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July 11, 2007

Reviews that fuel community dialogue?

John Stoehr

I'm going to start this post by picking up where my Flyover compatriot in Wisconsin, Jennifer A. Smith, left off yesterday by discussing the lack of participation in the cultural dialogue by readers interested and concerned about all things cultural.

Jennifer and I exchanged a couple of comments each but this really needs to be fleshed out more, as the notion of a ongoing conversation between journalists and readers, artists and audiences, newspapers and their communities is quickly building momentum in an era that is quickly seeing the rise of a quid pro quo sensibility.

As Doug McLennan, our Sage Blog Guru and host here on Artsjournal.com, has noted in myriad ways on his own blog (called diacritical), the paradigm of mass media, which dominated most of the 20th century, is now in the 21st century being undermined, questioned and reexamined by the seemingly endless media choices available to consumers.

Even once immovable titans like the broadcast networks are now worried about competition from these niche markets. I don't remember the specifics, but sometime this past spring NBC was hoping few, especially advertisers, noticed when it reported viewer ratings were as low as 6.5 million -- in a week.

Last time I heard, there were, like, 300 million people in this country. Mmm.

Anyway, like NBC, newspapers (daily and weekly) have historically been the gatekeepers of mass media. This has been the case for cities everywhere, but especially, I think, in cities like mine (Savannah, Ga.), where the gate is even smaller and the hoary-headed keepers of the gate don't remember where they hid the key. Here, there's only one daily newspaper, the weekly newspaper is impotent, the TV stations don't care and there's no room on commercial or even public radio.

If an artist or arts groups wanted to get the word out about a exhibit or production or performance, the primary issue was access: go through the right channels, persuade the right people, and bang!, instant publicity.

That was the case as long as newspapers were the only game in town, and as long as newspapers were the leading authority of what was good, what was bad -- how, why and does that come with a money-back guarantee?

This was fine and dandy as long as we were the gatekeepers. Even as arts criticism succumbed to the spirit of the marketplace -- thumbs-up/thumbs down reviews, is it worth my ten bucks? -- newspapers like the Savannah Morning News could issue its judgments (if it bothered to review at all, which I'll get to in moment) and no one was going to say boo, because we were, after all, the gatekeepers.

Now that there is more than one gate and now that readers are figuring out that there's more to the media than newspapers and even TV, this gatekeeper philosophy of power is just not working.

And now that spirit of the marketplace has become fully entrenched to the point where readers expect a thumbs up or down review even without a critical-historical-aesthetic foundation on which to base it, the whole notion of a review is becoming pretty problematic.

Anyone with a computer and a blog can write a review. When virtual reality has become Wikiality, why pay someone a salary and benefits when you can get readers to do the same thing for free?

Suddenly, what critics do isn't so special. The authority, privilege, access and power we once enjoyed are not what they used to be. With the cost of newsprint and the industry-wide push for a presence online, there's little incentive among management and staff to make room for reviews where there was once plenty.

In the words of one editor here: If the show happens only once, what the point of a review?

In the words of my designer: Why do I want to be reminded of what I missed?

What's the point of talking about reviews? Especially in the American Outback, where one can presume with some confidence that art-making, such as, say, theater, may not be of the highest caliber (I've seen two shows recently. Dreadful stuff. 'Nuff said).

The point is that while news reports, features, interviews and previews serve a purpose, they are unlikely to spark the urge to participate in a community-wide dialogue about the arts that Jennifer and I believe is the hallmark of a healthy community, one that makes it clear to newspapers that they need to cover the arts.

What does, however, get people's juices flowing is an opinion, an insight, or a thoughtful commentary. Jennifer noted that people, even well-heeled and highly educated people who care and think about the arts in Madison, where she lives, are less likely to fire off a letter to the editor over the arts than over politics.

"That gets me more fired up," she was told by someone she admires.

Perhaps more reviews, not fewer, are what's needed to engage a newspaper's readership. A good review offers insight, context, perspective and meaning. Even if, say, the theater production wasn't very good, it may be an opportunity, as I tried to do in this "arts notebook" piece some time ago, to address larger concerns facing the arts community and the people it serves.

The problem here is that management's answer to this would be, "Sure, you can do more reviews. That's what blogs are for." Without the space constraints online that editors face in print, they have no fear of news ideas. But they have no fear also, I think, because there's not much at stake in a blog. And there's not much at stake, because ultimately management doesn't take blogging by journalists all that seriously.

As Doug mentioned in a hugely insightful post called "The Great Newspaper Comments Debate," editors are unequal in the time and resources devoted to story comments and the time and resources given to letters to the editors. Letters are vetted, balanced, edited and verified. With story comments, it seems anything goes.

Same with an arts blog.

An ambitious critic wanting to write more reviews in order to satisfy some highfalutin desire to enhance the overall dialogue of the arts community is no skin off editors' noses, because it's not going to cost them anything in time, money and manpower. Ultimately, such a disparity seems to me a comment on management's misunderstanding of quid pro quo.

Is this the legacy of a mass media mentality? Is this a fair and constructive question?

I'll end this by quoting Jennifer's comment yesterday.

"These things [discussion boards but you can substitute story comments and blogs] attract some intelligent conversation and lot of not-so-great stuff, and then you get this whole online stew that is not well integrated with the whole of the paper ... how do we have genuine, high-quality, two-way dialogue?"

Posted by John Stoehr at July 11, 2007 1:01 AM


I've never worked in "Flyover" terrain, but it would seem that the electronic age presents reviewers with an opportunity: If your local artists are failing to generate quality or at least worthy attempts at meaningful work that are worth commenting on, you could perhaps start a regular feature about arts programming available on TV, the Internet or via Netflix, picking works that somehow might resonate with your community (in Savannah, maybe art inspired by the Civil War and its continuing aftermath would be a priority, or dramatizations of works by Southern writers). That would be more likely to get your readers talking and perhaps talking back, and maybe give your local artistes a better notion of what they should be aiming for. I just found out yesterday that BBC radio channels 3 and 4 have weekly radio plays that stream on its website. It's as accessible in Missoula as it is in Manhattan, so go for it if you can make what's there, or elsewhere on the Internet, relevant to your readership. Also, your editors might even check out arts you write about on TV/Internet/Netflix, just to see if you really know what you're talking about -- possibly a nice change from being the semi-necessary but easily ignored window-dressing that I'm afraid most hard news folks consider the arts beat to be. Another idea: review the local library's arts offerings in print, audio and video. Do they have materials that could help a high school kid cultivate an interest in drama or in classical music? Do they carry the books/performances of native sons and daughters who've made a mark in the arts world? And the full array of fiction set in your region? If the collection is found wanting, you might effect some change, or at least get a rise from the public.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at July 11, 2007 11:26 AM

Mike Boehm continues:

Bottom line: you have no control over reader response; the best you can do is the best you can do; art that elicits a strong emotional/intellectual response, pro or con, will probably elicit your best writing, and that's what will probably be most likely to grab readers, whether or not they take the time to post a comment. If they mention your story to their hairdresser or the checkout person at the grocery, that's a resounding success you and your paper's Internet-hits beancounters will never know about. As the immortal Tug McGraw said, "Ya gotta believe."

Posted by: Mike Boehm at July 11, 2007 11:41 AM

Hi Mike, Thanks for commenting. However, I think we may be on two different tracks here: from my perspective in Madison, the concern is not a lack of worthy artists and arts orgs to write about. On the contrary, there's more than can be covered thoroughly. (We've got two art museums, any number of private galleries, the standard trifecta of symphony-opera-ballet, professional and community theater, an excellent film festival and book festival, etc. Plenty of good stuff to go around for a city of about 225,000.) For example, I could stroll down to the State Capitol building tonight and catch a free outdoor concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, part of their enormously popular summer series.

So my concern (speaking only for myself) is not so much the quantity or quality of local arts, but the lack of dialogue surrounding it, as least as far as print media is concerned (dialogue between readers and writers, that is). Even in the absence of controversy, I wish readers would fire off a quick e-mail or two to papers to let them know they want arts coverage. If readers don't speak up for what they enjoy, it's not good. I realize this is a bit pie-in-the-sky, but it's what I would ideally like to see.

The last time I can remember public debate about an artwork in Madison was when a new sculpture was put up next to Camp Randall on the UW-Madison campus. The piece by Donald Lipski provoked a lot of derision and phallic jokes from columnists and the public, but what annoyed me about the whole episode is that few people really considered it AS A WORK OF ART. There was little consideration of the artist's intent, how it related to the site, etc. Love it or hate it (and it's not great), I would at least have hoped people could discuss it as an artwork. (I wrote something about it but am unable to link since my paper wasn't putting most articles online at that time.)

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at July 11, 2007 1:05 PM

As someone who grew up in flyover country and moved back after several theatre degrees: First, 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?

And the complaint that poor theatre isn't worth reviewing is simply lazy. If critics want to support the arts and encourage their growth in the community, try critiquing instead of reviewing! Make positive suggestions for change, give thoughtful and useful feedback to the theatre company, write op-eds on the arts, and generate discussion. Talk to the artists on their own level, read the playscript to have understanding of who is responsible for what, do some background work deeper than pulling a quick Wikipedia and Playbill check. (Two examples: don't blame the actors for poor costume choices, and don't blame the playwright when the director cuts the script beyond recognition.) Try to get readers excited about the art even when you can't be excited about the (lack of) professionalism. Give arts readers a direction to go in instead of an empty "worth your $10/ not worth your $10."

I'll take arts blogs over the majority of newspaper columns in my area because both bloggers and commenters are frequently and energetically participating in useful dialogue. It takes a lot of time before I'll trust one person's opinion, so while I read the local critics' reviews, I don't give them much weight until I get a sense of their taste and style preferences over time.

Posted by: habeas at July 11, 2007 1:14 PM

Keep in mind that people who are interested in the arts constitute a niche market. The number of people who have opinions about an exhibit, a classical music concert or a play are going to be fairly small relative to the overall population -- which is preoccupied watching sports or arguing about "The Sopranos."

The best place for dialogue isn't going to be a newspaper, which is a general interest publication. It's going to be the Internet, which caters to the specialized.

Can newspapers develop their websites to better serve niche market interests like the arts? Do they care to? These are the questions of the hour.

Posted by: gary panetta at July 11, 2007 2:53 PM

Though the internet has made responding to newspapers so much easier, there still seems to be an Ivory Tower mentality toward newspapers and critics.

For centuries, people have not been used to being able to have a back and forth with their local daily, so now that the door is open so much wider, they are somewhat reluctant to step through.

I cover culture for the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., something of a mirror of Madison, and I noticed a curious phenomenon on my blog, that I tend to get more comments from out of the area than in the area. People who encounter it simply as a blog, and not part of the newspaper institution just seem to feel more free to chat.

There may also be a reluctance to offend. While venues for cultural discussions are growing on the net, the newspaper is still the dominant mass media in most Flyover markets. While artists or producers may take exception to a review, they may not want to risk offending the critic for fear of retribution the next time around -- though as professionals we should not operate that way, we know there are some people who do.

Our arts community has developed some message boards and the like where there are lively discussions about local theater, etc. So artists are not disinclined to discuss, it just seems a tad disinclined to discuss with us.

Posted by: Rich Copley at July 12, 2007 9:58 AM

Jennifer Smith points out the one last hope for saving the Arts -- writing critiques, rather than reviews. Critiques,(like "greed," to borrow a film term), make everything crystal clear, for they establish what aesthetics are intended to accomplish, and they distinguish the difference between good and bad art/performance, and reward the accomplished. That's the first step. And if this is not the first step, I would truly appreciate hearing from someone on this forum that can enlighten people like me as to what the first step should be. Many Thanks.

Posted by: James L. Weaver at July 12, 2007 10:17 AM

Rich Copley gets at the crux of the issue: "There may also be a reluctance to offend."
I think the critic has to take the first step in breaking down that barrier, by giving offense with merciless gusto when the offering at hand is lousy. Pull the wings off the bug, and its buddies will try to sting you back. Voila! Dialogue! But first make sure your editors WANT provocative criticism, which they can prove by giving you enough space to develop your argument with specific examples, fleshed-out analysis and illuminating comparisons. 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.
Here's an interesting example from Orange County Register pop music critc Ben Wener of what can happen when a critic lets it all hang out vis a vis a local icon:

Posted by: Mike Boehm at July 12, 2007 3:36 PM

I certainly don't dispute the reality of comments by Rich Copley or Ben Wener, and I doubt that others would either. So are all of us resigned to anticipating a day when we are completely saturated with electronic art reviews that
publishers know will "make the sales graph go UP!" and once or twice a month, we dial up some
secret frequency and relive artdom's version of the last scene of "Fahrenheit 451"?

Posted by: James L. Weaver at July 12, 2007 7:49 PM