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May 12, 2006

Break Rules


Continue reading "Break Rules"

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Engaging With The Arts


Continue reading "Engaging With The Arts"

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by Douglas McLennan
Who Needs Critics? - BuzzMachine
Engaging with the Arts - By Joseph Horowitz

Break Rules - By Enrique Fernandez

Why Arts Coverage Should Be More Like Sports - By Chris Lavin

Posted at 11:20 AM | permalink | email this entry

by Douglas McLennan

Misha Berson
Theatre Critic, Seattle Times

Larry Blumenfeld
Jazz Critic, Wall Street Journal

Caryn Brooks
A&E Editor, asap, Associated Press

Jeanne Carstensen
Managing Editor, Salon.com

Anthony DeCurtis
Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone

Enrique Fernandez
Critic, Miami Herald

Tyler Green
Art Critic, Modern Art Notes

Joseph Horowitz
author/orchestra consultant

Chris Lavin
Senior Editor/Special Sections, San Diego Union-Tribune

Ruth Lopez
Art & Design Editor, Time Out Chicago

Maud Newton
Book Critic, MaudNewton.com

Claude Peck
Fine Arts Editor, The Star-Tribune (Mpls)

Inga Saffron
Architecture Critic, Philadelphia Inquirer

Andras Szanto
Former Director, National Arts Journalism Program

Terry Teachout
Critic, AboutLastNight

Jerome Weeks
Book Critic, Dallas Morning News

Moderated by
Douglas McLennan

Editor, ArtsJournal.com

Posted at 12:15 PM | permalink | email this entry

Our Topic

by Douglas McLennan
Everyone's a critic. And now that anyone has access to an audience through the internet, our computers have become a cacophony of people with opinions. Clearly not all opinions are equal. Traditionally, the influence of an opinion was closely tied to the venue in which it was published - how widely it was disseminated or how prestigious the publication was thought to be...

Continue reading "Our Topic"

Posted at 12:37 PM | permalink | email this entry

What's going on here...

by Douglas McLennan
From May 18-21 one hundred alumni of the National Arts Journalism Program will be meeting in Philadelphia. The meeting includes a day-long conference at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the state of arts journalism called "The New Playing Field". Prior to the conference, ArtsJournal is hosting an online debate about the changing nature of culture and cultural journalism. We've invited 15 critics and editors to take part. They'll be posting every day and we invite readers to join the conversation. Reader posts will...

Continue reading "What's going on here..."

Posted at 12:42 PM | permalink | email this entry

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 at 9:48 AM | permalink | email this entry | 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 at 11:00 AM | permalink | email this entry

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 at 12:01 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (4)

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 at 2:06 PM | permalink | email this entry | 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 at 3:01 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (2)

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 at 3:54 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

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 at 7:17 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (5)

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 at 9:02 PM | permalink | email this entry

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 at 9:58 PM | permalink | email this entry

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 at 10:24 PM | permalink | email this entry

May 15, 2006

Insert head (A) in sand (B)

by About Last Night

Joseph Horowitz, Enrique Fernandez, and Caryn Brooks all say that criticism needs to start breaking its own rules in order to become more effective. Maud Newton says it doesn’t matter where good criticism is published, so long as it is good. I agree on all counts—but it strikes me that new media, precisely because of their uninstitutionalized newness, are more likely to encourage the kind of rule-breaking writing we need if criticism is to flourish.

I wouldn’t say such a thing if I didn’t know it was happening. Unlike Anthony DeCurtis, who “rarely read[s] blogs on the arts,” I read them every day, and I know there’s far more to artblogging than indiscriminate amateur passion. Of course there’s plenty of that, and I’d even venture to agree with DeCurtis that no more than ten percent of artblogs (if that) are “worthwhile stuff.” But that still adds up to a huge amount of good writing, and my guess is that much, perhaps most of it is being done by people under the age of forty who, like most people under the age of forty, are increasingly alienated from the print media, to the extent that they think about them at all. We overlook their work—and their vitality—at our peril.

Too much of what old-media people write about the new media is foolishly contemptuous. I offer as Exhibit A the following remark:

Blogs will be a continuing part of content output, but only a relative few will be read beyond the narrowest of audiences. Most of them will disappear unnoticed, and frankly unmissed by the world.

Some blogs are conversations among people you’d frankly prefer not to meet, others are cries for help and their writers are clearly in need of therapy. Others are just people expressing themselves, which is an entirely honourable pursuit, but would you like to meet this geek on a dark night?

The speaker is Paul Hayes, managing director of England’s Times Newspapers. I can’t begin to list the number of ways in which he’s missing the point of blogging. I hope his organization doesn’t make the same mistake.

Posted at 5:21 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (3)

Andras and smoke


Andras said:

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.

Perhaps Andras fails to grasp the blogosphere. First: People read blogs because we don't use the word 'postmodern.' (OK, that's only one reason.) Also: It sounds like Andras thinks that the blogosphere is a third-rate, pet-rockish phenomenon that will pass and the Assertive Voices will re-assert themselves. Hooey.

The blogosphere is survival of the fittest, HTML-style. The good bloggers get read, others get much less-read. Individual authority must be earned -- bloggers don't have a newspaper's good name to supply them with clout or with a platform. Instead we earn it ourselves. Readers seem to respond to that: Blog readership numbers are growing, not shrinking.

But for the sake of Andras' argument, let's say that there is 'room' for 10 prominent voices on the visual arts. Right now 2-3 of those voices are bloggers. Within two years I bet bloggers are double that many. There are plenty of reasons for this: With the exception of the LAT, NYT and a few other outlets, most newspapers don't have full-time art critics anymore. Bloggers are filling that void. There are also more smart people out there who like to think out-loud about art than there are jobs at newspapers and magazines. Many of them are worth reading regularly. Some of them are gallerists, others are management consultants. There are more good new art blogs coming online every week. Bloggers are here to stay. (See Terry's post, below this one.)

If there is smoke, and if it clears, it's not bloggers who will be losing readership. In the visual arts, there are only 2-4 newspapers with strong national, critical voices. The WSJ doesn't have an art critic. Neither does NPR. The Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, and other super-regional papers have art writers who barely leave their home turf. As the art world has shaken off regionalism for internationalism, (like commerce, science, etc.), those papers haven't adapted.

The voices that will be forgotten in the visual arts dialogue are, in order: art magazines and the academics who write for them, regional art writers (add: who don't keep up on art world changes) and writers who fail to build their own audiences. Bloggers will be -- and already are -- the winners of increased readership.

Posted at 6:11 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (9)



Good writing is good writing and fresh perspectives are, well, fresh. We who value both must welcome their arrival through blogs and electronic media, go online to find them, and perhaps join in. It's also important that we understand the blogosphere as more than just a constellation of voices. These are new economies in formation. The ways in which these economies function (through informal association of links, and more formal guidelines of internet-company business plans) will shape much of cultural criticism in the end, and is already affecting the ways in which traditional media operate).

I must echo Enrique Fernandez's comment about democracy being good - for government. And I'll amplify a bit by adding that democratic societies need healthy bodies of arts and arts criticism that need not be and perhaps should not be, in themselves, all that democratic. If popularity is the currency that ultimately drives these new markets (unmediated by the sense of mission that layers of editors traditionally impose), where will that lead criticism? And if a good deal of criticism ends up transferred to sites that directly or indirectly market artistic products (as is happening quite a bit in my field, music), how will this be distinguishable from promotion? An odd thing is happening with regard to music in relation to the web: The critical voice is, in some cases, being supplanted by the very art it comments upon (why talk about it when we can simply download it?)

Bloggers have shaken and loosened things up in invigorating ways, first and foremost by creating a challenge to established sources and expected formats (does every concert, for instance, require coverage? And in the same form each time?) But there may be good reason to question the need-for-speed ethic that now diminishes the shelf life of critical commentary about the arts. It is mistake for newspapers and magazines to attempt to ape the appeal and function of electronic media: Instead, they should move further away to distinguish their product and preserve the values that made them significant in the first place.

There's a fascinating and crucial tension between traditional and electronic media right now. Can we affect how it plays out?

Posted at 6:48 AM | permalink | email this entry

Three Cheers Tyler

by Andras Szanto

We’re off to the races. Thank you, Tyler, for responding so quickly to my post. It makes our exchange a perfect demonstration of why online discussions are superior to newspapers or magazines. Were this a newspaper, you would be reading this (in the unlikely case such a back-and-forth was allowed in a daily) a week from now, and I would probably have the final word. Were this a magazine, you would have to wait a month or two for my answer, and another two months for your next answer, by which time everything we originally said would be stale, forgotten, or irrelevant. Nothing more needs to be said about why critical dialogue, or any kind of dialogue, thrives so happily online.

Being labeled a fuzzy-duddy was a self-inflicted danger of my post. Anyway, my point isn’t who wins: of course paper media are on the way out and online journalists/bloviators (depending on skill or temperament) are on the way up. My point is that this is a fleeting democratic moment for the blogsphere, and it’s to be savored by those of us lucky enough to be around and curious right now.

Tyler is a perfect example of how things are likely to go. Having emerged from the fertile but obscure soup of the blogsphere, you now enjoy the imprimatur of prestigious media outlets. The same will happen to a relatively limited number of bright and ambitious journalists. It’s already happening. There will be a huge swarm of bloggers, but that won’t prevent the – watch out, another big word supposedly verboten in cyberspace is coming – discourse from concentrating around a limited number of voices. Those writers will be given better toys, broader distribution, and oh, money, so they’ll be able to keep going. It is they, not the blogsphere as such, who will win the race to capture the public’s attention and to have a say in which art is good, bad, or indifferent.

Will they be in newspapers? They will go where they can reach an audience, and they will promote themselves in media old and new. Will they refuse a book contract or a column in the New York Times? I doubt it.

A former chairman of IBM once said to a gathering of university professors, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that in the future, professors will make millions. The bad news is there will only be a dozen of them.” So the good news is that in the future there will be millions of art critics (a Google blog search for “art criticism” at around 9 am this morning pulled up 44,569, and the first one is called “Everyone’s a critic”). The bad news is that only a handful will have impact and earning potential. There will be some –Tyler no doubt among them – who will likely do much better financially than any current critic does (having surveyed their salaries, I know how paltry they are). But there will only be a select few who can build their blogging credentials into a full-blown omnimedia brand.

The relevant question, in any case, is not whether paper journalists or the blogerati will win. The question is what kind of journalism will they practice? The on-point question – about “objectivity,” tone, and standards – is the one being raised by Enrique Fernandez. I don’t care who wins, but I do care about how they will change arts writing.

Posted at 7:37 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

Smoke and mirrors and the future


I sympathise with Mr. Green's frustrations, but I don't think what Andras said is that far from the central predictioon in his own blogosophere triumphalism. All Andras seemed to be saying, to me, was that, as with any critical discussion, a winnowing will occur in the blogosphere. Wit, intelligence, breadth of knowledge, depth of judgment -- all of these remain as values in any discussion of the arts, and as an internet reader -- as any reader would -- I seek them out and learn to ignore all that cloud of chaff. This will inevitably happen there and it will happen in conjunction with print critics.

What I find so irritating and irrelevant from bloggers is the notion that "technology (and tomorrow) belong to me, and therefore I get to declare who will or will not become extinct." Mr. Green ignores two things: One, in a discussion of the arts, in the arts themselves, small is sometimes highly valuable. Simply because a particular artist or critic does not have a huge, worldwide audience, that doesn't mean he is irrelevant and will soon be worthless. For those of us in the books world, the persistence of literary journals and the short story are perfect examples: They wield an influence far larger than their publication numbers indicate. This would seem obvious to bloggers, who generally position themselves as the doughty, lone rebels against the lumbering star-cruiser fleet. But in dismission outright arts journals and other outlets as future roadkill, Mr. Green seems guilty of the very sin with which he charges established print media.

Second, local, not national, is sometimes highly valuable. For all the crowing of bloggers, I've yet to see one offer what a decent daily newspaper's arts pages -- and ONLY a decent daily newspaper's arts pages -- do. One-stop access to a wide variety of guidance to local arts. There are theater blogs, visual arts blogs, and so forth. But to be able to staff a full-range of local guidance generally requires, well, a local staff. This may well happen in the future (or as is the case, newspapers may simply transfer themselves to the web in some altered form, although one hopes with more savvy than they've been demonstrating).

And just to disagree with Andras for a moment: I don't think newspapers are so obviously headed for extinction just yet. Their current troubles have more to do with the departure of advertisers pursuing the same, narrow demographic and the shortsighted greed of owners looking to maintain their 30 percent profit margins by gutting staff than it has to do with any wholesale loss of value.

Posted at 8:02 AM | permalink | email this entry

Twin tracks

by About Last Night

Two things are happening simultaneously in online arts journalism:

(1) A few artbloggers (including Tyler Green and Maud Newton, who are part of this panel, and George Hunka of Superfluities, who is contributing to the comments) have started to be noticed and published by old-media editors.

(2) Most artbloggers remain pure amateurs, writing for love rather than money.

Both kinds of artblogging are interesting and important. In the long run, though, the second kind may prove more significant.

Until very recently, traditional media and the professional writers who publish there were in a monopoly position when it came to the dissemination of critical views. Now they're not. If I read him correctly, Andras thinks the monopoly will eventually reassert itself, albeit in a different form (Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss). I’m not so sure.

One of the things the blogosphere is teaching us is that the world is full of non-professional writers who have compelling things to say, but who in the past lacked the means (or desire) to say them loudly and frequently enough to be heard by a mass audience. Blogs—along with the other new information technologies to which Doug alluded at the start of this discussion, and about which we haven’t yet said much—have changed that.

Larry has it right: “There's a fascinating and crucial tension between traditional and electronic media right now. Can we affect how it plays out?” I think so—but only if old-media editors and publishers start to pay closer and more receptive attention to the culture-changing potential of the new media.

Posted at 8:18 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (2)

Let us entertain you


Andras wrote:

"There will be a huge swarm of bloggers, but that won’t prevent the – watch out, another big word supposedly verboten in cyberspace is coming – discourse from concentrating around a limited number of voices. Those writers will be given better toys, broader distribution, and oh, money, so they’ll be able to keep going."


So the big question is, who will be the people on the top of the pile up?

My whole yarn about the old man and the see is this: Don't look back. Turning into a pillar of salt is the least of your worries.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, there's historical frameworks to be considered and threats of endless repetitions hanging over our heads, but that's not what I'm talking about.

I'm talking about pining for days of fewer distractions and longer word counts and the comfort of a weathered leather club chair in a private office after a three-martini lunch.

Gone, gone, gone.

And thank God.

The artists have finally gotten their revenge on us.

The critics now have to perform.

We have judged artists on their ability to excite, to innovate, to surprise, to engage, to inform.

Now the world is demanding that of us, too.

It might have been enough during a certain period for Christopher Isherwood to declare, "I am a camera."

Today's critic has to declare: "I am a camera, I am a videographer, I am an podcaster, I am a feature writer, I am a critic, I am a marketer, I am a blogger, I am an editor, I am..."

I am the person who can engage the people using whatever tools are available. I am curious enough to examine the way new technologies can help tell stories. I am flexible enough to learn these technologies. I am brazen enough to shamelessly promote my point of view. I am willing to utilize the kinds of storytelling techniques that are pointed out as verboten in "The Elements of Style."

Make no mistake, the reviewers on Amazon.com won't take our jobs. Nor will it be the Depeche Mode obsessive.

But that kid who read your book, learned something from it and created a cult around her brand of critique using a listserv, blog and weekly podcast will.

You might be ok resting on your laurels and teaching at university and ignoring all these electro charges crackling through the air. You might be moderately relevant as a footnote. Your obituary is certainly secure. But your days of making an on-going contribution to the PUBLIC discourse are numbered.

Unless you do something about it.

Will you?

Posted at 8:31 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (6)

Writing Well For Pay?


Certainly, blogs have intensified -- and, in some instances, perhaps, deepened -- our national conversation about the arts. They've been most helpful, to be sure, in disciplines like the visual arts and classical music that struggled for coverage in mainstream media outlets. And in well-covered areas like popular music, where I do most of my writing, they've helped break down the tyranny of sales as a virtually exclusive measure of which artists should be covered. All of that is to the good.
I'm not nearly so high-minded as to leave things there, however. I raise two issues -- one lofty and one more, shall we say, pragmatic. The first is that I rarely hear anyone talk about the quality of writing in blogs. People seem to read less carefully online, and, because of that, writers tend to write less carefully for them. We finally are writers, after all? Does this make a difference to anyone?
The other matter is, ahem, getting paid for doing this work. I did plenty of writing for free when I was starting out, and occasionally still do for academic journalis and such. But as so many newspapers and magazines implode, how is anyone supposed to make a living doing this? I read in the NY Times this morning that enrollments in journalism school are increasing, and I teach a writing seminar every fall at Penn filled with a dozen or so aspiring arts journalists. These people care deeply about the arts, but they also would like to make a decent living writing about them. I suppose that many of those energetically blogging kids being extolled in the entries here would like to do that as well. What is the prospect of that? For them? For ourselves in the future? Do we care?
I don't need to see a business model -- though, if anyone has one, bring it on. But I am curious to hear anyone's speculations about this.

Posted at 8:41 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (3)

Some Comments By Readers...

by Douglas McLennan

You can find complete comments here.

I would disagree that blogs will have no ability to upset journals or other traditional media - we just can't see it yet. In academic circles, it used to be that web materials of any variety were unacceptable for use, being too "unreliable" to serve as reputable resources. But that has changed, and with time, so will blogging. - Claire Blaustein

Blogs often give news, and like newspapers, are discarded from day to day. Yes, they are way ahead of scholarly publications, but their content is not important enough to be lasting. Published articles, on the other hand, will be used by the following generations in a very different way than blogs will be used. I don't think that anything will be made obsolete by blogs. Rather, blogs are filling a void. But they don't threaten the stability of any other form of dialogue. - Jason

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. - Howard Mandel

As Offical Journalists, our name, our sign, our scat remains to claim us: we, the Actual Person are responsible for our words and what they represent. Yes, much art journalism is unreadable gobblygook. Insider, obtuse crap that comes across as more masturbatory than celebratory. Alas, much that makes blogland applies to the latter, as well. - Karen Michel

Writing in any medium, I believe fervently, creates its own legitimacy. Or not. I started my own blog as an experiment: could I, by offering the kind of discussion that is not available in our daily papers, create a legitimacy without the huge economic machine of the print media to back me up? The answer, in a small way, is yes, of course it's possible. I work more or less as any other critic, as part of the press; I get the press releases and tickets and so on. The only difference is that I don't get paid. - Alison Croggon

For the moment, what the best cultural bloggers provide is extended attention to events and trends for which there is little space in the print media today... Blogs also offer, through the links and community possible through the Internet, a larger, self-correcting community that only 20 years would have been unthinkable... Just because the Web sites of newspapers and magazines can boast an astronomically greater circulation than any individual blogger (or, for that matter, group of bloggers) does not mean this is where the best can be found. - George Hunka

Posted at 9:52 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

Everyone is a critic.


One of the benefits of the internet may be its ability to finally move arts criticism into its properly weighted role in arts journalism. That the thousands of blogged opinions from the washed and the unwashed may now be obscuring the work of professional critics, clearly should focus the arts journalist on doing more of the probative, thematic and reportorial work that characterizes the best arts journalism today. Criticism has a fine and long tradition. It should continue -- in its place. But clinging endlessly to that traditional, limited model in the central position it has held, will continue arts journalism sliding toward obscurity. If word of mouth, fueled by the internet, is essentially going to replace the power of the all-knowing and highly trained critic to make or break a show, I'd look for a new way of communicating the essential quality and importance of the arts today. Arts journalism should be more than criticism, particularly in populist publications like newspapers and magazines. We should be doing more reporting. More innovative photography. More analyses of trends and finances. Perhaps even more probative work on the questionable decisions in schools across America to value and fund sports more liberally than music and theater. The breadth of work to be done is wider than the focus taken on by the combined forces of all the arts journalists in America. Too much of that focus remains on criticism alone.

Posted at 11:28 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

In defense of critics


In Chris Lavin's Poynter piece (and again in the post below), Lavin engages in whumping broadsides against critics and criticdom without naming names or citing examples. That makes it a little tough to respond, but I'll try. In his Poynter essay he wrote:

"Reviews, almost by their definition, are narrowly focused -- they speak to the theater community and to people who attended the show or are considering attending a show. I don't believe they attract the eyes of the non-theater-going community nor do I think they are generally written in a way that makes the art form more accessible to a broad newspaper or television audience."

That's a problem with the reviewer, not with the concept of reviewing a show. The best arts criticism presents art within the context  in which the art was made -- or the context in which it is seen today. It takes on questions such as: Why does this art matter (or not matter) now? How and why is, say, Goya relevant today? Or not? (The critical crue at the LA Times is the best example of this. I couldn't give two snits about classical music, but I love reading Mark Swed.)

And is Lavin actually saying that blogs (which he seems to dismiss as "the unwashed") are akin to word-of-mouth banter, to gossiping? If the only blogs he reads are Perez Hilton-style, sure. But if he's reading Ed Winkleman or Terry Teachout or Barry Hoggard or James Wagner or PORT...

And does Lavin really think that blogs are "obscuring" the work of "professionals?" Can he give some examples of that? It seems a rather remarkable -- even unlikely -- charge.

Posted at 11:40 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

jumper from the corner


Having just read Chris Lavin's brilliant speech "Why Arts Coverage Should Be More Like Sports," I flashed back to a recent piece I did for WSJ, on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his interest making a documentary linking basketball to jazz. Now, this piece was an excuse to express my own twin passions for these subjects, and to share (validate?) the aesthetic connections I see (improvisation blended into form; the primacy of changes in rhythm and tempo... but I digress). What Abdul-Jabbar wished to do was to share a moment in Renaissance Harlem when basketball and jazz were literally linked — performed on the same floor, on the same night — as part of a larger culture. What's more, through that long lens, he hoped to bridge today's hiphop-inflected, big-money game with its more modest jazz-related predecessor. (It's worth noting that jazz and hiphop cultures, which musicians and DJs readily connect, rarely meet within music media — yet, again, I digress).
Kareem sought to create context through storytelling.
Lavin's focus on storytelling, and on an arc and depth and color to coverage that reaches around and beyond simply reviews, hits home for me. Arts coverage needs to be much more than a series of reports on events and products, punctuated by profiles of personalities deemed important by virtue of the success of their live events and products (or trend stories that find similarities between recent events and products). Online media and the rise of the computer as a personal media center may stifle the outgoing and communal nature of cultural experience (arguable, but that's how I feel) and further segment and isolate cultural consumption. Yet online media and the blogosphere could, perhaps paradoxically, reconnect the dots that place each art form within a larger and more engaging picture (at the very least, guys like Sasha Frere-Jones and Alex Ross link music, life, and visual images in interesting ways online). Or — consider this — newspaper and magazine editors, once they realize how much their work is being displaced in terms of straight and timely reviews, might end up moved to cover arts in a deeper, more varied and investigative manner.
Might happen.

Posted at 6:34 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (2)

Terms of Engagement


Larry, what you and Chris Lavin espouse, honoring the “communal nature of cultural experience” and an “arc and depth and color” of cultural coverage, resonates with what I have been hollering about. I favor a more radical and comprehensive move along the same lines. I believe every aspect of the template that holds criticism at arm’s length should be thrown out. Let’s erase the line between critics and practitioners. This is also what Enrique is talking about, if I read him right.

One of the most irksome aspects of critical disengagement, in all its forms, is that this “objectivity” business is something new and questionable, not something old and venerable. In fact, its history is recent and murky. It’s fallen into place arbitrarily and circumstantially. In my blog piece (“Engaging with the Arts”), I suggest that its strict implementation at the Times, when I was a critic there, was partly a function of a senior critic’s particular limitations.

Look at Brustein, Tynan, Shaw, Greenberg, Clurman, Thomson, Schumann, Berlioz. They were part of the arts community. They were engaged. They didn’t limit themselves to pro forma “reviews.” They wrote with style. They mattered.

Posted at 7:48 PM | permalink | email this entry

Missing in action

by About Last Night

I, too, have serious problems with Times-style “objectivity.” A critic who holds himself at arm's length from the artistic community whose activities he covers is a eunuch in the harem.

For the same reason, I also believe in the value of practitioner criticism, though it should be taken with a grain or two (or three) of salt, since it often says as much or more about the practitioner in question as it does the object of his criticism. Still, it’s almost always worth hearing, just as it’s valuable, maybe even essential, for critics of the performing arts to have had some kind of hands-on professional experience, whether on or off stage, in at least one art form. Such experience, as I’ve written elsewhere, helps to give the working critic a proper respect for what Wilfrid Sheed calls "the simple miracle of getting the curtain up every night." It's hard to sing Tatyana in Yevgeny Onegin, or to dance in Concerto Barocco. It's scary to go out in front of a thousand people in a dumb-looking costume and put your heart and soul on the line. Unless a critic has some personal experience of what that feels like—of the problems, both psychological and practical, that stand in the way of getting the curtain up—he may err on the side of an unrealistic perfectionism, and his reviews will be sterile and uncomprehending as a result.

All the more reason (you saw this coming, didn’t you?) why artists should start their own blogs. Here’s a good one. And all the more reason, too, for arts editors to encourage artists to write for their publications as often as possible.

Posted at 8:22 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (2)

A podium in the press


Following up on Terry's last posting, I would be curious to know to what extent arts editors these days actually do "encourage artists to write for their publications as much as possible." That's a dandy idea. I don't see that happening in New York.

It used to be that when people like Harold Clurman and George Gershwin had something important to say, their most conspicuous and useful podium -- a spur to constructive public dialogue -- was the Times' Arts and Leisure section. (Gershwin, eg, wrote a long and now-famous piece defending "Porgy and Bess" vs. various criticisms in the press.) You don't see that any more. And I would go so far as to speculate that the people who edit Arts and Leisure aren't aware that this was once completely uncontroversial.

Posted at 8:49 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (3)

Quote the artist


While I have on occasion commissioned pieces written by artists for my newspaper, it is pretty rare. For one thing, artists are busy being artists and I haven't found that many who are interested in writing for publication. It's great when we can get their voices into print, but keep in mind that we do that many times a week when our reporters and critics interview artists, directors, curators, actors, musicians and composerrs for stories about upcoming shows, plays, exhibits and concerts. Those stories get artists' voices into the paper. Reported stories like those in the arts are relatively rare in blog-o-land, where one is more likely to encounter opinion without reporting.

Posted at 11:17 PM | permalink | email this entry

Discrimination Theatre

by Douglas McLennan

I’m interested (though hardly surprised) that much of this discussion has been a blogger-versus-print debate. But if we leave it at that level, I think we’re missing the point.

There’s nothing magical about blogs. There’s not really anything radically new about blogging. A blog is a cheap, easy publishing platform that opens up the ability to publish to almost anyone. But there are as many kinds of blogs out there as there are bloggers. Technorati reports that 17,000 new blogs are created every day.

Blogs are unreliable? Well, libraries are unreliable too if you don’t know how to use them. God knows the traditional press is unreliable if you’re not discriminating. If you’re indiscriminate about watching TV your brain can turn to mush. But TV can also be a window on the world. It’s all about choices and your sophistication in making them. So debating blogs versus traditional print is not very useful.

Ironically – I think – this issue of making discriminating choices about blogs relates directly to the traditional role of the critic. Critics make choices, weeding out the quality from the mass and providing context. So it’s an odd thing for a critic to be making an undifferentiated argument about the value (or lack of value) of blogs. Blogs are a technology platform, not a state of being.

I think there has been confusion for some time about the role of a critic. Is it primarily to pass judgment up or down, be a Consumer Report? Or is it to deal in context and ideas, using culture as raw material? The trend at many newspapers seems to be the former. But technology is becoming more efficient in that role – the wisdom of the many (whether it’s aggregated critical opinion at RottenTomatoes.com or the reader value ranking systems of sites like Digg or NewsVine) seems to interest people more than the up-or-down judgments of most individual critics. And why not?

Aren’t critics supposed to help us discover culture we might like? Well, again technology is getting more efficient at that too – Pandora uses the Music Genome Project to feed you streams of music you probably will like. Register your preferences at any number of websites and you’ll be fed a diet of whatever you say you’re looking for. It’s amazingly sophisticated. Want to stumble over something new? There’s Pitchfork and Podbop and… Looking for recommendations on the local scene? Flavorpill is happy to oblige, and there are any number of tell-a-friend sites that are pretty reliable.

The point is, many of the functions that have traditionally been the domain of the critic are now being done in other, more efficient ways. Whether or not you-the-consumer still want to have a relationship with an actual critic person depends more and more on the specific person. With the rising glut of culture that now engulfs us, there is more need than ever for critics/curators to help us wade through it all. But what is the essential thing that an arts journalist needs to bring to the table? How does an arts journalist accumulate the critical capital to make an impact?

Posted at 11:24 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (9)

May 16, 2006

Sports and the Arts


I have some issues with overworking the connection between sports and the arts, though I'm a sports fan myself. Certainly the sports coverage in most newspapers tends to be better than the arts coverage, but a significant reason for this is that editors are far more likely to be sports fans than art connoisseurs. The plentiful coverage -- plus, to be blunt, the fact that sports are a lot easier to understand and require less of the spectator than the arts tend to (the faux populism of the sports comparison really does annoy me, I must admit) -- creates an audience that demands quality writing and coverage and won't put up with less. I can't tell you how many writers I know who couldn't cut it in sports section and got transferred to the job of rock critic because, hey, they like music and who cares if they can't write well or knowledgably about it.
As for access, it's true that athletes can be fined if they don't do interviews -- so can movie stars, who typically are contractually obligated to grant interviews to promote their new projects. Both produce about the same quality of interview. Locker-room interviews are the very definition of trite, as are movie junkets. In-depth stories with the kind of drama we all like are equally rare in both fields.
Also, the heart of sports writing -- the follow-up game report and analysis -- really is the equivalent of the review. The difference is that, because of television and the plethora of coverage I've already described, people already know the basics and you can get as deep as you want. Columnists -- the equivalent of critics, really -- are again given an enormous amount of range to comment on the sports issues they're interested in. How many arts writers enjoy similar freedom?
As for local coverage, I don't know who these actors, musicians, painters and writers are who refuse to open up to the media, because I've never met them. Local artists are desperate for coverage, and if you show them the slightest attention, they'll practically invite you to live with them. Try to get the space for those stories.
People at the top of their field in terms of accomplishment or fame are always going to be hard to get access to. But you have a much better shot if you establish your publication as smart and friendly to the arts.

Posted at 6:18 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (5)

Censored sex and the city paper


A few words on journalistic objectivity. In the 90s I wrote a feature for a NY paper on the city's Colombian community in the borough of Queens -- home of the largest Colombian population outside their country. I was interested in reporting on it because it defied some Anglo-American notions of a barrio. To wit, there was a certain amount of prosperity, albeit some of it from illegal business -- in that sense no different from the history of many immigrant communities in American cities. I learned of a couple of upscale women's boutiques and went to interview their owners. These female entrempeneurs showed me the clothes they sold, all of it European latest fashion, all of it very sexy -- the shoes would've made the ladies in Sex and the City blush, the slacks and jeans were curve-revealing skintight. "American women are not as comfortable with their bodies and their sensuality as we Latinas are,'' one of the boutique owners told me. I quoted her. When I filed my copy, one of the paper's editors who was overseeing the project told me, "You're very sexist.'' Since it was a man talking to me, I thought it was some kind of macho joke. But no, he was serious. Then he showed me a photo one of the paper photographers had taken to illustrate the article, of an aged and poor Colombian woman in church. "Is she sexy and proud of her body?", the editor asked me. It did not matter that I insisted I had not said it, a woman had, a Colombian woman, a Colombian woman who ran her own business. Sexist he thought it to be and so that whole section was deleted.
Journalistic objectivity is sloppy at best, biased at its worst. There was no science in my method of finding suitable subjects for my article, nor was there any in the photographer's. However, I approached my topic from the perspective of a Latin American, someone who knew both the neighborhood and the country where its residents came from, and a former academic Latinamericanist. My editor approached it from the point of view of (stupid) accepted wisdomo: a Latino neighborhood is the home of the suffering and downtrodden, like the woman in the photograph and not like the sassy ladies who ran their own successful upscale business. Where does objectivity lie?
To echo Joe's plea for engagement, I submit that my personal engagement in Latino communities guides the choices I make as a reporter. Do not confuse this with identity politics, which I have grown to detest. This has nothing to do with ethnic pride, ugh. It has to do with experience, in my case both in training (academic experience in Latin American culture) and life (having grown up and continuing to live inside Latin American culture). Lacking any scientifically verifiable standard of objectivity -- and, as I have indicated before the very notion has no scientific basis -- I use what most journalists use: my nose (er, perhaps a bad choice of words in reference to my Colombian brothers and sisters). No one is born with a nose for culture, whether it's politics or the arts, any more than with a nose for wine. One acquires it. And the strongest way to acquire it is to be engaged with the subject matter at hand.
As for artists publishing, I refer you to a brilliant NTY Tijmes article by Brazilian singer/songwriter Caetano Veloso on the film Orfeu (based on the same work as the popular though naive Black Orpheus) for which Veloso -- Mr. Veloso at the Times -- wrote the music. That an artist was asked to write and to write about a work in which he was a creator was truly exceptional. As exceptional as the article, one of the most intellectually informed and rigorous I have read in Arts & Leisure (Veloso's intellect is as rich as his musical gifts). It was rigorous but not "objective" and it argued cogent theses from the perspective of engagement. More of that, please!

Posted at 6:53 AM | permalink | email this entry

It all matters


Blogs just might be the best thing that could happen to us. Anyone who has had to explain to an editor why, say, Duchamp is not an obscure reference in an art review, knows how limited traditional print journalism can be as an environment that promotes critical (let alone historical) thought. We, in printdom, have some advantages in terms of quality control but our filtering system is flawed. I’ve often wondered what would happen if arts journalists were allowed to write with the same level of authority as sports writers. Would we gain back readers? Is possible that in a quest to chase down the mythical “everyreader” with bite-size bits of info we’ve actually ended up alienating them?
Column inches in the blogosphere are infinite and, for those who need to weigh in and for readers hungry for something uncensored, it’s a bonanza. Our mission may be different, but maybe we can learn to do things differently. Instead of catering to people who don’t read, why not try going after those who do? Call it an experiment. And let’s not get caught up in the legitimacy game of who is the real critic and who isn’t. For now, it’s whoever has the gumption to write and post their opinions. Several months ago, I participated in a series of events on the state of art criticism at the School of the Art Institute that began with lectures by academics and ended (or devolved depending on your point of view) with a panel of local arts journalists. I was in the latter group and it had been made clear to me by more than one person that “real” criticism did not exist in journalism. (Academics? Dwindling readers? Please). Well, we already know that what we do is much more than purely criticism--we preview, review, feature, profile. Receptivity to the arts can be measured by our ability to do the work we do. What we choose to write about is a form of criticism—and our work is like meat tenderizer. Our work allows critics to go in deeper and readers to get why it matters. And without bloggers, we might not even be having this conversation.

Posted at 7:20 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (4)

Considering the hybrid


So far almost everyone here has dealt in fuzzy generalities instead of talking about specific papers, magazines, or writers. Well, let's begin to change that...

Consider for a moment the hybrid: Part review, part reported piece. In today's New York Times, Alan Riding authors a fine example, an interesting look at Paris' Orangerie.

Daily newspapers almost always shy away from this kind of writing. (Riding and Nicolai Ouroussoff are the only NYT writers who regularly write this way. Sometimes under-appreciated Washington Postie Philip Kennicott does too, but I can't think of many others.) These hybrids are a lot of fun to read, they're thoroughly informative, and they engage readers from multiple angles.

In the last few months I've written two of these pieces for the New York Observer: One on a problematic show of contemporary art from the Islamic world at MoMA, and one on changes at NYC's Guggenheim Museum. They were a joy to write. Judging from the email I received (and from the links and discussion I saw in the blogosphere) I think other people enjoyed reading them too.

One of the best things about this format is that it allows journos/critics to write about the arts within the context of broader human events. That's the context in which art is made, and that is the context in which art is not-often-enough written about.

I'd love to see more of these pieces, especially in Sunday papers which seem made for them. So why do so few daily papers allow/run them?

Posted at 7:42 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (2)

Woa there . . .


I'm sorry, but I have a BIG reservation about throwing out all notions of a critic's so-called objectivity, and the way the highly personal nature of blogging has encouraged this -- what Claude Peck noted earlier about all those fans' reviews and the difficulty in discerning agendas and whose ox is getting gored.

For one thing, many arts critics are not dealing with noble, struggling local painters, actors, authors. We're dealing with billion-dollar, multi-national media conglomerates, and that's a very good reason for the relatively recent development of what Mr. Horowitz rather dismissively terms a critic's "disengagement." What has cheapened the entire enterprise of cultural criticism isn't blogging but the cynical, corporate manipulation of the press: the networks' and movie studios' and record companies' use of blurbs from Any Critic Anywhere (even the creation of Phantom Critics), its promotion and manipulation of happy-face critics on TV and so on.

Ultimately, as much as I may admire, identify with and learn from an artist, my duties lie with the reader, serving him, and as artists have increasingly become very media-and-self-promotion savvy, I have become wary of being courted and spun. As a book critic, I've had acquaintances call me up and flat-out ask for reviews. When I told them this simply wasn't permitted, they were taken aback -- an indication of the easy, completely accepted notion in the New York media world of one hand washing the other, and a good reason, one suspects, that so much of what passes for book reviewing in New York is cozy, snoozy and insular.

On the other hand, when I was a theater critic in Dallas, I went to parties with theater people, mingled with them, gained sources -- hell, I married a local actress. But before I even dated her, I told her that I could never review her again. That was part of the bargain.

Her reply: Well, your never reviewing me again would be a plus, wouldn't it?

Added, later thought: None of the above directly pertains to a critic's impersonal objectivity, which I agree is philosophically, psychologically impossible to attain. And it's debatable how valuable trying to achieve that is, as opposed to simply being open about one's preferences, biases, etc. My argument above concerns professional objectivity. And if people want to be taken seriously as cultural critics, I seriously believe that's fundamental.

Posted at 8:34 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

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 at 9:27 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (2)

Different islands


Claude Peck writes that he hasn't found many artists "who are interested in writing for publication." I have heard that from other editors, too. To blunder in, presumptuously: I can think of any number of musicians who would very likely be interested in writing for publication and who would have something distinctive and valuable to say -- something they could say better than anyone else..

It depends on who you ask. It depends on who you know.

This is another department of objectivity/disengagement: journalists/critics and artistis tend to live on different islands. I appreciate that there are advantages, but on balance I don't think it's healthy.

Also, being cited or quoted isn't remotely like writing your own piece. In my experience, I am never quoted precisely and rarely quoted reliably. I usually wind up supplying a morsel for someone else's meal.

Posted at 9:30 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (2)

Echoing Peck


I have to agree with Claude in general on the 'hard to find artists willing to write' argument -- with this proviso: In my experience, it has been hard to find artists and musicians willing to write who can articulate what they're doing well, given the time and space restrictions and given the idea that the article/essay isn't simply an ad for their institution or work. The lack of good writers among painters or theater people or musicians may seem odd, but -- to return to the dread world of sports analogies -- athletes often can't explain what they do. That's what coaches and managers and agents and TV sportscasters are for.

Over the years, we've approached artists and area arts groups for this or that reason, and we often found that the temptation for them, especially if they're arts administrators, to turn instantly into cheerleaders was a struggle for us to counteract. Instead of insight, analysis, even the promotion of a particular argument or idea, we got boosterism. Folks, writing intelligently and cogently about culture is a set of skills , ones that may be cheaply discounted in the current market, but nevertheless, not everyone has them. I'm sure there are artists who can do this, and I'm not saying we shouldn't try. Frankly, I think it would be great. But consider it seriously for a moment: In your direct experience, just how common is the artist-writer-intellectual-journalist?

Posted at 10:19 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (15)

Other voices


The internet gives great opportunities for innovation, but I'm not ready to give up on print and the guiding hand of journalism. Over the last year or so, we've experimented at the San Diego Union-Tribune with a number of new approaches to covering arts events. For coverage of a lengthy summer music festival in La Jolla, we've assigned general assignment writers to do saturation coverage, looking with fresh eyes at the annual gathering of some of the world's best classical musicians and writing features, interviews, brief bios and scene pieces. We've had some of our critics interview the subjects of their review -- sort of a post game lockerroom chat -- before sitting to write the review. (Not so surprising, artists are harsher than most critics about their own performance). Our opera critic attended practices and had pre-performance interviews with the director and leading characters before watching and evaluating the performance. We've also diversified voices whenever possible, assigning a theater critic to review an opera; sending the dance critic to do the same. In addition, we have endeavored to free the photojournalism of arts coverage from the limitation of being tied to the event review. In the most dramatic departure, our review of The Barber of Seville ran inside the section, but a 12 column photo of the dramatic set (it wrapped from front to the back of the section) ran on the section cover with a short essay on the visual and staging efforts that opera offers. The result of that photo -- not that this is our job -- was a run on the box office the next day and a sellout for that show. It seems almost trite to say this, but the arts are invariably among the most visually beautiful events in most communities, yet our "game'' coverage, as I like to call it, is too often driven by the 15 or 16 inches of evaluation the review offers. We have also started a new, full-page feature called "Decodings,'' which uses photos, graphics and text to explain in detail elements of arts. One "decoded'' a modern art installation from the artist's and critic's point of view. Another explained the secret signals in Mozart's "Magic Flute.''

We need to take people into the process in varied and creative ways. Pre-game chats, post game interviews. Creative photography and graphics have their place here too. I'd like to start embedding small, remote control cameras in scenery and in smart places at concerts to take our readers into the experience in ways that will look new and fresh. All of these could have energetic presentations on the web as well. Other ideas?

Posted at 11:23 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (3)

More Reader Comments

by Douglas McLennan

You can find complete comments here.

Messaging, email, fingerplans, listservs, Usenet News, webgroups, cheap webhosting, and now blogs. Every one of them was supposed to revolutionize the world like nothing before. Every one of them did have an impact. Every one of them eventually lived down the hype and settled into equilibrium. It's been going on since the early 1970s and probably before then. - Ravi Narasimhan

I see--and use--critics as reporters of an individual encounter with art. They can provide context and interpret and judge, but they also serve as a proxy for me, the reader. Or at least, I imagine and expect to find myself in the critic's position, face to face with art, in attendance at a performance, or reading the same text. This kind of reporting is by definition subjective, and I can find and judge and come to trust (or dismiss) a critic's ability wherever I find her. - Greg.org

One of the things that's changing (I hope) is that print begins to legitimize the online critical community as the online critical community legitimizes the print world. We bloggers already do that by frequently linking to print criticism and information that we find interesting or worthy of discussion. On the other hand, the online world ... George Hunka

You can tell nigh instantly whether a writer knows what he's talking about. You can tell over the course of a few installments whether his critical angle interests you. Good critics apply good writing chops to the experience of looking at art, and they have experiences looking at art worth writing about. A sustained ability to produce the resultant content accumulate critical capital for the writer. - Franklin Einspruch

With Google digitizing the entire print world and no doubt other entities soon springing forth to digitize everything that can be digitied (for example - every photograph ever taken), does the role of critic as an identifier of important/significant culture have any relevance today? After all, if we get to the point that we can capture, save, access and consume all culture whenever and wherever we want, why do we need someone to tell us which cultural products matter anymore? It is a bit like the US government capturing all information that it possibly can on everyone, warehousing the information and then accessing the information should the need arise. When culture no longer has a shelf-life, why do we need a critic to decide what is "good", "bad", "mediocre" or worth consuming? - Dallas

Posted at 12:36 PM | permalink | email this entry

The Other Way Around


To answer Gretel's question about avant-garde journalism, yes. There should be and there has been. Alternative journlaism was born out of the 60s counterculture/New Left movement. Though I should say "reborn" since the Village Voice, mother of all alt weeklies was born in the 50s. The 60s also saw the birth of New Journalism, another rebirth really, since it harked back to earlier, less constricted forms of writing journalism.

Alas, the weeklies became formulaic and New Journalism seemed to have had little impact on dailies. But in those cases, yes, the form and the content matched, e.g. rock criticism always took the same attitude as rock itself. Attitude is all over the blogs, but it's a pity that it hasn't had an impact on dailies, or at least not yet.

Newspapers are going online and we who work in them are being urged to take this medium seriously. The debate over the correctness of such a move has focused on whether the high standards of print journalism will be carried on to the web, or will we allow an unfcoused sloppiness that print journalists see not just online but in all other media. What is missing in the debate is the other way around. Will the online work of print journalists be allowed the attitudinousness that permeates online postings, e.g. can we use 4-letter words, which not always but sometimes are the right words to use for their Anglo-Saxon directness? And will we allow the au courant style of online to seep into our print work. The marriage of new and old media will produce offspring. What beast slouches to the newsroom to be born?

Posted at 2:31 PM | permalink | email this entry

Extraordinary machines

by About Last Night

Doug has been trying to nudge our discussion toward a consideration of the possibility that the new “preference engines” (to coin a phrase) currently being rolled out all over the Web might be making certain forms of arts journalism obsolete. I agree. To be sure, I have yet to buy a single book, CD, or DVD as a result of the countless automated tips generated by amazon.com, but I use Pandora every day (I’ve blogged about it here). Will such devices ultimately replace critics? No, but I think they’re going to have a significant effect on what critics do, just as the rise of the Web has already caused newspapers around the country to rethink the utility of publishing old-fashioned ink-on-paper features like stock-market tables.

I’ve been reading Phillip Lopate’s new anthology of American film criticism, in whose introduction I ran across this passage:

Manny Farber once told an interviewer that as a critic he found the role of evaluation “practically worthless. The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not; the problems of writing are after that. I don’t think it has any importance; it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.”

I don’t agree—not quite—but I do think Farber was onto something that has turned out to be highly relevant.

To quote Doug:

I think there has been confusion for some time about the role of a critic. Is it primarily to pass judgment up or down, be a Consumer Report? Or is it to deal in context and ideas, using culture as raw material? The trend at many newspapers seems to be the former. But technology is becoming more efficient in that role—the wisdom of the many (whether it’s aggregated critical opinion at RottenTomatoes.com or the reader value ranking systems of sites like Digg or NewsVine) seems to interest people more than the up-or-down judgments of most individual critics. And why not?

Now, the “consumer report” function of criticism is not to be despised, especially when you cover a branch of art that is expensive to consume (as I do in my capacity as the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, in whose pages I regularly review Broadway shows with hundred-dollar tops). But I see less and less point in publishing preference-driven “criticism” of such commodity art as Hollywood films and commercial pop music, especially if you’re the editor of a regional newspaper where space and resources are limited. Chris’ posting about the Union-Tribune’s new approaches to covering the arts points to a number of innovative ways in which such papers might make better use of their resident arts writers.

Believe me, I’m not saying that criticism is soooo Nineties, much less soooo over. Good writing justifies its own existence. If you can find people capable of writing stylish, trenchant reviews of blockbuster movies, by all means hire them and let ’em rip—but don’t settle for anything less. If, on the other hand, you have to choose between publishing mediocre criticism and solid, informative feature writing…well, there’s no choice, least of all nowadays.

Posted at 6:20 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (2)

Cocoa Pebbles


A friend argued the other day that the proliferation of critical voices carried on the digital flood makes it more important than ever to find singular critics that one can get to know and like and trust. I think she makes a good point. There’s the practical matter of finding time to read 12 critics instead of one or two.

Like with breakfast cereal, you can be paralyzed by too many choices and comforted when you find one you enjoy every day. The new wrinkle is that it’s possible today that while living in Minneapolis, you can have a fave critic for movies in London, for music in New York, for theater in Minneapolis and for books in Auckland. Your “favorites” can include one critic who works for the Stranger, one for Pitchfork, one for a daily paper, another for a personal blogsite and one for an established online site like Salon or Slate.

It would be nice if the unruly chorus could reign within a single newspaper more than seems to be the case today in cultural journalism. At a union shop like my paper, there are limits to how much freelance I can use, which in turn means that the bulk of the coverage comes from staff writers.

Posted at 6:40 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (2)

Microsoft Sidewalk anyone?


Does anybody remember when City Search and Sidewalk were supposed to take over the world? Back in 1997, I was the new entertainment editor at SFGate.com, the fledgling website of the SF Chronicle and SF Examiner (before the JOA separation operation was performed); as we were trying to figure out how to create our own cultural presence on the web after a century of publishing a newspaper, these new corporations muscled into town with so much money that we thought we'd be dead within the year. Really. Many critics, editors and reporters signed juicy contracts and abandoned print -- supposedly forever. The future of arts journalism seemed secured -- and newspapers weren't going to be part of it. Well, Sidewalk tanked, and City Search survived, but it isn't threatening anybody's job except for listings interns. One main reason for this, I believe, is local knowledge, local authority, connection to the community, all of which takes a long time to develop. The other reason is critical authority. Microsoft tried to buy that authority in the marketplace -- and they did recruit some talent. But their corporate listings machine, even if peopled with a few actual critics, didn't win over readers (although City Search did, and continues to in some cities, drain off some of those all important advestising dollars).

But the challenge of blogs is something different -- because the web currently functions as a universal publishing platfrom. I think we should appreciate this problem while we have it. The glut of opinion -- horrors -- is so much better than its opposite, which is very centralized, corporate-controlled media. But this very glut is also an opportunity for criticism, whether it's published in newspapers owned by verneralbe companies or new outfits such as as Gothamist (and SFist and all its other spawn) or Terry Teachout or the SF community visual art site Fecalface.com. Because with all these choices and voices, we need an organizing intelligence to make sense of it all -- and there is a massive audience of art lovers and consumers out there craving knowledge, craving critics. Once newspapers and magazines quit panicking over blogs and the internet in general, maybe they can beat the bloggers at their own game. Or maybe not. But I do agree with Doug that the blog/old media dichotomy is a red herring.

Posted at 8:26 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (2)

And The Survey Says... The Pay Sucks!

by Douglas McLennan

Here on our final day of this blog, I'd like to return to a question that Anthony asked early on and that some of our commenters have also brought up - where's the money? Why would an accomplished writer with prestigious print gigs like Terry Teachout write a blog for free? Or Greg Sandow or Kyle Gann or Tobi Tobias, Maud Newton or Alex Ross? There are many many others who do other things but somehow find it useful to write for free on a blog.

In the past few years I've talked probably more than 100 such people into blogging, and one of the first questions I'm usually asked is the money question. What I always say (and believe) is that blogging gives you a different relationship with an audience than you get being in print. It's an interactive experience that puts you into conversation with an audience of people who seem to care about what you're saying. And that can be an extremely valuable (and gratifying) resource for a writer and it seems different from the traditional print relationship somehow. The editor who hires Tyler Green not only gets Tyler but an extensive web of people who have been having a relationship with him online for some time.

That's not to say that traditional print journalists don't have extensive contacts too. But the interactive, immediate and personal nature of blogs such as Tyler's and Greg's and Terry's and Maud's and Kyle's are such that these bloggers have access to a pretty amazing network of resources. Tyler, for example was first to break some of the stories about the Getty's recent troubles. I frequently hear from well-placed sources at major cultural institutions eager to share their inside stories.

Yeah, yeah. So a blog is personally stimulating, and it's a great resource for a writer. But the question still remains - who pays for all this free work?

Good question. But it's a question not just confined to the online world. One of the things we haven't talked about here is the crisis of pay for arts journalism. These days it's all but impossible to make a living as an arts journalist in most cities if you're not employed by the local newspaper. And with local newspapers dropping staff critics like so much dirty laundry, even many of those remaining jobs are going away.

Freelance pay is abysmal. Many newspapers are still paying what they were 10 or 15 years ago. How are you supposed to live stringing together reviews at $50 of $75 apiece? And as more newspapers rely on freelancers, the quality and depth of cultural reporting inevitably goes down. Even national publications which once paid decently, have slipped behind. This is a profession that is rapidly turning into a hobby rather than a viable way to make a living. How are younger people supposed to even think about becoming arts journalists if the prospects of making a living are this bleak?

One of the things I have thought about doing here on ArtsJournal is a salary survey - a way of tracking who's paying what where, on the premise that sharing this information might help journalists negotiate better rates. But the likelihood is that such a survey might be too depressing and have the opposite effect. Still - don't the lack of prospects for earning a decent livelihood as arts journalists doom us to a mediocre status?

That's not saying, by the way, that getting paid well is a guarantee of good writing. Indeed, one could make a case that having one of those cushy well-paid staff critic jobs sometimes breeds complacency and arrogance. I've also heard good arguments for term limits for critics so they don't get stale. Still, that old cliche about the starving artist making for better art doesn't work any better if you apply it to critics...

Posted at 11:11 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (5)

May 17, 2006

A Phantom Is Haunting Cyberspace


Marx was right. It's all about economics. Print publications are asking their staff to contribute to online as well, and the inevitable question comes up: Are we going to be compensated for doing that extra work? And the inevitable answer: no. It already happened some time back. When computers took over the magazines and newspapers, the subtext was that writers and editors were being turned into typesetters -- even as that profession was phased out. Then the online revolution came on full blast and the bosses (full disclosure: sometimes I've been one of them) started toying with going online, with not a thought to paying anyone for it. In the end, they (we) had to pay -- hiring web designers and managers. The working stiffs? No extra pay for them. (Boy, was Marx right!). Add to that the fact that, as Doug and others point out, a) bloggers do it for free (print journalists of the world, maybe we should worry about *them* taking over our jobs instead of the brouhaha about illegal aliens), b) print journalists are badly paid to begin with. With print going out of, well, print and a free workforce out there to write all the news that's fit to blog.... do the math. Perhaps journalism will turn into what academia was in earlier times, when gentlemen scholars taught for free -- or a miniscule honorarium -- at the Ivy League schools.
And speaking of academia, where I've done time, the nature of criticism was discussed -- and dismissed -- there a couple of decades ago, when critical theory (structuralism, semiotics, deconstructivism, etc.) swept over the land, much as blogging swept cyberspace later. The consensus was: criticism has nothing to do with the judgment calls journalistic critics (a term we used pejoratively, also calling the field "naive criticism") made. While some of those esaggerated poses have, mercifully, gone away, there was a point there worth hanging on to. Criticism, which has fallen into the Consumer Reports (hey, I've been relying on their tests and recommendations forever) mold in the popular media, could be something else. Criticism could be stimulating discussions about culture pegged to cultural artifacts or creators. That was the nature of the review/essay that The New York Review of Books did so successfully when it was launched. Such discussions are not free-for-alls, however, which is where I fear online bogs (blogs?) down. It should be both challenging and bringing the reader along for the ride. This is part of the notion of new paradigms for journalism that some of us old-timers have been harping about in this group blog. Perhaps the medium is not the message, to riff on a prophetic voice who was, it's important to note, a serious academic before he became a media guru. Perhaps, it's the content. I return to what I said originally: make criticism more interesting and let's see what happens. Question the assumptions -- of blogs as well as newspapers -- and if they don't hold water, change them. By any means necessary -- oops!, I'm showing my age.

Posted at 6:43 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

Nonprofit center

by About Last Night

O.K., so why have I spent the past three years pouring so much time and energy into a medium for which I don’t get paid a cent? I can’t even begin to list the reasons, but these are the big ones:

(1) Total control. I can blog about anything I want, whenever I want, at whatever length I want. All this is in and of itself pleasurable.

(2) Self-fertilization. It’s also creatively stimulating. The act of blogging gives me ideas that sooner or later find their way into my print-media work.

(3) Self-promotion. If you read my blog, you know about whatever I happen to be up to at any given moment: speeches, radio appearances, my latest print-media pieces, whatever. You can also use it to read my bio, buy my books, and send me e-mail.

(4) Dialogue. Not only does blogging put me in touch with readers who have interesting things to say, but it’s introduced me to countless new writers whose blogs I now read daily, some of whom have become good friends.

(5) Rejuvenation. Most of them are younger than I am. Some are much younger. The older you get, the more inclined you are to start looking inward—which isn’t a bad thing. But blogging has had the unintended consequence of putting me in closer touch with new points of view at the precise moment in my life cycle when I might have been more naturally inclined to pay less attention to them.

Yes, I can “afford” to blog because I’ve already established myself as a professional writer. On the other hand, most of my blogger friends haven’t—yet they continue to blog. Why? For all of the above reasons, with special emphasis on (3). As recently as five years ago, one of my stock pieces of advice to young writers was Write as often as you can, wherever you can, for free if necessary, for peanuts if not. Back then you needed a stack of clips to prove to editors that you knew how to write. Now my first piece of advice is Start a blog. If you’re just getting started in the writing business, you can’t afford not to.

Posted at 6:44 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (4)


Enrique writes:
"Criticism could be stimulating discussions about culture pegged to cultural artifacts or creators... Such discussions are not free-for-alls, however, which is where I fear online bogs (blogs?) down."

I don't mean to pick on Enrique here because nearly everyone posting here has done this: But how about some specific examples? I'm not inclined to take a comment like that very seriously when the writer doesn't support it with any evidence. I realize it's hugely popular for MSM types (and I'm one myself) to rip blogs and to accuse them of being a mess. (Romenesko feasts on links to this kind of half-thinking.) While MSMers love to say things like that, I don't think those charges hold up very well when it comes to art blogs. In fact, the overwhelming majority of visual arts bloggers are pretty chummy and we often have smart, considered cross-site discussions.

(Here's some help: I have an extensive blogroll. So does Terry.)

Posted at 6:46 AM | permalink | email this entry

Money, Honey


To be honest, I had questioned whether or not to come to the NAJP bash in Philadelphia because I thought it might be too depressing. After all, people are losing their jobs all over the country, freelance rates (which were often insultingly low to begin with) are getting lower, and the very program sponsoring the conference had been put out of business.

So I'm frankly amazed to encounter the febrile triumphalism, a kind of crazed good cheer, about blogging and its innumberable joys and possibilities that has characterized so much of this conversation. I get that it's fun -- I've had a great time doing it all week. But maybe it's a function of growing up and living in New York, but I've never lacked for smart, interesting people with whom to discuss my ideas. Maybe it's because I mostly write about popular music and teach, but I'm used to interacting with people much younger than me, as well as my age or older.

And maybe it's a function of growing up working class, but I've never had any particular enthusiasm about working for free. I've done it when I've had to or as a sort of pro bono thing, but it's never been something I've wanted to do all the time. And I've tried to instill that ethic in others. As an editor at magazines and of books, I've always tried to get writers the most money I could -- and I've always tried to get paid as well as I could myself. The self-interest in that is obvious, but it also has a broader effect. Once editors pay someone a certain rate, they can't go back, and it's harder to deny others that same rate. I've been on both sides of that negotation, and I know it's true.

The (joyful!) willingness of writers, however, to work for nothing or next to it has finally come home to roost. I remember someone at a record label asking me to write liner notes for an absurdly low fee. When I refused, he said, "I thought you were a fan." I was a fan, but I also wanted to get paid. I asked, "Why would you assume that I would write because I'm a fan, when you didn't ask the photographer if he was a fan. You didn't ask the person designing the booklet if she was a fan." But fabulous lovers of the arts that they are, writers have always been willing to work for very little pay. It's almost a point of pride with some people. I've heard the hurt surprise in editors' voices when I've simply asked what their budget was or -- heaven forfend! -- insisted on getting more. I've even asked editors what they're getting paid, and if their freelance rates reflected that. Think of someone like Don Forst at the Village Voice (may it rest in peace) making more than 300K while cutting the paper's already ridiculously low rates.

Look, I've done very well for a long time and, by the standards of our profession, at least, continue to. But I am concerned about our future. So, to paraphrase Muddy Waters, blog on, my little honeybees, blog on. But know that it's likely to be its own reward for a long time. If you're doing it to promote yourself or as a way of lining up paying work, get it while you can -- those jobs are going, boys and girls, and they ain't coming back. If your ideal world is a utopia of enlightened amateurism -- meant in the best possible sense, as someone said earlier -- welcome to it. But if you want to make a living, hard times lie ahead.

Posted at 8:51 AM | permalink | email this entry

Missing the point


It amazes me how often MSM types miss big, important points about blogging -- and how they then mask their cluelessness with condescension. ("Blog on, my little honeybees, blog on.") The likely explanation is that they don't read blogs... but that they feel so threatened by them that they lash out at bloggers.

I don't know anyone this side of Nick Denton who is trying to make a living off of blogging. (I'm not, and that isn't the point of this conversation anyway.) Many bloggers make valuable contributions to critical discourse. The bloggers I've spotlighted here this week include: a gallerist, a software engineer, and a management consultant. Some of my favorite bloggers are retired investment bankers, museum staffers, and artists. They blog because they feel like they have something to add to the discussion about art in America, not because they're trying to make a killing living. (Not sure how this one word changes my argument, but DeCurtis seems to think it's the most important thing I wrote.) That should be admired and appreciated, not ridiculed. Furthermore, MSM editors and writers should be concerned that many blogs are covering art better than they are and in more interesting ways than they are. Instead of beating-up on bloggers, they should be trying to learn from them.

Posted at 8:59 AM | permalink | email this entry

An artist belongs in the studio


Not really, but we don’t need artists to write to improve the state of cultural journalism, we need arts journalists to be supported in their work, to be given space in their sections and the front of the book and to work with arts editors not generalists bumped over from sports or whatever (there we go again with sports). The artist/writer role has always existed, bravo—go hang out at the College Art Association. But having read a fair amount of artist/writers, interviewed artists (many brilliant, inarticulate ones) and having waded through my share of ridiculous “Artist Statements,” I know that what we need does not exist outside of our field. Yeah, this is one of those "the power is within" ideas with a touch of protectionism but I think that it might take care of the "objectivity" concern.

Posted at 9:04 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (4)

What Money Honey?


Yes! One of the reasons I couldn’t weigh in on this blog as much as I would have liked has everything to do with the money issue—I’m overworked, understaffed, underpaid and so damn relieved to not be freelancing…there you have it--I’ve settled for less. The freelance budget I have been given to work with is an embarrassment, yet there are great writers who will step up and do the job. And they deserve more. We deserve more. Insult to injury are the contracts that we are all required to collect from freelancers (not to mention the contract I was expected to sign that does not allow me to write elsewhere … so I guess they own these here words. Hello!) NAJP has always been a refuge from the reality of our profession's deterioration. So, what do we do?

Posted at 9:29 AM | permalink | email this entry

Thoughts from a "little honeybee"


I started my blog in the summer of 2002. I didn't expect to make a dime from it. And I haven't. Not directly, anyway.

A couple of years ago, though, newspaper and magazine editors I'd never met started emailing and asking me to review books or write articles for them. What led them to think this was a good idea, I can't say. Nor have I ever known, after finishing an assignment, when the next invitation would come -- or if it would. But I do know that my writing would not have appeared in The American Prospect, The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and Newsday had I not started a blog.

Mr. DeCurtis ("blog on, my little honeybees, blog on") seems to view blogging, or any kind of unpaid writing, as a quasi-unethical act.

Let's assume, purely for the sake of argument, that the arts benefit more from the old system, in which a handful of mainstream media critics tell everyone else what to think, than from the new, in which anyone with a computer and an opinion can join the conversation.

What remedy, in his ideal world, would Mr. DeCurtis propose? That we shut down the Internet? That we allow only credentialed journalists to discuss the arts? That we place warning labels on blogs: "writes here 'for nothing or next to it'"?

At an Internet panel held for a group of book publicists last year, one eager young guy kept challenging the bloggers to explain their relevance, to convince him that, in the fleeting and transient world of the Internet, they would be able to help him sell books tomorrow. (Don't get me started on publishers treating blogs as potential marketing venues.) Returning to something I'd said earlier, he asked me this: "If you won't treat your blog as a business, why should I care about it?"

My answer, which began, "I guess you can't expect a room full of publicists to understand that someone might talk about books because she loves them," didn't win me any friends that day. But as someone who never expected to profit from my blog, I'm mystified by corporate and old-media antagonism toward the free and spontaneous writing bloggers do.

Sure, the quality of blogs is uneven. Reliability varies. People like me who hold down day jobs will go silent for days or rely on quick links. But so what? Nobody's forcing your browser to load About Last Night every morning. If you don't like what a blogger does, don't read the site.

Posted at 9:56 AM | permalink | email this entry

Comes now the shibboleth

by About Last Night

Whenever I see the word triumphalism surfacing in a discussion of new media and the arts, I reach for…oh, I don’t know, maybe earplugs? Or perhaps a butter knife with which to slit my wrists. Of course there are those out there in the ’sphere who indulge in foolish triumphalist rhetoric, but I haven’t seen any of it in this space, just the kind of realistic enthusiasm that naturally goes along with being fortunate enough to have witnessed and participated in the emergence of a new cultural technology whose effects on the world of art appear so far to be almost entirely benign.

No, blogging is not going to replace newspapers, and yes, I knew lots and lots of “smart, interesting people with whom to discuss my ideas” long before I went on line, even though I wasn’t fortunate enough to grow up in New York. (I might add that my parents both worked for a living, as do I.) Instead I spent the first half of my life elsewhere, and learned in the process that elsewhere is damned interesting. For those unaware of this fact, however, the blogosphere is likely to be a revelation. What’s more, it is turning “elsewhere” into a technology-enabled community that is extraordinarily diverse and stimulating.

Blogging is also democratic, and that’s something new under the media sun. I think it’s mostly a good thing, too, though I've noticed in the past couple of years that certain old-media types seem to find it threatening. Of course it also has its undesirable aspects, as anyone knows who’s been trashed on amazon.com or gotten caught in the crossfire of a flame war. But that goes with the territory, and it’s (usually) a small price to pay for the compensating benefits.

One last thing: serious arts journalists get paid poorly because the market places a comparatively low value on their services, just as it does on serious art. So be it. If you want to make a lot of money, write about The Da Vinci Code or American Idol. (Or pop music, for that matter.) Or get a real job. Me, I don’t make a whole lot of money, but I do manage to make a living, and I also get to spend my days and nights immersed in that which gives me more pleasure than anything else in the world. What’s more, I like to think that in so doing I help in my modest way to increase the size of the market for serious art.

Posted at 10:09 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)



Sigh. I don't particularly think of myself as an "MSM type" -- whatever that is. (I quote my personal favorite blogger, Jon Swift, on this usage: "MSM...is what we bloggers like to call the mainstream media because it is easier than writing out the words m-a-i-n-s-t-r-e-a-m m-e-d-i-a and the time we save by not writing out the words "mainstream media" can be spent doing more research to back up what we say." http://jonswift.blogspot.com/2006/04/jill-carroll-vs-blogosphere.html.) I've written in all kinds of contexts, including online. And I've been blogging all week.

There is also a difference between making a "killing" and making a living, though that Tyler Green would conflate those ideas is itself revealing. I do appreciate Terry Teachout's patience (which I seem to be exahausting) with my posts; he's taken a pretty balanced, reasonable position. But the world of blogging is democratic sort of in the same way that the rest of our society is. As long as you don't expect to be paid for it, you can pretty much do anything you want. And as I said in my first post (two days and what feels like five million years ago) the relationship of talent to posturing seems to me to be about the same in blogs as in -- oh, OK, I'll say it -- the mainstream media, except that there's a lot more of it.

As for newspaper and magazine editors combing blogs to find new (and, needless to say, often younger, cheaper) writers, fair enough -- good writing can turn up anywhere and everyone deserves a shot. It's also symptomatic of a failure of confidence. They hope the Internet and its presumed demographic will save them, too.

And, who knows, maybe it will. I don't have a remedy, as Maud Newton, points out. But, then, I never claimed to.

Posted at 10:44 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

Last call

by About Last Night

I’m off to a dinner and won’t be back until late, so I thought I’d take my leave of the discussion with a few summary observations.

I’ve been following what other bloggers have been writing about “Critical Edge.” Some find us “windy” and “ivory-towerish,” others compelling and challenging. (Go here to read some of their remarks.) Add in the reader comments posted directly on this page and you can see that a whole lot of people have had a whole lot to say about what we’ve been saying. Needless to say, all these folks are entitled to their opinions—but the fact that I’ve been able to keep up with them in something close to real time is almost as interesting as the opinions themselves.

Whether or not we meant to do so, the participants in “Critical Edge” have just given a striking demonstration of one of the most significant aspects of Web-based information technology, which is the way in which it facilitates direct and immediate interaction between writers and readers. Indeed, the distinction between “writers” and “readers” is growing increasingly artificial: those of you who have contributed to this electronic conversation by posting your comments are no less involved in it than those of us whom Doug McLennan initially asked to take part.

It may well be that blogs as we now know them will no longer exist five years from now, or will have evolved beyond easy recognition. What’s definitely here to stay is the democratization of the cultural conversation brought about by the rise of the new media. It remains to be seen how critics will shape that ongoing process—though I can already tell you that those who decline to participate in it will have no effect on it. For my part, I’m delighted to have gotten in on the ground floor of what I believe to be a revolution in journalism. My thanks to Doug for opening the door.

See you around—and if you haven’t done so already, stop by my blog!

Posted at 1:51 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (3)

May 18, 2006


by Douglas McLennan

Thanks to everyone who participated in our conversation about arts journalism. If lively debate is a sign of a healthy culture, judging by this blog, we're going to do fine. There was a time when New York City had 17 newspapers, and they were constantly arguing with one another in print (how else where you going to get noticed?) It was not exactly the Golden Age of journalism, but the competition of voices made for lively reading. The debate in every arts organization in the land right now is about how to adapt and keep up with a culture that has more and more available to more and more people. The fact that there's more and more writing/broadcasting/podcasting about the arts has to be good, however it happens. So often it's not the voices you know, but those you don't know about who surprise you. Thanks again.

Posted at 7:20 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)