Since I’m the new guy in town, I have to arrange interviews in order to get to know people in the arts community. Yesterday, I talked to Emily Wilhoit, the charming and driven woman who is the sole employee of the League of Charleston Theatres, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to make people aware of the abundance of theater in town. We eventually swerved from the normal interviewer-interviewee chatter and talked about the role of criticism and the critic (that’s me) in a community that’s clearly sophisticated and hungry for art, in this case theater.

The role of the critic can sometimes get murky if that critic is emotionally or materially invested in the stuff he or she is reviewing. I’m at an advantage for the time being, because I don’t know anyone, so can’t get wrapped up personally. Things tend to change over time, though, I told Emily. Eventually, I’ll become friendly or intimate with artists. That would only be natural, because I love theater, enjoy the company of theatricals and love the rich conversation that takes place among artists.

[image-1]But I don’t think I’ll have a problem with getting emotionally invested (I draw the line at materially invested; that would an obvious journalistic no-no, an unethical conflict of interest), because for me, what’s even more important than the art is writing.

Again, that’s natural. I’m a writer. Words and ideas trump all. Talking to a reader who is curious, educated, sensitive, and caring is my top priority. I also believe a critique ought to be as entertaining and credible and thoughtful as the subject I’m writing about. At least that’s the ideal. The art comes second.

In recounting this I’m reminded of an interview I did once with Robert Hughes, the critic. It was last April and months before he’d published his memoir Things I Didn’t Know. Hughes, who was once called the most influential art critic in the country, retraces the journey from his native Australia to Europe to the United States. It’s a probing and emotionally dense book, but most of all it’s good writing.

Which was a key point in my interview with him: “Art criticism is valuable to the extent that it is good writing [my emphasis]. Most criticism isn’t good writing, but merely the production of words. There are some art critics today who I enjoy reading. Michael Kimmelman (art critic for the New York Times) is one. Either art criticism is good writing or it’s not.”

For Your Daily Vid, here’s Hughes on the Charlie Rose Show talking about his memoir, Things I Didn’t Know.