THE YEAR IN ARTS 2017
Jessica Miglio / Amazon Studios
In October, the story broke: Film producer Harvey Weinstein had been accused of sexual harassment and abuse by multiple women. In many ways, it has become the story of the year. It opened the floodgates. Similar allegations have since been made about prominent people in multiple other industries: academics, actors, celebrity chefs, comedians, playwrights, politicians, reporters, TV hosts. The list goes on.
For critics, it raises questions. How do we write about the work these figures create? To what degree do we acknowledge the actions of the creator, and what bearing should that have on how we consume, experience, dissect, and analyze art? The questions cut across all disciplines. And so the Globe’s staff critics recently got together to hash them out.
Devra First, restaurant critic/food reporter: Hello, friends. When I was reporting a recent story on sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, one of my sources asked me, “Are you ever going to be able to eat in this town again?”
She had a point: I knew too much. The accounts I heard, almost all of them off the record, were painful, horrifying, and sweeping. They touched many restaurants I have written about, chefs and other industry professionals I am likely to write about again. What would happen when someone I’d heard repeated stories about — stories I wasn’t able to get on the record or substantiated — opened a splashy, important restaurant that demanded a review? Would I pretend I hadn’t heard what I heard? Would it, should it, have any bearing on a critical take?
I saw a tweet recently (from an account I can’t credit because the name has a cuss word in it) that was addressed specifically to restaurant critics: “Stop reviewing restaurants owned by people who are well-known monsters. You are complicit.”
Is this true? Would I be? But what of the consumers who are potentially going to spend their money at this place? Don’t I owe them an assessment? Or do I owe them the truth about the people that money is going to — truth I may or may not be able to prove in a journalistically responsible fashion? If I tried to report out every allegation I’ve heard, it would be a full-time job.
So: Let’s figure this out. How are you handling this in your work? Is the artist separable from the art? Will I ever be able to eat in this town again?
Ty Burr, film critic/columnist: Unlike at a restaurant, the “meal” at a movie theater is prepared months earlier and miles away. But of course my duty as a critic isn’t to its creators, but to readers — to provide them with useful information, helpful analysis, and (hopefully) readable opinion that will affect whether they choose to see a given movie or not. To that end, I’ve always felt that if a movie’s out there in the marketplace, the Globe’s movie critics need to come to terms with it, regardless of who worked on it and what they may have done. That’s possible to do while still keeping a reader’s own feelings in mind; for years I’ve reviewed Roman Polanski’s films as fairly as I can, as films, while acknowledging that many may refuse to see his work or even read about it, and that’s fine.
But I have to admit that the landscape has changed in recent months and my own positions and emotions have shifted within it. Is reviewing a movie a form of enablement? Does giving a predator coverage give him cover? At this point, I’d be happy never to see another Polanski movie. For a variety of reasons, I’m just about done with Woody Allen. I’m glad that Ridley Scott chose to reshoot “All the Money in the World” with Christopher Plummer because I don’t think I can look at Kevin Spacey right now.
But the work has to be dealt with, for posterity and for those who want to contend with it in the moment. I just hope that we can untangle the threads and keep everything in perspective — the artwork itself in focus, the misdeeds present but given proper weight (whatever that may be). Right now, it feels like a real challenge.
Matthew Gilbert, TV critic: TV shows, like restaurants, are ongoing businesses, if they’re lucky. So refusing coverage of a series can have a profound impact on the lives of those who’ve found themselves working for a harasser or an abuser. There are many who’ve been working on the set of “House of Cards” for half a decade now, and if Netflix had canceled the drama instead of rebooting it without Kevin Spacey, their livelihoods would have been altered.
But, as Ty said, a critic’s obligation is not to them. It’s to readers, and I always try to speak directly to Globe readers — and not to the show producers, or to other TV critics. I have always worked hard to keep my relationship with readers direct and worthy of trust. Part of that involves ignoring everything outside the show itself when I review that show — keeping all the promotional noise and spin out of my mind. I try to focus solely on what I see on the screen. In recent years, TV writers of hit shows talk to the press endlessly about their intentions in creating certain plot twists. I try to ignore those interviews when I write. To me, what the makers of “Game of Thrones” or even author George R.R. Martin intend doesn’t matter; they’re merely voicing their opinions.
But right now, it is impossible to have some kind of cut-and-dried standard about keeping the art separate from the artists. I don’t think I could review the intensely intimate and personal “Louie,” if episodes were still airing on FX, without getting into the artist’s life. Likewise, I’ve been mentioning Louis C.K. in every piece I write about one of the year’s finest series, “Better Things,” which he co-created and co-wrote with Pamela Adlon. Could I possibly write about “The Cosby Show” without mentioning the star’s alleged abuses? No.
But I will continue to review those shows, if they are on the air; that’s my job. With the #MeToo era, perhaps we’ll see fewer shows from harassers and creeps. Fingers crossed.
Don Aucoin, theater critic: The question of how much character should weigh on the scales when it comes to those we cover is one that political reporters and sportswriters have been wrestling with for quite a while.
But not many of us look to politicians or athletes for guidance on how to live a meaningful life. It’s different with the playwrights, novelists, poets, artists, and filmmakers we admire. Whatever cynical poses we may strike, at least a part of us still tends to endow them with a certain moral authority. We look to them for answers to the big questions, or at least for illuminating angles on the big questions. That’s their job.
So when we learn that that so-and-so is accused of sexual predation, it cannot help but complicate our appraisals of their work. Neither the making of art nor the evaluation of it is a purely cold, clinical exercise, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is. There’s an emotional involvement on both ends of the equation. That’s why it was disconcerting to learn that, say, T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite, that Dickens was a swine to his wife, that Hemingway mistreated pretty much everyone in his life, and on and on through the lengthy roster of misdeeds by greats who were not always good.
Today, rather than having to wait for biographies to reveal unsettling details, we learn about them in real time. That means our readers are making their own recalibrations on those figurative scales. So it makes sense to be forthright about the impact the revelations have had on our thinking. To engage with this issue is to engage with the reader. Which is our job.
As the revelations have poured out, I’ve thought back to a blistering 1974 column about Frank Sinatra by the legendary Globe columnist George Frazier. It was written in high disgust after Sinatra had verbally attacked Barbara Walters, but was clearly prompted by decades of bad behavior. In his own inimitable, take-no-prisoners fashion, Frazier put his finger on the kind of contradictions we’re talking about today, between artistic excellence on the one hand and deep character flaws on the other. He wrote: “You’re a sad case, Frankie. I think you’re the best male vocalist who ever lived, but I also think you’re a miserable failure as a human being.’’ Delivering that sort of cold-eyed verdict, which reckons with the personal flaws of the artist when evaluating the art, might now come with the territory for a critic.
Jeremy Eichler, classical music critic: In classical music — for better and for worse — the past never really goes away. The performances I write about are often exercises in re-creation — that is, living musicians realizing a score that was composed at least a century ago. Because of this, if you’re inclined to look for it, historical baggage often piles up in the wings. Whether you’re dealing with an opera by Richard Wagner or a recording made by a musically revered member of the Nazi party, we are routinely asked to reckon with artistic works that are tainted by politics and personalities ranging from merely unsavory to morally ambiguous to flat-out toxic.
As a critic, if a work traffics in this troubling terrain, I feel obliged wherever possible to foreground this point rather than listen past it. And similarly, as long as we reasonably expect our interpreters to give of themselves in their music-making, there can be no firewall between an artist’s behavior on and off the concert stage.
We are now clearly living through a moment of cultural recalibration, a time when increasing numbers of people are suddenly unwilling to continue tolerating these widespread, antediluvian modes of perpetuating male power. This reckoning has officially arrived at the field of classical music, but I am certain the classical world is only at the very earliest stages of dealing with these issues — problems that run far deeper than the alleged behavior of a single star conductor. As critics, I believe we need to bury old clichés about artistic genius that should have been jettisoned a long time ago. We need to think, write, and listen more critically than ever to the whole performance and to the wider cultures that make it possible. Music, as with so many of the arts we’re discussing here, has a way of reflecting back the messy, fallen world from which we’d sometimes like its help escaping. And I think we only do a service for ourselves — and the art form’s future — when we’re honest about both aspects of that fact.
Ty Burr: Great points, all, and I’m especially struck by how we, as critics (and some of us, as men) are adjusting, by force or by conscience, to societal evolution and our own. This has applied to racism, certainly — when I was in college in the 1970s, D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” was still considered by mainstream (white) movie culture to be a masterpiece with a pesky racial problem, whereas today it’s acknowledged as a virulent screed first, with a highly problematic place in film and American history. But now it’s incumbent upon us to question and clarify our own unexamined positions on misogyny, onscreen, offscreen, and where the two tangle together.
My official opinion on Allen’s alleged misdeeds has always been “I don’t feel I have enough information to say ‘I Know.’ ” For a variety of reasons, I now believe Dylan Farrow. (Don’t @ me.) Does that change how I approach Allen’s films? When, as in the current “Wonder Wheel,” he runs with a story line about a man cheating on his lover with her stepdaughter — and vilifies the stepmother — it’s impossible to not draw a connection to known events in the creator’s life. It would be irresponsible criticism not to make the connection. In the larger sense, though, we need to recontextualize how we see women functioning in Allen’s cinematic universe: What young women signify versus older mothers, wives, lovers, and exes. There have been critics, female and male, who have been commenting on this aspect since “Manhattan” and Mariel Hemingway, of course, and it’s an issue that for me has always hovered out-of-focus in the background. That I’m late in thinking harder about it is my problem, one about which I’m having a much louder private conversation with myself.
There’s a separate issue that concerns us less as critics responding to the art and more as critics confronting a culture in which misogyny and assaultive sexual actions and representations are popular and even rewarded on a mass scale. That R&B singer R. Kelly continues to have a career in the face of the grotesque allegations against him involving underage women is a national embarrassment. As much as I can admire the films of Polanski, the fact that people continue to fund their making paradoxically appalls me. One of the many reasons men grope, harass, assault, and rape is that they see men “taking what they want” portrayed as positive, strong, and sexy in the culture, whereas women are often portrayed as objects to be acquired. Great art is full of misbehavior — look at any opera, right, Jeremy? — and “moral art” is often dead on its feet. But do we have a duty to our readers to point out misogynistic conventions and assumptions, even (or especially) those buried in commercial offerings? More than ever, I believe we do.
Devra First: It is fascinating to see how these issues play out differently — and yet so similarly — across our various fields. To me, the role of restaurant critic is that of consumer advocate: I am a stand-in for the readers, viewing the experience through their eyes. I balance that with respect for those who run the precarious, challenging businesses that are restaurants, and do my best to write about them responsibly and with fairness.
Celebrity chef Mario Batali was recently accused of sexual harassment and stepped away from his businesses. For anyone privy to industry talk, the accusations were not a total surprise. To the rest of the world, they were shocking. When I reviewed Terra — a restaurant in Eataly, a business in which Batali is involved — Batali’s presence featured prominently. That was July. Were I reviewing it now, I would surely mention the allegations against Batali at the top of the review. I would write about the interplay between personal behavior and business and consider it a valuable critical line of thinking.
But it’s the stories that haven’t broken — the open secrets we are starting to work to expose — that I wrestle with. With restaurant criticism, the consumption is literal, the production local: This food is made by the hands of people who live in our community. Sexual harassment and abuse is endemic to the restaurant industry. Those of us who don’t work in it directly are only now realizing how much that is the case. More big stories about restaurant groups and individual chefs are likely to break in the coming weeks and months. I continue to hear from women in the business who contact me to share their experiences. Their stories are stomach-turning. Literally.
At this point, what I can say definitively is far from definitive: I will continue to think hard on how to write about restaurants run by the people who are this community’s open secrets. I hope to do it the way I’ve always done the job: as a consumer advocate, with fairness and respect. I believe the thought process will make me a better critic. And I am curious to see how my fellow restaurant critics handle the issue nationally. This moment will change restaurant criticism in America.
We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion as part of the path forward in changing the culture of restaurants, starting with more women and people of color in upper management and ownership positions. Diversity and inclusion are just as important in criticism. In this conversation, we are all white; I’m the only woman. See Ty’s thoughts on “Birth of a Nation”: We need to look at culture — in food, movies, television, theater, music, art of all kinds — through more lenses to truly explore what it means to us. To all of us.
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