Philip Murphy of Mount Pleasant found fault with Tim Page’s review of Monkey: Journey to the West. The overview critic for The Post and Courier wrote that he had little taste for the circus or for theatrical fare like that offered by Chinese opera director Chen Shi-Zheng, Britpop songwriter Damon Albarn, and Gorillaz illustrator Jamie Hewlett. If that were the case, Murphy said in a letter to the editor published on June 2, then why did Page write a review of something he already didn’t like?
“Page should have disqualified himself,” Murphy wrote.
I think he’s right, but I must respectfully offer a slight amendment to his kind recommendation that P&C readers take a look at “the review by John Stoehr in the City Paper for a less biased perspective.” I’m flattered by Murphy’s approbation — we strive hard toward journalistic and critical excellence — but I never wrote a review. The piece Murphy cites — called “Motley Monkey” — was in fact a preview, a feature article whose nature was journalistic, not evaluative.
Even so, what Murphy’s comment reflects is something larger, the two very different kinds of media coverage of Spoleto Festival USA. City Paper puts the arts at the center of its mission as an independent newsweekly. The P&C, on the other hand, is the paper of record. It has obligations different from ours. Besides, arts coverage gets diluted among stories about gardening, health, sports, etc. And like a lot of American newspapers its size, The Post and Courier gives voice to an anti-intellectual attitude. The arts are fun, sure, but not all that important.
Murphy’s letter also reflects a level disappointment in Page’s reviews and it puts the spotlight on the P&C‘s missed opportunity to enrich and enliven Charleston’s aesthetic and critical conversation. As it is, readers are merely annoyed. The placement of Page’s negative review of Amistad — above the mast, as if shouting with disdain, a decision made no doubt by his editors, not Page himself — still has people talking. That might seem great, to have people talking about the arts, but they’re not talking about opera; they’re talking the media’s coverage of it, a misplaced argument fueled by misspent energy. And it overshadows whatever good work Page has done (the review for Amistad, for instance, was reasoned, balanced, insightful, and probative, all the things we’d expected from Page).
Were expectations too high? Well, Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic. He was the classical music critic for the Washington Post for years. He has written numerous books about classical music. Published widely and often, Page is an authority and a nationally recognized figure in cultural journalism.
So when we read articles about how Charleston and Spoleto are a good match, when we read his column about the opportunity for cheap entertainment at Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto, and when he wrote about how he spent only 40 minutes at the American debut of Monkey, we were let down. A good match? Yes, we know very well. Cheap entertainment? Thanks for the news flash. And why couldn’t he give Monkey due diligence? Given Page’s pedigree, we were expecting more.
Since Spoleto began, I have written posts critical of the P&C‘s cultural journalism. I’m not merely taking pot shots. And I don’t point out the paper’s missed opportunity with an elite cultural critic just for fun. I do this, because I believe that the quality of the conversation among Charleston critics should be as high a level as we can achieve. Critics, including myself, should be held accountable for what they say and how they say it as much as the artists they critique are held accountable for what they produce.
I was hoping Page might set an example for us. Maybe next year.