Debunked
The Truth Writer
#Me Too Cognizance in Ancient Greece
Above the Drowning Sea
A New York Singing Salon
Rockers Retreading
Polish Jewry-Importance of Historical Museums
Sexual Relativity and Gender Revolution
Inquiry into Constitutional Originalism
Aristotle: Film Critic
The Maw of Deregulated Capitalism
Demagogues: The Rhetoric of Barbarism
The Guns of August
Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue
Manon Lescaut @The Met
An American in Paris
What We Don't Know about Eastern Culture
Black Earth (book review)
Cuban Jazz
HD Opera - Game Changer
Film Treatment of Stolen Art
Stains and Blemishes in Democracy
Intersteller (film review)
Shakespeare, Shelley & Woody Allen
Mystery and Human Sacrifice at the Parthenon
Carol Fredette (Jazz)
Amsterdam (book review)
Vermeer Nation
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


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