Are These Modern Reviews of ‘This Is Modern Art’?

March 6th, 2015 § 4 comments

This Is Modern Arts at Steppenwolf Theatre

Jerry MacKinnon in This Is Modern Art at Steppenwolf Theatre

If, like me, you’re connected to members of the Chicago theatre community on social media (I’m NYC based), you’ve certainly seen an outpouring of reaction to two major reviews of the new Steppenwolf for Young Adults show, This Is Modern Art (Based On True Events). Since all perception of what’s being said on any subject in social media is mediated by who you ‘follow’ and who you ‘friend’ and what you like and retweet, I can’t possibly tell you what the prevailing sentiments are overall, online or in Chicago theatre lobbies. But I will say this: my connections are very unhappy, and in some cases enraged. Among their charges are that the reviews are deeply insensitive to a story about young people of color, and by extension the lives of all people of color, and that they condescend to the work from a place of privilege.

Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune and Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times both gave what I would characterize as predominantly negative reviews of the production. Both shared a common theme: that the play, about graffiti artists, celebrated their work without making sufficiently clear, to the critics’ minds, that the majority of graffiti art is also illegal vandalism. Jones calls graffiti “disrespectful”; Weiss calls the characters “urban terrorists.” The play is based upon a true incident in Chicago, when elaborate graffiti was created on the exterior of the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, so it summons shared Chicago memories, beyond the writers’, readers’ or audiences’ personal experiences.

From the reviews, I offer two excerpts (with links to the complete pieces):

“But here is what “This is Modern Art” barely even mentions: Graffiti comes at a price. It can be invasive, self-important and disrespectful of the property of others — and plenty of struggling folks have had to clean graffiti off something they own or love. Graffiti can be inartful, for goodness sake. More importantly yet, graffiti had the effect of making people feel unsafe in the city. It terrified people. It was only when public officials declared themselves determined to wipe it out that cities finally came back to life, with broad benefits.

You wanna go back to riding public transportation in New York or Chicago in the 1980s? I do not. You do not have to be conservative or somehow not down with youth to think it reprehensible that these issues do not have a place in a show for schools that is quite staggeringly one-sided.”  – Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

“To start, a hypothetical question addressed to the powers that be at Steppenwolf Theatre: How would you react were you to arrive at work one morning only to discover that the entire facade of your theater had been spray-painted with graffiti, and that the message left behind went like this: “All the world is OUR stage.”

I pose the question after having just seen “This Is Modern Art,” the wildly misguided new Steppenwolf for Young Adults production written by hip-hop artist Idris Goodwin and “Louder Than a Bomb” founder Kevin Coval, and directed by Lisa Portes.

Clearly the play is meant to be a provocation and a catalyst for controversy and discussion among the many high school groups that comprise the principal audience for this series. And no one would deny that in terms of its fine acting and knowingly “hip” writing and design this is an entertaining and “artful” production. But “This Is Modern Art” also sends out a slew of profoundly misguided messages to its impressionable viewers. And no politically correct review to rationalize it will appear here.”  – Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times

Now before I go on, I should point out that I write about this issue is as a middle-aged, Caucasian, cisgender, heterosexual Jewish male raised in and around New Haven, Connecticut. Many could say I write from a position of privilege as well; that’s their right. But I cannot be anyone but who I am and, as a longtime follower of theatre criticism, I would hope that all critics would write openly and honestly about their perceptions, with their biases out there for all to see and take into account. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that I’ve known Chris Jones for more than a decade professionally; I’ve never had any occasion to meet or communicate with Hedy Weiss.

This Is Modern Art at Steppenwolf Theatre

This Is Modern Art at Steppenwolf Theatre

With all of that out of the way, I have to say that I find both reviews limited. Not because I disagree with their opinions of the play – I’ve not seen it or read it, so I can’t – but because the reviews fail to give me sufficient information about the play that might allow me to draw any conclusions of my own. So much of the bodies of the two reviews are devoted to condemning graffiti and vandalism, and taking the play to task for not sharing that perspective, that it’s very difficult for me – and I would assume most readers – to assess whether the play might be something I want to see, which a daily review should do, even a negative one.

Presumably Chris and Hedy could have noted their displeasure with the play’s perspective while still attending more fully to the details of the play and the production, which they fleetingly praise. Subsequently, as senior critics, they could have easily then written separate essays in which they explored their political and personal reactions to graffiti as vandalism, and question Steppenwolf’s responsibility in presenting the work if they wished, instead of forcing such op-eds into the confines of a standard review.

Inevitably, some of the rhetoric surrounding these reviews has addressed the role of the critic, always a charged discussion but one that must be considered in the context of the diminishment of arts coverage in legacy mainstream media. Nationally, critics remain in their positions for as long as they’re able, even as positions are cut and newspapers constantly seek buyouts that target veteran employees (read older, better paid) in an economic version of Logan’s Run. But with limited alternatives, few critics are opting out voluntarily, and so it’s not entirely surprising to find that many “major” critics mirror the demographics that prevailed decades earlier: largely white and mostly male. That can set up a division with both artists and audiences who make up the more diverse America of today (though the field of theatre still has a great deal of work to do on diversity and equity in its own ranks as well), since they find work, often as not, being judged publicly by people who may not mirror them in any way or share or understand their experiences. When I started in theatre, for example, I wondered where the young critical voices were in the major media; remarkably, 30 years on, I still wonder (though I know I can find those voices online, in many cases working for free).

Kelly O’Sullivan and Jerry MacKinnon in This Is Modern Art at Steppenwolf Theatre

Kelly O’Sullivan and Jerry MacKinnon in This Is Modern Art at Steppenwolf Theatre

In the case of This Is Modern Art, a work explicitly created for teen audiences, I would suggest that the arts or features editors at the two Chicago papers missed an opportunity. While absolutely still affording Chris and Hedy their primacy as the papers’ critical voices, wasn’t this the moment to offer more diverse staffers the opportunity to weigh in? While This Is Modern Art does have evening performances for the public, the majority of the schedule is daytime shows, presumably for students and youth groups, and therefore deserving of viewpoints that might in some aspect approach greater commonality with the expressly targeted audience. Admittedly, it would be impossible to check off a series of demographic boxes on any critic that would fulfill the wishes of every reader and every artist on every show, but the paper might have made an effort when reviewing a show for youth to acknowledge that the seemingly monolithic role of critics doesn’t always serve readers, by adding diverse voices here (and, when appropriate, in the future). Op-ed pages have multiple voices, not just one.

In concluding her review, Hedy appears to try to trump any criticism of her perspective, as follows, “Really, what could Steppenwolf have been thinking? Now, I just hope local politicians will not jump on the bandwagon and, as the ultimate hypocrisy, make this play their ‘cause.’” She has presumptively critiqued those who might disagree with her, which strikes me as unfortunate. Professional critics have every right to state their opinion boldly, but preemptively challenging those with other opinions seems unnecessary.

In his review, Chris notes “the authority figures like police officers (mostly played by Chris Rickett) are either inept or bumbling or misunderstanding — certainly they never are allowed to make any kind of sympathetic point,” and later declares, “By all means, connect the city’s kids to this artistic tradition, but I say there is a moral obligation to make them think about the price we all pay.” I will only say that West Side Story also portrayed the police as ineffective and a source for ridicule (“Gee, Officer Krupke”) and that there are countless works of theatre that don’t pretend to balance – where, for example, in Grease do we find an appealing, highly respected honor student to counter the allure of Danny Zuko?

This Is Modern Art at Steppenwolf Theatre

J. Salomé Martinez in This Is Modern Art at Steppenwolf Theatre

Mind you, like Chris and Hedy, I’m not saying that I want to see our cities riddled with graffiti the way they were in the 70s and 80s. But I am open to seeing a story that attempts to explore what might have motivated some of the people behind it, then or now. Both reviews assert that because the show is targeted at students it is therefore irresponsible in its sympathetic perspective. While I doubt any young person is unaware of the potential consequences for the defacement of public property, especially those being taken to the theatre by teachers or counselors, the Steppenwolf study guide (available to all online) spells it out:

“For these artists…their art form is worthy of the likes of Caravaggio and Escher, but to the city it is defined as “the criminal defacement of property with paint.” The consequences are severe: $750 to $1,500 in fines, felony charges and possibly prison time for the offenders. And it can mean a big bill for the city: Chicago has spent nearly $5 million dollars in graffiti removal in this year alone. Although the protagonist of our story, Seven, is motivated by a desire to gain recognition for his art and an evolution of what the public views as ‘high art, fine art, worthy of being in a museum’ the Art Institute bombing comes at a cost. Not only to the Institute, which had to remove the paint, but also for the artists who committed the crime and, who, nearly five years later, still face felony charges if their identities are revealed.”

And while I was unsuccessful in securing a copy of the play to read, the study guide suggests that the show’s protagonist does not get away consequence-free:

“As for Seven, at the end of the play, he is left grappling with whether or not what he did was worth it; after all, he now has no crew, no girlfriend, no graffiti.”

The experience of theatre for young people taken to it is rarely confined to just watching a play. It is typically contextualized through conversation, both before and after seeing a show, at the theatre and at schools and youth organizations. The evening performances reportedly had those same opportunities, although they’re certainly not compulsory. But for the ostensibly impressionable young seeing This Is Modern Art, the play is not presented in a vacuum, which these reviews seem to presume it is.

In reading commentary about the reviews on social media, I found the personal attacks on Chris and Hedy extremely distasteful; I applaud those who sought to temper that unacceptable rhetoric. The conversation now should be a greater one than simply these reviews and this play. Hopefully this incident will provoke some genuine consideration and conversation – which includes Chris and Hedy and some of the artists expressing concern about these reviews – about what voices are given the platform to judge work, the need for not just critics but their editors to open new avenues to diverse voices and critical responses, and the necessity for work to be judged on its own terms, not just on the basis of what others think it should be, whoever the work is “for.”


Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama and Senior Strategy Director at the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.


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  • Frazzu

    Howard, first off, a review of a review (in this case reviews), is difficult to review, but, here goes. You make a very good point that these reviews cited do not contain a review in the traditional sense but rather a subjective opinion piece of the underlying subject matter, graffiti and/or graffiti artists. In doing so, the critics cited failed to properly critique the theatrical interpretation of an historical event; it’s staging, lighting, writing, etc. but chose to report on the historic consequences of graffiti. Okay, here’s where you lose me. It seems to me that you are saying that these “reviews” were not just unfair because they failed in their duty, but, they failed to do their duty because of their age, race, and, financial security. I think you are conflating two different problems and, ironically, doing to them what you are accusing them of doing to “This is Modern Art.” You are not so much reviewing the bad review but rather the make up of the reviewer. Chris Jones is “The Play” and who he is as a person is “The Graffiti.” You have diminished a person’s ability to do his job because according to your review, “Graffiti” no longer has a place in the current scene or tapestry of cultures as it intersects with the Arts. I give your review of the review 3 out of 5 stars.

  • Sonita

    Thank you Howard for bringing this discussion to the table: the role of the critic. When actors and the theatre’s marketing department rush to read the review of their show, they want to know if the story was well told by the production team: actors, director, designers (sound, set, lighting, etc). I agree, the ‘review’ copy isn’t the stage for an (extensive) political discourse. Yes, political and moral pendulums aren’t foreign to a critic’s review. They typically don’t, however, take center stage; don’t become the review’s through line. I’m inclined to agree with Howard. Their perspective is better suited for op-ed pages. They actually may be unintentionally supporting the graffiti artist position of public art where they are “seen and heard.”

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