From book’s blurbs, you’d never know these critics slammed the play


A still from the trailer of This Is Modern Art - STEPPENWOLF THEATRE COMPANY
  • Steppenwolf Theatre Company
  • A still from the trailer of This Is Modern Art
This Is Modern Art, a provocative play about graffiti artists, ran for a few weeks early last year as a Steppenwolf for Young Adults production. The play, by Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval, was inspired by an action in 2010, when young graffiti artists working at night in a snowstorm spray-painted a 50-foot mural on the new modern wing of the Art Institute. (It was removed.)

Both Chris Jones of the Tribune and Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times had harsh things to say about it. Jones at least called This Is Modern Art a "romantic ode" before coming to his main point. "Graffiti comes at a price," he wrote. "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 . . . 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."

Weiss also believed This Is Modern Art was making a one-sided case for vandalism. She called the play "wildly wrong-headed and potentially damaging." She wrote, "No amount of classroom discussion will scrub clean the irresponsible ideas promulgated in this play . . . Really, what could Steppenwolf have been thinking?" 

Now Haymarket Books of Chicago has just published This Is Modern Art, and Jones and Weiss agree no longer. On the back cover of the play (and on the Haymarket website) are blurbs from Jones and Weiss (and others) culled by the publisher from reviews. (Jones and Weiss are identified by their papers, not their names, but in Chicago most everyone will know who wrote what.) And at least one blurb turned a critic into a cheerleader.

Weiss is served up straight. Probably a smart move—the accusation that "irresponsible ideas" lurk inside won't discourage anybody from finding out what they are.

But she's the contrarian. Every other blurb is admiring. This includes the one from the Reader's Albert Williams, who called the play both "celebratory and cautionary—clearly sympathetic to the artists' point of view, but not blind to the impact their reckless act would have on their own lives." 

And, remarkably, it includes the blurb from Jones. Haymarket tells us he had this to say: "A romantic ode to the art of graffiti and the act of tagging, a piece that demystifies authorial signatures and charts the storied history of graffiti art in Chicago, shouting out its great artists and their canvases, from Kennedy underpasses to CTA train yards."

When the reviews were originally written, Jones and Weiss both caught it from readers. They'd stirred up what American Theatre called a "veritable firestorm of debate and discussion in the Windy City, with accusations of racism and elitism being hurled" against the two of them.

"I don't reject the notion that I have a limited view," Jones told American Theatre's Chloe Riley. "Obviously, I am who I am." However, "If you ask me what's personally difficult, it's to be called a racist, as I was, and to be called an idiot."

The Haymarket Books blurb has the effect of telling Jones the name-calling is ancient history. The price Jones pays for this courtesy—if you want to call it a price—is to be quoted out of context. I wondered if he minded.

"Blurbs are promotional and I am at peace with that," Jones told me, in an e-mail shrugging off the question. "This always was a mixed review; not true of Hedy's very negative review, and she is entitled to her view. That said, in the ensuing reaction, it generally was argued we were one and the same. I doubt many people read my whole review. Ironic perhaps that it should be used in this way!"

What then, was Weiss's reaction to finding herself once again playing Bad Hedy, contrarian to the world? "I am perfectly fine with it!" she answered. Her e-mail to me went on:

Just wish I had also put something like this in my review: "When these kids are hauled into court will Steppenwolf set up a fund to pay their bail, hire a lawyer to see that charges are expunged from their permanent records (so they can get into a decent school or be hired for a good job), and finally reimburse their parents for missing days of work while they fix all this? A far better play might have helped kids think about how to engage their community and local politicians, and how to mount a campaign that might lead to getting more dedicated spaces for such work.
As for Haymarket Books, I asked publicist Jim Plank why they'd used what they'd used from Jones, and he replied, "We think the quote is a good description of what the play is about." As for turning Jones's critique into a cheer, Plank told me, "We really don't see an issue here."

The issue I'm certain of is misrepresentation. And it's not a big issue—as the alchemy of turning criticism into puffery is as old as the poster, the marquee, and the cynic. It's a low art, though, properly derided. 

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