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May 16, 2006

Wounded beast


Yes, a lot of so-so writing shows up in arts blogs, but the same is true in print coverage, where the rote single-source advancer and the dry-as-dust, tossed-adjective review is commonplace.

The New York Times last Friday reviewed the MOMA show of artworks given to the museum by the late California collector Edward Broida. I read and enjoyed the review, but also thought it suffered from overuse of categorizations and art labels. In just a few paragraphs before the jump, the story had a gumbo of “isms,” including several examples of the dread hyphenate-ism: Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, Minimalist-Realist, Abstract Expressionist, faux-Expressionism, Photo Realism and Conceptualism. Expressionism is further divided after the jump into neo-, faux- and anti-. Does this kind of lingo help educate a reader, or throw up barriers to understanding? It seems designed more to show off one's supposed erudition than to clearly explain artists and their work. Should editors flag that kind of usage? I think so, as the bulk of the story had interesting things to say about Philip Guston and other artists represented in the show. But to get to it you had to wade through what read like the index of an art-history textbook.

Counterexamples abound, as in the superb, knowing and sensitive music writing of Times critic Bernard Holland, who had this “applies-to-anyone/anything” observation in a 4-paragraph review in today’s Times, about sadness in Shostakovich’s late string quartets, as played by the Emerson Quartet: “Music can be unhappy in several ways. Some pleads for our sympathy. Some demonstrates its nobility in the face of suffering. Shostakovich’s last quartets do neither. We are witness to something insconsolable that we are helpless to do anything about. Shostakovich in these amazing pieces is like some wounded beast incapable of asking for help, much less pity. We can only observe.” And even if we didn't see the show, we can only keep reading.

Posted by at May 16, 2006 9:27 AM


This comparison (Unnamed Brioda Reviewer v. Holland) gets at the heart of what art criticism is for. Thank you!

I am wondering, though, if the reviewer's goal is to explain work to a less-educated public. This creates a paternalistic relationship between reader and reviewer that can create exactly the overly jargonated blah-dee-blah you describe above.

What is a reviewer's goal? I would argue that Holland's down-to-earth writing is a function of his desire to share his experience and find meaning in what he experiences. Good criticism is a conversation about a work of art's meaning and relevance to the larger culture.

Posted by: Deborah Fisher at May 16, 2006 1:59 PM

I have never understood the paranoid fear of blogging on the part of many print journalists. Much of what bloggers do is link to and comment on newspaper articles. If anything, we are actually delaying the death of print journalism rather than hastening it. That being said, we arts bloggers have a few advantages over our print colleagues.

We can set the tone, without worrying that an editor will gut our writing because it is too highbrow or over-opinionated. (God forbid someone should refer to a novel by Thomas Mann in a classical music concert review in a newspaper.) The bloggers I enjoy reading the most are specialists in their fields, who are interesting to read precisely *because* they do not have journalism degrees. They have degrees in the areas that they cover.

I dispute the labels some have applied to bloggers here ("amateurs," "non-professional," and even "the unwashed"), all of which may apply in some cases, only because the opposition of dilettante and professional is absurd in this situation. If we apply the term strictly, many American classical music critics -- the area where I spend most of my time at Ionarts -- would be the dilettantes, people without degrees or experience in music, let alone advanced degrees in musicology. This is particularly pronounced when one compares American critics to their European counterparts.

Let me make clear that I personally do not believe that one has to have a doctoral degree in musicology to write intelligently about music (in fact, in many cases, it is an impediment) any more than a degree in journalism is necessary. If I had to choose between the two, however, I would probably rather read the former than the latter.

Yes, many blogs are specialized and do not have the same breadth of coverage as a newspaper's Arts section (or, more likely, Living or Style section). At Ionarts, we now have three regular critics who cover classical music, and one critic each for art, ballet, and film. After blogging for a year or so, I started to think that the best end of this endeavor would be incorporation into a newspaper or other major media outlet. I still think that would be a great idea, but no one has called yet.

Posted by: Charles T. Downey at May 17, 2006 3:50 PM

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