Around the City Paper office, we're fond of saying that if we're not generating letters to the editor then we're doing something wrong. But when they do come in, and they're calling you nasty names, it's always tempting question that policy.
Evidently there's been some grumbling among visual arts types around town in the last few weeks, particularly at the Simons Center for the Arts. The subject of the grumbling is a review in our April 5 issue ("The Young and the Zestless") of the Studio Arts Department's annual student exhibit Young Contemporaries at the Halsey Institute.
Regular City Paper arts reporter Nick Smith, who's been reviewing visual arts and theatre for us for almost three years, came away from this year's exhibit feeling it was somewhat less inspired than previous efforts there, though not without its bright spots.
But judging from a letter to the editor this week from Stacy Huggins (see page 4) and the andecdotal reports of our crack team of secret-agent operatives at the College of Charleston (i.e. our editorial interns), Nick — and by extension us editors at the City Paper — are just a rung or two above kitten killers on the Universe's Master Shit List. Ms. Huggins, in her letter, calls us "cruel" and "mean," among other things. An online forum where CofC art students vented their spleens about the review carries a variety of opinions, almost all of them considerably less diplomatic. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that Nick is evil incarnate.
Critics, by and large, have always been hailed as brilliant masters of insight when they give good marks in a review and vilified as mean-spirited idiot scum when they find fault, however minor. As long as human beings have created art, it has been thus. For every Neanderthal cave painting, there was likely a caveman critic who crapped on it (in some cases literally), and was denounced as a knuckle-dragging, lowbrow mouth-breather because of it
Speaking as someone who knows Nick pretty well, I can say with confidence that he's not even a little bit evil. He has a quiet British accent and a sweet little boy named Sam, and he writes noir mysteries about cats. I've never heard him utter a mean word about anyone; he's as nice a person and as gentle a soul as you'd ever hope to meet. He's the furthest thing from an art snob imaginable.
In Nick's review he suggested that this year's Young Contemporaries show wasn't as strong as previous student exhibits — the only other work he compared it to. He made a point of not holding the artwork up to that produced by professional local artists, nor to other professional work that's been exhibited in the Halsey. And he certainly wasn't disappointed by everything in the show; of the many exhibiting artists he mentioned in the review, I count no fewer than 11 about which Nick had swell things to say. (Just for the record, those artists are Chris Itteilag, Ryan Klimstra, Liza Twery, Judy Christian, Beth Wootten, Blythe Brown, Vadim Smirnov, Blair Lamar, Ashley Heizer, and Laura Elara Black.)
There's no joy to be had in finding fault with any artistic effort that's created for public consumption, whether it's a play, a book, or an art exhibit. Every good critic goes into a show hoping with all his heart that he's going to be able to say wonderful things about the experience. Of course that's not always the case. But it would be doing a disservice to our readers, and to the artists themselves, if all of our reviewers were instructed never to say anything critical of a creative effort based merely on the fact that the artists tried real hard. Effort, unfortunately, does not always translate into merit in the real world, and it most assuredly doesn't guarantee quality. When an artist takes her work out of her studio, hangs it in a gallery, and asks the public to take time out of their day to come see it, she is officially in the real world, like it or not.
At the City Paper we're big believers in advocating for the arts in Charleston. We devote huge amounts of space to the subject, particularly to reviewing local work. (And the next time someone spots a review of an art exhibit in The Post and Courier, send it to me — I promise I'll wear it like a hat for the rest of the week.) But propping up every creative effort as equally valuable and equally worthy of praise is self-esteem-inflating, pop-psychology baloney, and we do not subscribe to it. For meaningless, sugarcoated flattery, artists are advised to ask their parents for their opinion.
For what it's worth, Nick's mom thinks the world of his reviews.