In Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot the two tramps trade insults. Having uttered every foul abuse they can think of, they pause before one of the tramps comes up with the coup de grace. "Critic!" he spits out triumphantly.
There are few worse forms of abuse among playwrights, artists and performers. Usually, the antipathy of artists towards the people who can ruin their week if not their careers is held diplomatically in check. Usually, the opinions of critics are limited to the work of the artist in question, not their looks or intellect. But occasionally one or the other or both stray over the accepted limits. And then it can get personal. One such example is in full swing at the moment.
Philip Hensher, a columnist with The Independent, claimed in one of his columns for this paper that the artist Tracey Emin was "stupid". To be a conceptualist, he argued, one had to have an intellect, which in his view, the enfant terrible of contemporary art did not possess. Hensher had been receiving unsolicited mail and items including incontinence pads, all addressed to a Miss Phyllis Henshaw. He suggested in The Spectator last week that it might have been the wounded Emin herself who was behind the practical joke. Emin was appalled, particularly at the implicit accusation of homophobia, denied it all and is threatening to sue Hensher for defamation of character.
As altercations between artists and critics go, they don't come any more dramatic than this, surely? Well, actually they do and have. For when it comes to critics and artists, we are talking about fragile egos and over-the-top reactions.
While Hensher and Emin may yet land up in the courts, at least the court will not have to consider a charge of murder. In another famous altercation there was a moment when that possibility was indeed raised. Nicholas de Jongh, while a theatre critic on The Guardian, wrote a bad review of Stephen Berkoff in Hamlet. Berkoff, never a man for a small gesture, threatened to kill him. The Guardian took the threat seriously enough to give De Jongh police protection. Berkoff, however, stressed that it had been a joke.
The estimable De Jongh lost none of his boldness when he moved to the London Evening Standard. There he compared Tony Slattery, who appeared naked in a play, to "a beached whale". Slattery got his revenge. At an Olivier Awards ceremony before a packed theatre, he told the audience that the compere was originally not going to be himself but Nicholas de Jongh. However, that had to be cancelled "on the grounds that Nicholas de Jongh is a c***."
What was most interesting about that little outburst was that, following the momentary shock from the audience, they cheered to the rafters, some producers standing up and stamping their feet. Revenge upon a critic is rare but, when it happens, it is always overblown.
It can take different and idiosyncratic forms The novelist Jeanette Winterson favoured the personal touch, turning up on the doorstep of a critic who wrote negatively about her, while the actress Charlotte Cornwell was one of the few performers to take a critic to court. The journalist Nina Myskow had accused her of having a very large bum, perhaps not the most sensible issue to hold up to public scrutiny in a courtroom. William Roache, Ken Barlow of Coronation Street, more concerned to have his personality than his body judged by his peers, successfully sued The Sun for accusing him of being boring.
Taking on a critic is a high-risk strategy for an artist. But it is not a new one. Indeed it is Emin's field of the visual arts that contains one of the most celebrated historical disputes. In 1878 James Whistler took Ruskin to court after the great art critic had accused the painter of producing daubs of no value. Ruskin had visited a contemporary art exhibition at the Grosvenor Galleries in London and saw Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875), a picture of sparks cascading through the night air over the Thames during a firework display. Ruskin refused to recognise it as art.
Ruskin's denunciation of Whistler foreshadowed a thousand rows of our own age: he was basically dismissing modern art as a fraud. He wrote: "I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."
Whistler responded not over a question of aesthetic philosophy or art history, but because he had been labelled a conman. He received applause when the defence asked him if he thought the two days' labour he spent on Nocturne worth the 200 guineas: "No", he replied, "I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime."
The case had a rotten outcome for both men. Whistler won, but the jury awarded him a derisory one farthing damages. Ruskin resigned his professorship at Oxford because he felt his very right to be a critic had been denied by the British legal system.
Victories since have been just as pyrrhic. Be assured that an audience watching an actress who went to law over her bum will always, but always, look at her bum. And what can one say of a man desperate to prove by due process of law that he is not boring?
Will Tracy Emin really want to risk adding to her illustrious career a court case in which the word "stupid" might be ponderously deliberated upon by the jury, even though her dispute with Hensher is not about that criticism he made of her, but about the accusations and counter-accusations since?
The vitriol on both sides illustrates yet again the gulf between critic and artist, and the mistrust that exists between the two. The two professions occupy such a similar space and yet have little common ground. Terry Hands, when he was artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, told me that he felt critics suffered from not belonging anywhere. They were neither a genuine part of the audience nor part of the theatre.
Certainly, insecurity, paranoia even, is a characteristic that binds critics and performers. What makes it more frustrating for them is that they feed off one another. They do, indirectly, help to pay each other's wages. As Tracey Emin said, she was fed up with being "slagged off by people whose mortgage I am paying". Yes, the artist provides the critics with the material to earn their daily bread; and the critic can help to keep a show running... though can also, of course, help to close it.
But the important people are the audiences. The critic is there to help them, not to have a slanging match with the artist. The artist's dialogue should also be with the audience, not with the conduit for their work.
Perhaps the most pragmatic attack on a critic was that used by the Perrier award-winning comic Daniel Kitson at the Edinburgh Festival last week. After a savage review by our critic Steve Jelbert, Kitson simply included Jelbert and the review in his act. He read out the entire review and told his audience to find Jelbert and "give him a cuddle" as he was obviously an unhappy person. Jelbert retorts that he was only unhappy for the hour he had to watch Kitson's show.
That is probably the best way for artists and critics to air their mutual grievances. Keep it funny; keep it constructive; keep it out of court. Critics as well as artists should remember the maxim of the Mafia men in The Godfather: "It's not personal; it's strictly business."Reuse content