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Vigilante Artists

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Dear Reader editors,

Last week [September 24] the Reader published a letter from someone hiding behind the initials D.D.B.S. D.D.B.S. claims the mantle of artist injured by the theater reviews of the Reader's Justin Hayford [September 10]. D.D.B.S. feels that Justin Hayford "should be fired" and "should be beaten." D.D.B.S. writes: "In general, I have grown to hate this man immeasurably." D.D.B.S. then issues a threat to the Reader: "If you continue to print his reviews, I will be forced to take action myself."

Any other day it might be nice to think that the popular response to serious art criticism of the type encouraged by the Reader and practiced by Justin Hayford would result in critics becoming as potent a political lightning rod as, say, abortion providers. I don't see the evidence of such a movement, apart from the griping heard from artists who have gotten panned (myself included) by Reader critics. At the very least, this speaks well for the health of Chicago's critics.

D.D.B.S.'s response to Justin Hayford's writing is so over-the-top as to be laughable, except that threats of violence should never be dismissed out of hand. Whether D.D.B.S. has an army of one or one hundred similarly minded vigilante artists does not matter (though I wonder: would they all hide behind their initials as if wearing a white hood?) D.D.B.S.'s threat of violent action represents the victory of ignorance and fear over knowledge and confidence; the threat represents a cruel censorship that, as an artist, D.D.B.S. should be working against.

As a playwright who has collected the occasional review so negative as to make my mother see red, I am sympathetic to the impulse to lash out verbally at my critics. Supportive friends have even, on occasion, offered voodoo dolls (which I declined). But I stop well before any thought to strike back, or even to vomit on someone else's stage, as D.D.B.S. would like to do when Justin Hayford performs. (As an aside, isn't D.D.B.S. engaging in the same sort of criticism that is found hateful in Justin? Following the same logic, should I hate D.D.B.S. for hating Justin, or just for having such a cumbersome set of initials?)

D.D.B.S.'s response is irresponsible not only because it advocates violence instead of discourse, but because it completely misunderstands the relationship between artists and critics. No matter how much artists may complain about this or that critic, we do not have the right to demand favorable reviews of our work. But we do deserve critics who honor the enterprise of artistic creation, even if they don't like a particular work; critics who will think about what we write or paint or compose, and who will respond to our work as a serious endeavor.

D.D.B.S. seems to confuse Justin Hayford as the one responsible for the public influence of reviewers in general. Is Justin Hayford that powerful? Or does the responsibility fall to us as artists to make a stronger case that people should not rely so much on the opinions of critics? Sure, the public also bears some responsibility, but we as artists can do more.

After 223 years as a republic, many people continue to work to build a civil society in which freedom of expression ranks as a preeminent accomplishment. D.D.B.S.'s sentiments suggest just how much more work we need to do to achieve that worthy goal.

Peter M. Handler

N. Wayne

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