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July 17, 2007

The critical conversation, continued

Jennifer A. Smith

I'll pick up where Joe and commenters left off yesterday. And heck, I'll even swipe Joe's numbered format for this week's post:

1. I thought it was intriguing that Joe used a sports-vs.-arts-coverage comparison in his first point (sports writing as a type of reviewing). While I think there's truth in these similarities, there's also a gaping difference that often works to the disadvantage of the arts writer. Namely, arts writers are often expected to make people care about / like / understand the arts in a way that would never be expected of sportswriters.

Simply put, sports pages are read by sports fans. These people will know if the sportswriter gets some bit of team history or stats wrong. They already know the rules of baseball or football. The sportswriter can assume the sports reader has a base of knowledge, otherwise he or she wouldn't be reading the sports pages.

Arts writers, on the other hand, are expected to do that difficult dance of making things accessible to the general reader with no specialized background, but also hold the interest of those who do know something about dance, visual art, theater, what-have-you. It's a tough trick to provide background and still have space for original, critical analysis in a review. While there are times when I feel I've pulled it off, there are plenty of times when, looking back, I'm disappointed at how much space I wasted on sketching out a play's plot, for example.

2. Habeas (in yesterday's comments) make some great points. I think what I've written in #1 is connected to what habeas says. While knowing decades' worth of arcane team trivia is an asset for a sportswriter, having in-depth knowledge in a particular arts discipline is sometimes treated as a liability (not at the paper I freelance for, fortunately). Frankly, habeas, your level of knowledge probably scares some potential employers off. They worry, perhaps, that you won't be able to write in this magically "accessible" style (that's an unfounded fear since the clips you already have show whether you can do it or not).

There was some provocative discussion along these lines a few years back in ArtsJournal, on a page I've long had bookmarked since there was so much good stuff. Here's a tidbit from a letter by Colin Eatock dated May 2002 that hits it on the head:

"[An editor under discussion] appears to distrust expertise--at least in the arts. Presumably he believes that a sports writer should know all about the nickel defense and the three-deep zone, whatever on Earth they are. But arts writers are suspect if they know more than the average reader--or perhaps more than their editors...[A particular editor's] idea of the perfect arts journalist seems to be someone who approaches theatre, jazz or visual art with equal indifference, and not too much book-learnin'."

3. As for habeas' point about "creating more pulpits and opening up the field": I also agree. This is why I think freelancers can be so crucial; they can be a way for papers without a staff writer competent to cover a certain area to access that knowledge (assuming they have a budget for freelancers). Of course, this is still unsatisfying for the freelancer who would love a full-time position--and I don't know what the answer to that is. Perhaps one of my co-bloggers can take that question up; as I write this, I'm too tired to!

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at July 17, 2007 6:00 AM


I think the arts community itself is partly to blame for the deplorable state of arts criticism in small markets. There is a definite split between arts journalism, which is encouraged, and arts criticism, which paradoxically is not supported by the arts community. Since there are so few venues, any whiff of somebody-doesn't-like-this could mean thousands in lost ticket sales. Therefore, true critical analysis (which may look like a thumbs-down review to the uninitiated) is avoided at all costs.

The critics are often complicit in this: in my city, a long explanation of plot or a description of the background of the artist, making up the bulk of the review, is seen as code for those in the know as "don't go there" while remaining neutral to the casual reader. The reputation of the venue and the potential to sell more tickets is therefore preserved. An out-and-out bad review, on the other hand, is reserved for a one-time event, and is run after the event has taken place. It can be understood as an off-night, rather than a blot on the record of the sponsoring venue.

Until the arts community realizes that true criticism does not diminish, but enhances, the overall level of discourse and support for the arts, it will continue to shoot itself in the foot by supporting bland just-the-facts "previews" and human-interest stories rather than honest appraisals of quality.

Posted by: Julia at July 18, 2007 6:45 AM

I will make two observations about the current topic as it relates to arts writers and sports writers. First, sports writers seem to know their audience and also seem to relate closely to them. The writers are fans and although they can be very, very critical and mercilessly personal at times they write about the game as a lover. Business, political and arts writers present to a very broad audience, one that they may or may not relate to at all. Frankly, it seems easy when there is one sport to write about and it has specific rules both in execution and in cultural/social relationships. Politics, business and the arts aren't so "clean". There are side branches and backwater dogmas that exist. Hence the esoterica and arcane subjects. Business, political and arts writers also present opinions more than sports writers. A pitcher has a bad game and the score shows it. A play presents a theme in a particular approach and there is no score card, only a reviewer's (informed or not)opinion. As a second observation; I doubt you'd find a sports writer's blog talking about being a sports writer and how much easier it would be to write about business, politics or the arts. Hey, pass me da mustard I got me a deadline.

Posted by: Tony Reynolds at July 18, 2007 11:15 AM

I have gone back to Chris Lavin's speech which was the impetus of that discussion many times. (The link on the AJ discussion page doesn't work, but Lavin's speech may be found here-http://www.poynter.org/dg.lts/id.9647/content.content_view.htm)

One of the things Lavin said along the lines of his sport metaphor that has always resonated with me was about critics trying to keep themselves at arms length to preserve their objectivity whereas sports writers immerse themselves.

But it is a two street as Lavin notes, access to almost every facet of a production is tightly controlled by the arts organization.

"An athlete who refuses to do interviews can get fined. An actor or actress or director or composer who can't find time for the media is not uncommon. How would a director take to a theater critic watching practice and asking for his/her early analysis of the challenges this cast faces with the material -- the relatively strengths and weaknesses of the lead actor,..."

Frankly, I would be thrilled to read a preview article that noted an actor coming fresh out of a conservatory program with a good reputation for period dramas portended good things for a Feydeau farce.

Posted by: Joe at July 18, 2007 12:50 PM