In For a Penny: A little “Bitter”

“The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.”
– Confucius, The Analects

I read quite a few articles the past two weeks that have left some strong impressions on me. Three in particular.

One was a sort of “retirement letter” by Kenneth Baker, SF Chronicle art critic from 1985-2015. He reminisces about spending that time both witnessing and actively taking part in the changing face of San Francisco’s art scene and cultural make-up. As an SF native, it brought back a lot of strong and sad memories connected with my hometown (the Quake of ’89, the redesigns of the art museums, etc.). He mentions that the influx of residents, particularly over the past decade, has brought with it a lot of people with no interest in or connection to art. What’s worse, they seem to have little knowledge or appreciation of this city’s contributions to art or the fact that it is a work of art. He ends his piece with no regrets, but rather with a great deal of gratitude to have experienced so much within the span of 30 great years.

The second was a LongReads essay by Nathan Rabin. Rabin has long been my favorite pop culture writer (he’s the one who coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” after watching Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown) and a helluva raconteur. But despite having spent the past decade-and-a-half getting paid to write on the internet – a medium with nowhere near as bleak a forecast as the newspaper – he recently found himself let go from his regular job of writing for the website The Dissolve. He goes into painful detail about the indignity of being a man in his mid-30s forced to move with his wife and newborn child into the wife’s parents’ basement. As he elaborates, pop culture does not highly regard people who write on the internet from their parents’ basements. Like Baker, he ends his piece with a lack of assurance about the future, but all the more determined to have no regrets about what his former life has brought him.

And then there was the theatre article (yes, this does have to do with theatre). Now, I’m of mixed feelings about the LA-based theatre website Bitter Lemons. They’ve written pieces I quite enjoy (“I don’t want to ‘Support’ Your Show, I want to ‘Enjoy’ It”) and several I don’t (too many to name). I imagine the way I feel about them is the way most people feel about them. Or HowlRound. Or – as I can personally attest – us here at Theater Pub. But what caught my attention recently was their announcement of the so-call “Bitter Lemons Imperative”, in which any company that wants their show reviewed on their website will have to pay $150.oo for the privilege.

Um… okay? 

Now I know that several folks have written about this already, so I’ll try my best not to just parrot what they’ve already said. Having said that, I do agree with their assessment that this is a bad idea. A really bad idea.

My knowledge of the LA theatre scene isn’t as intimate of my knowledge of the Bay Area scene, so I’m forced to ask: is Bitter Lemons so vital to the stability of the scene that it can make such demands? Seriously, I’m asking? If so, then bravo, BL, for being so valuable in a world that – as shown in the essays above – continues to put less and less value on artistic critique. Hell, earlier this year Theatre Bay Area had to cease production on its print incarnation and become entirely digital. Nearly every art zine and alt-press publication I knew growing up has vanished forever. So on the one hand, as a fellow arts writer, I tip my cap to BL if they’ve found a sustainable way to stay financially afloat in this business. Mind you, if.

On the other hand, whether the idea is profitable or not, it still has the problem of being both pretentious and elitist. Pretentious in the way BL appears to be lording their opinion over the theatre community (I know they say their motivation is just to stay afloat, but still…) and elitist because, let’s face it, what indie theatre company is going to put aside a single dime just for a review? With all the money spent sending out postcards and buying a single poster to put outside the theatre, we’re now expected to pay money out of our own pockets what some ‘Red Velvet’ Goldstar member with poor grammar and a stuck CAPS LOCK button gives us for free? Surely, you jest. Granted, I’m guessing the BL folks would bring considerably more knowledge than a potential Goldstar reviewer – both of the craft of theatre and of the local scene – but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still trying to (as the old term goes) sell ice water to eskimos.

And there’s still the inescapable fact that a company with more money could potential buy positive reviews. Think of it this way: movies are often screened a week or so before their public opening for critics. The critics are by no means required to positively review the film, but the studio is hoping for a blurb to put on posters. If a critic gives enough negative reviews to films from one particular studio, it’s not unheard of for that critic to be uninvited to future screenings by said studio (Roger Ebert spoke of this quite often).

Now what’s to stop this from happening at BL? What’s stop a touring Broadway show from, say, paying above the asking price in the hopes the BL will put a great deal of emphasis on the productions positive qualities? What’s to stop them from paying enough to wear a truly brilliant indie show doesn’t get mentioned at all while the touring show gets prime real estate on the homepage? What’s to stop BL from creating their own David Manning who does nothing but spout off positive notices for one company, but negative ones for their competition?

There’s getting paid for what you love and then there’s flat out prostitution. There’s a reason they say “No Press is Bad Press” and it’s because reviews are adverstising. Positive reviews are even better advertising. But if you’re going to say that you’re holding a standard of artistic critique, when does that standard lower for the sake of advertising revenue? 

I started off this piece by sharing the Baker and Rabin testimonials because I truly get where both they and the BL folks are coming from. When people seems less and less eager to pay for art (let alone art critique), it’s easy for a sense of desperation to set in. Compromises are made. Boundaries are crossed. Things once thought impossible become par for the course. But there has to always be a line. I probably wouldn’t have a problem with the Bitter Lemons Imperative if the price were directed at, say, other art critique outlets and media. If they were charging the New York Times to reprint one of their reviews, I’d think the price was high, but I’d be willing to hi-five them for getting that kinda cash from the biggest newspaper in the US. If they were doing this for American Theatre or one of the publications that’s still in print, I’d feel different.

But they aren’t. They’re asking the artists to put up this money for potentially dubious reasons, and that’s something I find morally objectionable. I don’t know what the long-term solution is staying afloat as an art critic these days. But if this is what it takes, you can count me out.

I dunno… maybe Patreon?

Charles Lewis III will gladly critique your work for free. That’s why he writes on the internet, because his opinion is worth bupkes. To read more of his meaningless words, follow him on Twitter (@SimonPatt) and Tumblr (CharlesandhisTypewriter).

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5 comments on “In For a Penny: A little “Bitter”

  1. Charging for a review at all creates a conflict of interest!

  2. Reblogged this on The Thinking Man's Idiot and commented:
    In which I take a look a controversial new initiative by a theatre media outlet.

    How do critics maintain their objectivity when they’re being paid by the very people whose work they’re critiquing?

  3. Jeffrey says:

    Let’s not forget that BitterLemons led the charge against actors being paid minimum wage (jumping on the
    ‘There’s no money in LA Theatre’ bandwagon), and the countered a few weeks later with this bullshit.

  4. […] to ask: Is Bitter Lemons so vital to the stability of the scene that it can make such demands? Seriously, I’m asking. […]

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