Criticizing the critic

Criticizing the critic

I am a real fan of The New York Times, largely because I know what effort and coordination it takes to put out even our local newspaper. I also appreciate its vast news-gathering operation, its wide array of “talking” (OK, writing) heads, and its usually erudite cultural critics.


A very big but.

Lately – maybe because of staff cuts? Maybe no one’s watching the store – editorializing has been creeping into news columns (see the Standard’s editorial page this week) and now it’s made its way into arts coverage. And the editorializing, if not clearly anti-Jewish, is certainly not Jewish-friendly.

A truly shocking case in point is the lead story in the May 7 arts section, about a new production in Belgium of Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera “Samson et Dalila.”

The production itself sounds shocking: By an Israeli and a Palestinian director, it turns the Samson story into a cockeyed parable of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (By the way, despite the similarity of sounds, the Palestinians have nothing to do with the ancient Philistines.)

And not in the way you would think: In this production, Samson is the bad guy – to quote Michael Kimmelman’s article, the directors “turn the Hebrews into Palestinians, the Palestinians into Israelis, and Samson into a suicide bomber donning a dynamite-loaded vest when the curtain falls.”

There’s more: “Jews, in fancy dress, dance atop a shiny, black, two-tiered set, oblivious to the swarm of robed Palestinians under their feet. In another scene, Dalilia’s Jewish handmaidens, in red underpants, sprawl on their backs, legs spread in the air, helping to seduce Samson…. Young Israeli soldiers clad in black humiliate blindfolded Palestinians and shoot a Palestinian child, who reappears as a kind of leitmotif…. Then, for the appalling bacchanal in the last act … Israeli soldiers dance orgiastically with their phallic rifles.”

The Times is to be praised, I guess, for giving us this portrait of an opera gone awfully wrong, but the article about it goes wrong, too.

While Kimmelman doesn’t like what the directors have done to what he calls “a second-rate melodrama,” he feels that “[r]age is a perfectly sane response to the Israeli occupation,” that “all art is political in the end.” These are half-baked ideas; they needed a little more cooking. Rage is a perfectly sane response to the ENTIRE mess in the Middle East, although sorrow and pity are saner, and art that’s bound up in politics isn’t art at all, it’s propaganda.

He also doesn’t appreciate the impassioned message that a Jewish member of the audience expresses to the chief of the Flanders opera, that “the production would stir up anti-Semitism, which festers just below the surface here, he said, to which the flustered impresario” – who was earlier in the story described as a “young Swiss-born Jew” – “blurted out that if the situation for Jews were so precarious here, they should leave.”

Kimmelman’s reaction? “Oy.

“He would have done better to thank the man for believing that opera matters so much.

“And for not punching his lights out.”

But it’s not funny – it’s the wrong treatment of an appalling, twisted “artistic” decision and of a deservedly angry and fearful Jewish response.

It’s also not very kind to the opera, which does have some lovely music in it.