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July 18, 2007

A resurgence of criticism?

John Stoehr

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."

Well put.

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?

Absolutely none.

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.

Posted by John Stoehr at July 18, 2007 1:01 AM



Thanks for the conversation.

You said: "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?"

I have written at some length about the new guises of theatre-talk and the developments within the artist/critic relationship being fueled by the new modes of internet publication at Rat Sass.

American Outback newspapers are commercial enterprises same as others. Blogs are conceived and sponsored by newspapers as added value to their print product. The writers assigned or given these blogs are for the most part print reviewers, not critics. Not to say that some of these reviewers don't have the ability to write criticism, but they would need to find their own individual motivation (and blogs) for such. Readers of criticism are an elite market that newspapers through their blogs are unlikely to chase.

If a new species of drama criticism is to emerge via the internet, expect it to be born from among artist/critics who practice art as well as write about it. The artist who has a practice has an aesthetic stake to defend or explain or propagandize. His criticism of other artists' work will necessarily have both the bias and the integrity of this practice as its foundation. He is able to speak from this specific base of aesthetic knowledge -- to define and delineate borders between his practice and others'. This kind of criticism creates a venue for an exchange of ideas outside the market, a discourse about the art form itself.

Posted by: nick at July 18, 2007 8:29 AM

Nick makes an excellent point regarding the emergence of artists/ critics on the Internet. The blogs I'm most likely to read are those written by practitioners and lovers of a specific artform. These people perform critique from within a field, rather than commenting from without. (To continue the sports analogies, some of the best sportswriters are former athletes with at least amateur abilities in multiple sports, in addition to their professional writing skills, because they know the game and its emotions, not just its terms.)

The economic realities of the newspaper industry may force "service journalism," which has the paradoxical effect of driving higher-quality arts criticism into the free-access world of blogs. (I need to reflect more on "service journalism" as a concept--it says a lot!) From a theatrical marketing perspective, though, it benefits companies doing mediocre work if local papers hire reviewers instead of critics.

At least in the U.S., the theatre has never really worked out a comfortable place for critics who wish to help companies improve their work. We struggle with the roles of dramaturgs in our companies, and in relation with local media often question critics' credentials or judgment rather than examine the worth of our work. What can the arts community do from within to aid in raising the quality of the generation of emerging criticism? "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/
But in ourselves, that we are underlings...."

Posted by: habeas at July 19, 2007 7:46 AM