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May 14, 2006

Venue, or voice?


I read criticism that engages me. Period. I don't care whether it appears in a newspaper or magazine, or on a blog, or is broadcast in big, blinking letters on a sign in Times Square.

The bloggers-versus-critics formulation is, it seems to me, an utterly inept one, resting as it does on the notion that all blogs are alike, and that all traditional media critics are insightful and articulate.

I read maybe fifty blogs daily and scan several hundred others more sporadically through RSS feeds. The only thing all these sites have in common is their reliance on blogging software.

Some of my favorites offer highly opinionated responses to the arts, or to politics. Some are book news aggregators. Some are given to personal anecdote. Many are a blend. The best, like Amitava Kumar's consistently fascinating site, are unclassifiable, the product of one person's preoccupations. In a recent post about writer Nadeem Aslam's photographs of Afghanistan, Kumar writes:

Anyone who has read anything that Nadeem has written will recognize his vision of the world in these images. Who else would keep finding so much blue -- the blue of the sky, the blue of tiles and the bottles -- and would pit it like this against the brown of the devastated earth, the walls, and the endless graves?
That's exactly how I feel about the opinions of the critics -- whether of the old or new media persuasion -- I admire most: that they are clear, evocative as photographs, and offered from an angle that illuminates or challenges my own responses.

I don't particularly care where those opinions are published, only that I have access to them.

Posted by at 10:24 PM

Confessions of an 80-year-old intern


When I was the arts and culture editor of Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon, I recruited an 80-year-old man to be my intern.
His name was Art Chenoweth
I met Art when I was asked to speak to a journalism class at Portland State University. After my spiel, the floor opened up for questions. The kids started lobbing softballs ("Do you get free CDs?""Did you major in journalism?""How can my band get a review in your paper?") when this old man with ink-bled tattoos on his forearms started tearing into me about our coverage of a recent Chuck Palahniuk book and his own ideas about the myth of the Dangerous Writing clique in our town.
Who WAS this guy?
I went up to him afterwards. He told me that as a senior citizen, he could take free classes at the state schools, so he just kept registering. He wrote regularly for the college paper.
When I commented on his tattoos, he remarked, "Yeah, it only took 50 years for them to come into fashion." The daggers were seared into his skin during his WWII tour of duty. When I tried to ask him about the war, he swatted away my questions with, "That was the past. If you live in the past you quickly become obsolete." I asked him on the spot to become an intern. He agreed and he was a great one.
Why am I telling you about Art?
Because Art's approach to being old could teach us a lot about how to be an arts writer in today's climate.
To wit, here's a list (edited a bit here for size) he wrote for Willamette Week about how to grow old without getting old:
"I'm 80 years old and far from ready for the scrap heap. Now, I'm not trying to pretend I'm 20 again. I'm just determined not to dodder away into geezerland. That's why I avoid seniors products and stay close to the action. Here are just some of the things I do to stay out of the rocking chair.
....Please avoid talking about your aches and pains at all costs.
...Never submit to being waited on full-time.
...Don't retire, retread. Wear a snappy uniform. Try landscaping. Be a clerk at a Plaid Pantry or perhaps a security guard.
...Keep flirting. Snow on the roof doesn't mean the fire is out inside.
...Preserve your potency. An older man (or even a younger one) can fail to rise to the occasion. Your friendly urologist has a bag of tricks to bring you up to snuff.
...Stick with timeless music. Never listen to "Sh'boom" except in secret.
...Avoid reminiscing. Never start a sentence, "Now, when I was a boy...."
...Don't dress to redress.
...Lighten up on political diatribes. Our generation is leaving as much mess as all the other generations. Let the new bunch make their own mistakes."
Ok, so you know how it ends, right? Art died last year. The guy was writing articles and hitting college classes (and presumably flirting with the ladies) until the end. So this post doesn't get any fatter, more on what all this has to do with the state of the critic in the next post.
Unless, of course, you have your own ideas about that.
Take it away.

Posted by at 9:58 PM

Mumbo Jumbo Will Hodoo You


Let me make a case for daily newspapers, even as I make it online. The undeniable advantages of newspapers' professional approach have been broached here, namely, that a critic must acquire authority not just claim it, that there are filtering mechanisms, i.e. editing, insuring some measure of accuracy and seriousness, that, in short, not everybody is a critic. But there is more. Daily newspapers are a medium unlike any other. After deliberation, a newspaper decides what chunk of news -- very broadly defined since it includes features -- is worth enveloping in a finite number of columns, the old news that's fit to print, a commonplace, yes, but one that can be wisely applied. And the newspaper reader makes no direct choices. This would seem to contradict the democratic impulses that elicit so much praise for the Internet. So be it. Democracy is a great thing... in government. Other institutions work best under other rules. As a reader, I don't want to choose what news is fit to print; I want to read the damn news. Which brings us to arts journalism. The very messy nature of American newspaper journalism is one of its virtues. We don't demand a bureaucratized certification process -- you don't have to belong to a journalists institute, pass a journalism board exam or even have gone to j school to be a journalist. But we do demand proved expertise and that is something each newspaper decides on its own. Like so many great American institutions it is a mix of free market democracy and the rigor of tradition. Fine. The trouble is that something has gone terribly wrong in American journalism. It is bogged down in rules and traditions that are actually relatively new but are applied as if they were gospel truths. Objectivity, Joe Horowitz's hobby horse, is one of them. It isn't just that objectivity is a questionable, dismissable really, philosophical position. It's that objectivity is barely a factor in the arts, so how can we expect it in arts journalism? (Accuracy is another matter.) Passion is most definitely a component of the arts and, therefore, of the impulse of arts journalism. Enter the bloggers, all passion all the time. What the amateur critics of the blogosphere prove is the need for that passion, which I would translate as the need for a new paradigm in arts journalism -- and in journalism in general. Perhaps I am sadly mistaken and out of step with "young" sensitivities, but I read print journalism when I was "young" and got fired up by it. And I've lived long enough to be skeptical about "new media." Beware of juju words and juju trends and juju technologies or you might wind up buying 8-track tapes on eBay.

Posted by at 9:02 PM

The Issue Isn't Blogs


While there are a couple of political blogs I read daily, I rarely read blogs on the arts, mostly due to time constraints. Friends will recommend pieces to me, serving the sort of function that editors otherwise might. I haven't the slightest interest in combing through all that stuff. Plenty of smart pieces inevitably make their way to any reasonably motivated person these days, and that's as much as anyone really needs. Search for more as your time permits. My sense is that the relationship of worthwhile stuff to bad is probably about the same in blogs as in the mainstream media -- about ten percent of it is worth looking at.
Much as I like Depeche Mode, I'd sooner shoot myself than read fifty short reviews of their latest CD by DM obsessives. If that's the future of arts journalism, best of luck to all.
Similarly, the notion that editors are combing the blogs for the next generation of arts journalists is hilarious -- even moreso if it's true. Blogging can be fun, I'm sure, but I wouldn't give up that WSJ gig.
People should obviously do the best and strongest work they can, regardless of the medium in which it appears. Somewhere in here, the notion of getting paid for this work ought to be addressed. The disappearance of outlets and the downward pressure on rates seem to me the most disturbing aspects of the past couple of years.

Posted by at 7:17 PM | Comments (5)

Break Rules


In conjunction with a talk I gave last fall on the state of arts journalism in the American daily press (which Doug has posted as a link to the right of this blog), I would like to suggest a different perspective than venue on what makes a critic “influential” or “authoritative.” In fact , I would like to suggest a different template for the critic’s role than what’s normally applied by American newspapers. Like Harold Clurman (whom I quote liberally), I would like to see critics become proactive members of the arts community, not arms-legnth observers. This was once unexceptional. I cite, as influential and authoritiative egs, Clurman and vrious music critics (e.g., Henry Krehbiel and Virgill Thomson, or the earlier composer/critics Berlioz, Schumann, Debussy). I wcould also mention Clement Greenberg in art. In this regard – as I mention in my talk, calling for an Arts & Leisure “op ed” format – I feel we need a common forum (on line, in print, whatever) for arts critics and arts practitioners (classical music – my own field – may be atypically deficient in tis regard). And I think we need to re-examine the notion of critiical “objectivity” and explore the history of its incursion. It’s an option, not a given. (In my talk, I trace its murky and suspect history at the New York Times, where I was a music critic in the late 1970s).

I feel I am very much on the same page as Enrique Fernandez, in his "Break Rules" (also posted to the right of this blog). Newspapers may be failing for a variety of reasons, but that they are boring is unignorably a factor. Arts criticism in the American daily press needs to be edgier, riskier, more stylish. Many (most?) Newspaper critics these days don’t even aspire to a personal style. As I mention in my talk, they gravitate toward a “faux style” – short sentences, short graphs, simple ideas – innocent of any aesthetic dimension. That syle is conditioned by a newspaper etiquette overstressing “objectivity.” So is the recent advent of "arts reporters." I appreciate that newspapers of diminishing circulation fear that ambitious criticism alienates readers. But writing that is boring is even more alienating.

Posted by at 3:54 PM | Comments (1)

Depeche Modalities


A while ago I went to iTunes Music Store to buy the new Depeche Mode CD. An hour later I found I had read 55 short reviews of the record. The opinions, bylined only with screen names, could have been written by record company execs, relatives of band members, spurned lovers. Didn’t matter. It was fascinating to peek in on the sometimes testy arguments, to note the diehard fandom of many of the “reviewers.”

Some of the writers, it seemed, had done little else in their 22 years on the planet than listen to and compare various Depeche Mode records. So while they likely had no special training or expertise, no musicology degree, no 15-year stint as lead critic of Spin or the Star Tribune, my guess is that some of them knew more about the band than most experienced critics, who, after all, are required by their job to range widely and perhaps shallowly over many bands and genres. So whose critical opinion am I going to believe-- “wal-marx” at iTunes? Or an established critic at, say, a major daily paper? Fortunately, as Misha noted here already, the answer is less of an either/or and more of a both.

Posted by at 3:01 PM | Comments (2)

Full Circle

by Andras Szanto

The blogsphere today is more or less where the arts were circa 1975. It’s a realm of new opportunities, naïve expectations, and faux democracy. It’s smack in the middle of that euphoric moment that every innovative movement goes through before it makes its own peace with the status quo. Back in the seventies, it seemed everything was possible in the art world. Anything could be art and “everyone an artist,” as Beuys proclaimed.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this pluralist nirvana. Three decades later we are seeing an unprecedented institutionalization and commercialization of art. The entry fee into a successful art career is a $60,000 MFA. And while laissez-faire rules, aesthetically speaking, who can doubt that the artists being seen and heard are the ones who have the muscle of major galleries, presenting institutions, and distribution companies behind them. From the cloud of unbounded opportunity has emerged a new ironclad structure, no less selective and, in its own way, constraining than what had come before. To some degree, the very scale and openness of postmodern culture have mandated these new filters and hierarchies. And so it will go with the blogsphere. When the smoke clears, we will be back to listening and trusting a finite number of voices. We will depend on them, and we won’t have time for many more.

Posted by aszanto at 2:06 PM | Comments (1)

Is Blogging the Panacea?


Embracing the blogosphore as the savior of arts j ournalism seems to me a case of misplaced passion -- or maybe just wishful thinking.
The Web is fantastic for stimulating the free-flow of information and opinion -- political, cultural, scientific, et al. And as another outlet for good writers. And as a means to connect with the growing sector of readers who spend a good portion of their lives online.
But why is this an either/or, baby/bathwater issue? There are sound reasons why newspapers and other conventional publications need to be saved and strengthened. And why their arts critics should still have a voice in the cultural conversation, if not necessarily the last word.
For one thing, newspapers and magazines are edited. For another, they are usually subject to standards of accuracy and basic fairness which are pretty arbitrary on the Web -- as in, the assumption that "saying it's so doesn't make it so." And getting facts straight, and correcting errors, are essential to a writer's credibility. (And, by the way, to a functional democracy.)
In mentoring younger critics, I've been surprised how many downplay fact-checking. Or don't realize that ad hominum attacks on artists (or gushing, unsubstantiated praise for them) can not only be hurtful, but runious.
According to recent survey stats at our paper, traditional news media still get far and away the most hits from people who seek their news and information online. Why? Along with the great adventure blogging can be (especially if you have unlimited time to graze), they still want the "branding," the reporting, the standards that such pubilcations promise. And guess what? Some of the writing ain't so bad either.
My main concerns in this discussion are: how can we, as Doug suggests, endeavor to make the standard media more fresh, lively and essential on the arts pages? And how can the field at large encourage the cream of the blogging crop, while urging those entering the game to couple zesty opinion with responsible journalism? I'm for both/and, not either/or.

Posted by at 12:01 PM | Comments (4)

Up against it

by About Last Night
I’m an old-media critic who doubles as a new-media artblogger. I started About Last Night, the first ArtsJournal blog, because I foresaw the rapid rise of the Web as a center of commentary on the arts and wanted to get in on the ground floor. What I didn’t foresee—and should have—was that some four years after the appearance of the earliest artblogs, so much of the best arts commentary on the Web would still be the work of amateur critics (and I use the word “amateur” in the most complimentary sense possible). When About Last Night went live in the summer of 2003, nearly all of the best artblogs were being written by people who had published little or nothing in newspapers or magazines. That hasn’t changed much, though a few established print-media critics like me now blog on the side, just as some old-media arts editors have started looking to the Web for new talent.

To me, the significance of artblogging is that it gives amateur critics with compelling voices an electronic printing press that makes it possible for them to be read by anyone who cares to seek them out. I don’t have a problem with that. On the contrary, I find it hugely stimulating. From the beginning, About Last Night has sought to enable up-and-coming new-media arts commentators by blogrolling them and linking to their blogs on a regular basis. As far as I’m concerned, the best artbloggers are at least as good as the best print-media critics. In fact, I now spend more time reading artblogs than the arts sections of most magazines and newspapers. They’re fresher, livelier, and timelier.

Therein lies my answer to your question, Doug. Middle-aged print-media critics who want to be read in the age of Web-based journalism must start by recognizing that they’re in direct competition with younger bloggers. If they don’t, they’ll vanish—and most of them will deserve their fate. If I were a newspaper editor, I’d be looking to the blogs for the next generation of critics. What’s more, I’d not only encourage but expect my new young guns to transfer their blogs to my newspaper's Web site, complete with snark and comments and four-letter words.

Time was when the critics of large-circulation newspapers and magazines were important de facto, regardless of whether or not they had anything original to say. That time is over, and a good thing, too. I know I’m not entitled to be part of the cultural conversation simply by virtue of the fact that I publish in The Wall Street Journal. The only way for critics to “earn their authority” in the age of new media is to be interesting. Nothing less is good enough.

Posted by tteachout at 11:00 AM


by Douglas McLennan

About a year ago there was a mini-wildfire of articles asking more or less the question "Are critics becoming obsolete?" The point of the stories seemed to be that in an age when people have more access to information and opinion, that traditional critics employed by traditional news organizations were on the wane. Remember the days when critics could close a show with bad reviews?

Well, if "closing the show" with a bad review was the good old days, then good riddance to them. But it seems to me the larger point of these stories was that as the ways we get our news become more diffuse and decentralized, the ways critics or experts earn their authority is also changing. Traditional publications no longer convey that authority in the ways they once did. Do we still need critics? Of course. With access to more cultural products and the ability to use them in infinitely personalized ways, the mass of culture engulfing us can be overwhelming. More than ever we need ways to be able to sort through the mass and make something coherent of it. Finding coherence and setting context have long been central to the role of critic. So good news critics - we're in a growth industry.

If only it were so simple. Just as every cultural industry is in the throes of having to reinvent its business model in the digital age, so too are arts journalists having to reconsider how their profession works. It isn't just that newspaper staff critic jobs are being lost and arts journalism is increasingly becoming a free lance occupation. It's also what kind of cultural journalism do we really want? What kind of cultural journalism really matters or has the potential to have an impact?

Far too much of what is published in traditional publications these days seems like rote and pointless space-filling. We review the symphony because that's what we do. But what if we don't have anything interesting to say about the symphony? In my city, nobody's writing about the biggest story at our orchestra. Yet week after week the reviews keep dribbling out. And where is the interesting public debate about culture happening? Shouldn't critics be taking the lead?

Posted by mclennan at 9:48 AM | Comments (4)