I recall stumbling upon Jamie Kennedy’s documentary Hecklers way back when it first hit cable.
To put it mildly it was an imperfect work that did not put Kennedy himself in a particularly good light. The title of the film also gave the impression that he did not know how to use simply words correctly. The reason is that hecklers are not just any critic, even abusive critics. Rather they are people whose criticism disrupts the performance. Many of those who appeared in the documentary (stand-up comedians like Lewis Black) really were in positions where one might be heckled, and gave their thoughts about it, but the bad reviews of a movie, published after the movie was wrapped up, do not qualify under that definition.
Still, recalling the film does set me thinking about artists, critics and why the enmity of the former toward the latter can be so intense. This is not simply a matter of how no one likes being criticized, or how artists may be more sensitive than others, or how their work is more personal than it is for someone doing workaday “alienated” labor for the money and nothing else, or the public nature of the criticism that would make it an appalling breach of civility in actual life, even if these factors are not irrelevant.
Rather what seems most important is the extreme imbalance between the two where the stakes are concerned, and where the matter of power is concerned. The artist’s livelihood is on the line — and vulnerable to negative reviews, which may have a disproportionate effect relative to positive ones. At the same time the critic is likely to have nothing on the line, and indeed, to be virtually unaccountable for anything they say or write. The fact is galling enough with even the most fair-minded negative review — and much, much worse when the review is abusive, as negative reviews so often are. After all, it is in the sad, ugly nature of bullying that authority and society give the bully a pass, and judge the victim for reacting instead. (Critics’ meanness can always be passed off as simply “in the line of duty,” while public opinion tells their victims that they “need a thicker skin.”)
Few critics wholly escape the temptation to take advantage of that position throughout the entirely of their careers — many embrace the opportunity, in fact — and as a result artists are likely to suffer this as a common experience. (Some artists may be more vulnerable than others. There is a big difference between the lot of a nearly untouchable longtime superstar, and someone at only the beginning of their career, for example, or in only a marginal place in their profession — but no one is really immune, and those to whom life has been kind can be all the touchier for it.) And I suspect that the extreme reactions we sometimes see on the part of artists to critics reflects that — people who have been bullied, perhaps a great deal for a long time, reacting, rightly or wrongly, to what they perceive as more of the same.