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May 14, 2006


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 May 14, 2006 9:48 AM


Don't get stuck here on the issue of blogging , please, fellow arts journalists. Some of the bigger issues are intellectual property rights, outlets for freelancers, pay scales keeping up with the rest of the economy, the failure of the leadership organizations behind the National Critics Conference to follow up their mandate, the ignorance of the general arts public about the value of critics, the dismissal by the overall culture of the importance of critical thinking. I hope the Philadelphia convention will shed some light on how to move forward, together, dealing with these problems.

Posted by: Howard Mandel at May 15, 2006 5:15 AM

Not to quibble much with Mr. Mandel, but the growing blogosphere is going to affect all the issues he discusses -- as the intense flurry of posts from both participants and commenters over these first two days of this discussion indicates. It may be the defining issue of arts journalism today, as political blogging was the defining issue of political journalism a few years ago.

Posted by: George Hunka at May 15, 2006 5:38 AM

One thing about critics, they sure can't speak louder than a bill collector. I am a non-starving visual artist in Denver, Colorado. I intend to have a successful artlife inspite of art critics. I do however have great admiration for arts reporters. Sincerely- Bob Ragland-Artist.

Posted by: Bob Ragland at May 15, 2006 11:59 AM

Considering that Mr. McLennan's WELCOME used the word 'authority' twice, I think that the decline of authority in our society over time has contributed to the decline of the role and status of the critic as arbiter and gatekeeper of the arts in our society.

Posted by: Anonymous at May 18, 2006 1:34 AM

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