Imagine a room where everybody knows best; Hundreds of art, dance, music and theater pundits hit L.A. for the first National Critics Conference. (And who invited the auto writer?)

Christopher Reynolds
Los Angeles, Calif.: May 28, 2005. pg. E.1

Angelika Jansen-Brown is not impressed. She stands in one of the Getty Museum's 19th century galleries, scowling at a riotous Jackson Pollock that curators have borrowed and placed, as an experiment, between two mellow Monets.

"So what?" she says, unmoved by the juxtaposition, and strides away.

Two minutes later, Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer steps up to the same spot, rapture on his face.
"Absolute genius," he says. "There's a dialogue between those paintings."

Everybody's a critic.

No, really. About 400 reviewers of art, dance, music and theater have descended upon Los Angeles for the National Critics Conference. This is the first time anybody in this country has tried to unite so many reviewers from so many disciplines, and nobody's exactly sure what will happen.

Jansen-Brown, who came from San Antonio, writes about theater. Van Vlasselaer, who came from Ottawa, reviews music. Deborah Jowitt, exploring one of the Getty patios with her shawl pulled tight in the evening mist, has been reviewing dance for the Village Voice since the '60s.

The idea, as with most conventions, is to raise everyone's professional game through speeches by luminaries, provocative panels (is it wrong for critics to moonlight as curators?) and seminars on brass-tacks issues from writing mechanics to job-seeking strategies.

The added wrinkle is an emphasis on interdisciplinary exploration -- ideas the critics will kick around in meeting rooms at the Omni Hotel and elsewhere through Sunday, with side trips day and night to museums, galleries and theaters and concert halls.

"To me, the ultimate goal is to help people sort stuff through for themselves," said Gil French, a former Jesuit priest who lives in Rochester and reviews classical music for American Record Guide. "You have to have an intelligent way of making the best decision you can. Your personal conscience is paramount, not following authority."

"We have the possibility of teaching people how to think," said Lynn Zelevansky, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, facing a gang of art critics. "In a democracy, there's nothing more important."

This is mostly serious work, the product of more than three years' negotiation among the American Theatre Critics Assn., the Dance Critics Assn., the Music Critics Assn. of North America, the International Assn. of Art Critics and the Jazz Journalists Assn.

But the critic is a complicated beast. This might be, as Robert Hughes of Time magazine once wrote, because practicing criticism is "like being the piano player in a whorehouse; you don't have any control over the action going on upstairs." Or it could be because, as the British theater critic Kenneth Tynan once suggested, "a critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car."
Gather 400 of them and, depending upon the moment you step in, the scene might resemble a learned symposium, a stampede of cats with sharp claws, or a support group for the underpaid and overeducated.

"I'm Jane Goldberg and I write about tap-dancing," began one conferrer Thursday, stepping to the microphone during a question- and-answer session.

"People treat you differently when they find out you're a critic," said Steve Sucato, a former dancer who wrote his first review for the Erie Times-News in Pennsylvania about 10 years ago. "Suddenly, there's a distance. But then you're also courted. Write about me."

"We're a little bit different, that's for sure," said Eric Deggans, a longtime music and TV critic who now writes editorials and columns for the St. Petersburg Times. "If the right people hate me, I couldn't care less. In fact, I feel great."

On Thursday morning in an opening address, TV writer, producer, social activist and philanthropist Norman Lear told the group that "the human impulse that animates criticism is as elemental and necessary as the one that animates art itself.... The great critic is to the artist as the great psychotherapist is to the patient."

He drew a mostly standing ovation, unanimity being generally elusive.

These are, after all, the sorts of people who might inform the reading public (as New York theater critic John Simon once did) that "Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses." Or that (as New York Times art critic John Canaday once wrote), "the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is a war between architecture and painting in which both come out badly maimed."

And they do not always spare one another. Paula Harper, an art critic from Miami, stepped out of her first session of the day murmuring that "Margo Jefferson used her hands too much." (That would be Margo Jefferson, Pulitzer-winning critic at large for the New York Times, who occasionally gestures while making a point.)

Anne Marie Welsh, theater critic for the San Diego Union- Tribune, came out of the same session saying that "I would never have invited Dan Neil," auto critic for the Los Angeles Times and also a Pulitzer Prize winner.

"I have a Prius in part because of him. But he writes about consumer products," she said. "Theater and dance and art and music aren't consumer products."

Others welcomed Neil's perspective, and more than a few nodded at his onstage confession that some days he'd rather "eat glass" than write another review.

"We're talking about 487 cranks. For them to be happy is amazing," said Michael Barnes, a longtime critic in several disciplines and arts and entertainment editor of the Austin American- Statesman.
Organizers credit Barnes for hatching the idea. Barnes said he'd prefer to see how the weekend goes before claiming credit. As the shadows lengthened on the Getty grounds, the alleged cranks seemed well enough mollified by the art, the scenery, the wine and beer, and their newfound brethren. Then again, you know how critics are.

Down on one of the patios, Deborah Jowitt turned away from the mist-impeded vista of Santa Monica to regard the museum walls. A judgment was forming.

"I don't know," the dance critic said finally, "if I like the combination of those monumental stones with the more modern modular things."