A resurgence of criticism?
Last week featured some insightful comments on the growing national issue of quid pro quo between writers and readers, artists and audiences, newspapers and the communities they cover. I like how Joe started this week by picking up where we left off. Jennifer did, too. I'd like to continue.
The tyranny of service journalism
First, an addendum to the oft-heard excuse from editors: "If a show happens only once, what's the point of a review?" Joe implied rightly that this kind of remark is rather daft. You never hear this applied to sports or legal reporting or the cops beat or any other subject of newsgathering. But it's commonly applied to the arts.
As Joe noted: "Newspapers exist to document the things that happen in our communities, and how those things spin together into a community's sense of self and trajectory of advancement. And sometimes, the most important thing that happened yesterday wasn't a murder, or a football game, or a lawsuit filed against the state. It was a concert."
I would add this: that this remark -- "what's the point of a review?" -- reflects the tyranny of service journalism as it is applied to arts coverage. Like Roger Ebert, we arts journalists, according to this consumer-oriented logic, are supposed to act as guides, helping readers determine the best use of their entertainment dollar.
If a production only happens once, then a review won't do any good in helping people decide what to do with their entertainment dollar, because, of course, there was only one show to go to. By this way of thinking, the core question returns: What's the point?
From pulpit to switchboard
While I think there's merit to service journalism, it may be a industry trend that fast coming to an end. Why? Because a thumbs-up/thumbs-down review is increasingly the preserve of the blogosphere. Bloggers do it better, faster and, assuming that editors continue to pressure critics into being consumer guides, bloggers are undermining our jobs. Just as an illegal immigrant's willingness to work for less dilutes the labor market, bloggers are doing what Roger Ebert's been doing for yeard -- only they're doing it for free.
To be sure, this is no nativist defense of our privilege as arts journalists. On the contrary, I think there's much to look forward to in the world of blogging. I'm not convinced that much of it is worth my time, but much of it is, as Terry Teachout noted recently in the Wall Street Journal. I merely note that the old writing conventions of arts journalism -- the consumer-oriented Ebertian thumbs up and down mode of rhetoric -- cannot be maintained in light of this strange new world of the blogosphere.
Indeed, there's no point in writing a consumer-oriented review when there are people writing faster and better and with far more passion. The consumerist review made a lot of sense in a 20th century dominated by mass media, a time when we were the gatekeepers to what's good and what's bad. But there's less and less mass in contemporary media these days, because there are more and more gates to be kept by more and more people. If critics are going to turn the pulpit into a switchboard (a nice turn of phrase, incidentally, by our Montana Man Joe), we're going to need something new.
Or, considering the wealth of commentary last week, maybe what we need is in fact old?
Down with reviews, up with criticism
Many Flyover commentators noted that newspapers need to stop reviewing and return to the lost art of criticism -- an old-fashioned writing convention employing the somewhat quaint (according to the logic of service journalism) modes of insight, analysis, commentary, historical context, aesthetic sensibility and other modes and forms of respectful, honest and sensitive literary engagement.
Habeas wrote: "Newspapers get little response to 'reviews' because most are not 'criticism.' They're reviews. There's little to respond to when the theatre 'article' consists of a quick plot summary, a compliment or pan to a few of the actors and production details. Why would I write to a paper -- to disagree with the reviewer? What's the point, since I'm unlikely to alter that person's opinion?"
James A. Weaver wrote that critiques aim for illumination rather than mere evaluation. "They establish what aesthetics are intended to accomplish," he said, "and they distinguish the difference between good and bad art."
Mike Boehm, of the Los Angeles Times, said provocative arts criticism is the best way to spark quid pro quo. But provocative criticism, like negative critiques, requires the backing of management: that is to say, the inch-count to develop your arguments with specific examples, fleshed-out analysis and illuminating comparisons. I'd say at least 20 inches, but most reviews are shoe-horned into 10.
As Mike notes, with a bonus caveat: "First make sure your editors WANT provocative criticism ... Oh, and when the symphony or museum board chairman calls his/her country club buddy, your publisher, be sure your editors have trained said publisher to say the journalistically correct thing, and mean it."
These comments addressed criticism as it appears in print. But what about this brave new world of the Internet? We've already discussed (and will continue to discuss) the good that comes from being able to respond to arts writing quickly when it's worth responding to.
Can blogs -- especially as they are currently perceived and operated by newspapers in the American Outback -- fuel a move away from service journalism and spark a resugence in genuine criticism? Can the internet lift the old restrictions enough to allow for a new flourishing?
As always, let us know what you think.
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
Other Great Sites
American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
National Arts Journalism Program
NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater
New Music Box: American Music Center
USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog