Arts Issues for Journalists: February 2007 Archives
One of the concepts inspired by the NEA Arts Journalism Institute was the idea of "critical relativism." Joe Nickell came up with the idea after hearing John Lahr's talk. Joe was concerned that the same standards of criticism could not be brought to a production in Missoula, Mont., where he is the arts and entertainment reporter for the Missoulian, that Lahr brings to any number of shows in any number of cities around the world.
I had this in mind when I saw an original play recently by a start-up group here called the Savannah Actor's Theatre. The group was the subject of a previous post of mine called "Arts as Community Dialogue" in which a reader of the Savannah Morning News responded angrily to the attention I paid to the Savannah Actor's Theatre but not to her group (typical professional envy; no big deal).
The piece I wrote about Savannah Actor's Theatre was influenced by Joe's "critical relativism." I didn't want to write a staight-ahead review, because the play, called "Fiction, or Wild Stories," wasn't really good. It was poorly executed, though it had potential, as I say in the piece, but it wasn't good enough to recommend to a ticket-buying readership.
I could have written a thumbs-down review, but I realized the play had a larger - and more interesting - meaning that a conventional review could not capture. So I wrote a kind of critic's notebook (I call it an "arts notebook" for reasons that will make for a future post). And I set the play in the larger context of theater in Savannah, its tourist trade and the need in the arts to attract younger audiences (the theater group for some reason is getting lots of high schoolers to come to their shows).
In this way, I think I was able to assess the play relatively speaking and to extrapolate its larger meaning. Or at least begin a conversation that will hopefully evolve.
Which leads me to a theory I developed at the NEA Institute that may be an extention of Joe's "critical relatavism" theory: that we critics need to not only examine the quality of theatrical productions; we have to examine their meaning to the community.
Those of us who are not John Lahr likely work in communities where there are many who do not understand, appreciate or participate in the arts. These people may not understand mise-en-scène, but they do understand concepts like education, economic impact and quality of life.
Therefore, it's up to us as professional communicators to bridge those gaps in understanding. Not as educators, as I mention in this post. But as journalists who know what's important in the communities we live and work in.
Just as Joe suggests we deploy a relativistic approach to our qualitative assessments of local theater, I'm suggesting we endeavor to relate what's critical about the arts to our communities. We have to do more than review. We have to be cultural journalists, too.
I don't know this journalist personally, nor do I doubt that he ordinarily excels at his job. However, his preview on Friday for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville on "The Barber of Seville" does more harm than good: "Don't be too quick to dismiss opera as an elitist art form for the rich and snooty" is his first sentence.
The logical fallacy here is that a reader who is not interested in Italian opera might be interested if addressed in a snappy writing style. The thinking is that if we can avoid all academic puffery, perhaps ordinary people will dig in.
Which sounds fine and dandy until the writer then goes ahead and gives the reader all that academic puffery anyway.
"This year's opera performance, the symphony's sixth since 2001, features the full symphony orchestra, the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus and some very gifted (and, judging by the photos we found on the Web, far from obese) singers who have spent decades training to reach some of those notes. Yes, it is in Italian, just the way Gioacchino Rossini wrote it nearly 200 years ago, but there will be supertitles so patrons can read along with the story."
The basic problem here is simple: Know your audience. This writer does not. He has in mind, no doubt, the mythical "general reader" whose interests are that of an eighth-grader and who must be talked to as such.
People who go to the opera, however, know who Rossini is. They know he wrote in Italian. They know about supertitles. They know the cliche about the fat ladies singing in the opera is just a cliche. And because they know all this already, the writing doesn't come off as funny; it comes off as condescending.
Such pandering insults interested readers, alienates potentially interested readers and makes classical music appear all the more elitist to those who already think so. It makes opera seem as simple to understand as any old TV show, as if to say even an idiot can enjoy it, with the implication that the reader is an idiot.
The Montana Newspaper Association has sent out its entry forms for its 2006 Better Newspaper Contest. There are 41 categories for entries -- everything from Best Agriculture Reporting to Best Process Color Ad.
There is no category for entries even remotely related to arts coverage.
I'm thinking of entering some arts stories in the ag category, just to make a point.
We here at Art.Rox wouldn't normally post a story from the LA Times about a federal agency in Washington, D.C. But given this whole venture into the blogosphere was inspired by our time at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at the University of Southern California, we figured an article looking back at Dana Gioia's (highly successful) first term as chairman of the NEA would be appropriate.
Remaking the National Endowment for the Arts: " ... (Dana) Gioia has had a profound effect on the NEA, converting the once-beleaguered federal program into the nation's main engine for integrating arts and education. It's a remarkable turnaround for an agency whose mere name was once enough to get Newt Gingrich and other social conservatives foaming at the mouth. Controversial exhibits, including Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs and Andres Serrano's picture of a plastic crucified Christ in a jar of urine, made the NEA the central battleground in the 1990s culture wars."
(Thanks to Scott Martelle, staff writer for the Los Angeles Times)
Reuters reported Wednesday a study showing that investment in the newsroom will actually help newspapers make more money. This commonsensical conclusion came from researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who spent a decade scouring financial data to find that newsroom quality affected the bottomline more than advertising and other departments.
The findings emerge during a growing trend in the industry to eliminate jobs in order to boost profits. According to job outplacement tracking firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the number of planned job cuts in the U.S. media sector surged 88 percent to 17,809 last year, Reuters reported.
"If you invest in the newsroom, do you make more money? The answer is yes," Esther Thorson, an advertising professor and associate dean for graduate studies at the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, said in a statement.
While some may see the study as cause for celebrating, given the anxiety currently besieging publishers over declining circulation, stock prices and relevance to young readers, Philip Meyer, a professor at the University of North Carolina and author of the book "The Vanishing Newspaper," told Reuters he won't be holding his breath.
"I don't share the authors' confidence that the industry will appreciate the importance of their result and act on it," Meyer said. "Too many owners are more interested in harvesting than investing."
Two days later, Georgia Public Broadcasing reports that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the largest paper in Georgia whose national stature has grown as the Southeast has grown, announced it will cut back on its circulation. It will no longer distribute to Alabama, South Carolina and Florida. It will also scale back in-state circulation to 66 of Georgia's 145 counties. The newspaper had previously delivered to 145 counties.
Two days after the Grammy Awards on Sunday, two articles emerged that were exactly the kind of story newspapers are good at. One was in the New York Times, the other was in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Both focused on how the Dixie Chicks have been redeemed by sweeping the awards show.
These stories are what newspapers do best -- exploring a range of often competing ideas, talking about them intelligently, suggesting who we are as a society and what of interest is happening in our culture.
These were thoughtful stories developed over time. They weren't breaking news. People knew about the results of the Grammys way before the next day's paper. So why spend the rapidly shrinking inch-count on something people already know about.
Curt Holman, a 2005 fellow of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at the University of Southern California and writer for Creative Loafing in Atlanta, has thoughtfully pointed out a cover story, published in Time Out New York in December, that turns the tables on Big Apple critics. Anyone who reads Art.Rox ought to check it out. The book critics section is particularly interesting.
What's also interesting is the thinking expressed in the introduction. Writer Nathan Huang cleverly notes that critics give readers a lot to talk about, even if readers have no intention of experiencing the theater, concert or performance in question. One purpose of criticism, in other words, is providing readers with information with which to take action. But isn't another purpose to contribute to the ongoing dialogue of a community?
As Huang writes: "We live in a city that churns out massive amounts of art and entertainment, then proceeds to talk about it endlessly. At times it doesn't even matter if you haven't seen, read or heard something, as long as you can gab about it--and our local critics provide the handiest cheat sheets."
Even if a city doesn't churn out as much culture as New York (and let's face it, name one that does), culture still plays an important role in the lives of everyday people, even if they themselves don't know it. Here in Savannah, where I'm the arts and culture reporter for the Savannah Morning News, people love -- and I mean love -- high school and college football.
There is an Southern adage worth remembering -- you don't get married in the fall, you don't die in the fall, you don't do anything in the fall except watch football. The result is people are gabbing about football endlessly come autumn. But why can't they also gab about the arts? Their children are involved in all sorts of cultural activities, in school and in other organizations. I suspect parents don't talk about the arts at least in part because such talk would be considered haughty and highfalutin.
Case in point, I was reading the New York Times while waiting for my lunch yesterday. The waitress came by with my order and patiently waited while I moved by newspaper. She said: "I don't want to put this on your New York Times," with a tone of voice that suggested I was some fancy-pants Yankee doing something regular folk, like her, don't do.
But when it comes to the arts, people in reality are very engaged; they just don't talk about it. In my view, that's where we as arts journalists can play a critical role -- by normalizing what they already experience and giving them the vocabulary to use in talking about it. Perhaps someday even a place like Savannah will talk about the arts as endlessly as we do about sports.
Several of the presenters at the recent NEA institute on theater journalism riffed on the importance of painting vivid detail in critiques of theater. Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune told us he has a note posted on his computer that says: "Be Specific. Be Brave." Dominic Papatola of the St. Paul Pioneer Press asserted, "what we should try to articulate is the relative humidity in the room." Several others echoed that theme.
Perhaps it's illuminating to look outside of what we normally call theater criticism to find examples of such in-the-scene writing. Imagine, if you will, how a theater review would read if it took an approach more like this blog post, by Juan Carlos Rodriguez, about preparations for the Super Bowl in Miami. You can almost smell the pavement, the tensions...and the beer.
(Thanks to Mia Leonin for pointing us to Rodriguez's post)
Looking over the entry categories for this year's Best of the West contest for journalists from the western U.S., I note what I've noted pretty much every year since I started as an arts writer: There's no category remotely related to arts. Even the "special topic column writing" category lists only the following as examples of such "special topics": politics, sports, food, television, or business.
Last year as I recall, the Montana Newspaper Association awards application still had categories for agriculture and natural resource reporting; but no arts category. This despite the fact that, according to a 2005 report by the Center for Applied Economic Reseach in Billings, there are more artists making their living in Montana than people employed by Montana's mining industry, wood products manufacturing industry, and building materials retail trade market.
What are we, chopped liver?
Below are notes, provided by Bridgette Redman (Thanks Bridgette!), from the lecture by New Yorker theater critic John Lahr, given at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute on Theater and Musical Theater. We're hoping to eventually get an audio link posted for the lecture; but in the meantime, there's plenty to chew on here.
The #1 problem of drama criticism is that you see yourselves as reporters. No. You are storytellers. You tell the story of what the play is about and what you think about it.
The real drama of critical experience is not a thumb up or down. Judgment is a part of it, but the narrative challenge is the mind of the critic meeting the mind of the playwright. The critic should state the case for the play better than the playwright.
The challenge is one of vocabulary. You have to have a big word horde of critical language, a rich vernacular about different spheres of the art. Build it up--keep words, phrases, jokes, funny things you hear. Store it up. Every time you hear a great line, put it down. Keep a notebook. Filled with notes and information for yourself.
Certain ideas start to secrete. It puts your unconscious mind to work. It's an important way of building up. Write down notes in advance of seeing a show. You're then more receptive, you're ready for a conversation. You've prepared yourself.
When you have a pad in hand, you're not watching the stage. Get a script so that you are fully present for the event. Some critics are in the seats, but they're not there. Read the experience, not the person's words. Operate in an arena of intuition. Be litmus paper. IF you are not open and receptive, if your critiquing isn't an act of generosity and love, why are you there? What is your function?
Tell the story of community and where you are. You are there to interpret. Take this thing and place it in a larger context.
The plot is not the play. It's a codified experience of a fiction that allows the author to speak, so figure out what it is really about. It's where the drama of the playwright and critic come together.
The playwright will mention what the play is about in the first 40 seconds. A good playwright will tell you the theme. It happens in Hamlet, The Seagull, The Lute.
Bring the event to the reader. Put together the text and the subtext and create for the reader the sense of the expedition the playwright has gone on. Get people into the theater to learn something.
We are all members of the audience. Be as responsive and responsible as possible. Be more informed and communicate that information back to the audience.
Broaden your experience of the theater. Words are not the only language of theater. We are intellectual entertainers. Play with the play, enter it, enjoy it and critique it. Give the reader a sense of a theatrical dimension in it. Your job is to animate this memory. Give the illusion of what you've seen.
There is not an objective point of view.
Theater is important even if it isn't being seen by the masses. Where else do you get stories told by individuals to other individuals? Other stories are told by corporations to pick your pocket. The theater is where people are saying what they really feel.
There are reasons people don't come to the theater. The whole point of terrorism is to make people afraid of groups.
You mediate between individual voices and get its argument out.
I disagree with everything Mary McCarthy writes. But she writes well. Her interests are lofty. She makes an argument alive. I don't agree with her, but I admire her expression.
Polish your expressiveness. It's not your reporting skills; it's what resonates with you. The theater isn't so much a beat as the thing you use to express what you feel. Use theater to express who you are.
I hate the condescension critics get. They are all figures of fun in literature. I prefer the metaphor of the gaze of the mother and child. The gaze is the power of critics and the problem of critics. If it isn't lovable, clearn, and free of excess baggage, then it isn't properly nurturing.
Unlike film, theater happens in real time. It's different every night. You are a living response to it. Where's the record when it is done? The record is down to the review. The review has great importance to the art form. It has an historical as well as a personal import. That's why it is sad that the writing isn't better.
How do you put the play in the larger context?
Not every play needs to be reviewed. Seeing 100 shows a year is deadening. It hampers criticism. I find my tolerance for being bored is in direct proportion to my age. It pisses me off when they waste valuable hours of what's left of my life. I'll leave. If you know you're not liking it, why stay? It kills your palette. You have to stay fresh. Don't see everything.
Critics need to know more.
Some critics aren't psychologically aware. Theater is psychology translated to behavior. It's all the psychology of individualism, the losing of the self.
You have to be involved in shows. Make sure you can get to where you can see shows--New York, Chicago, or London.
Story. Drama. Word horde.
You want a sentence to pop, to empower, to get a lot of interest. It's simply syntax. The verb, subject, noun predicate. The closer you can get them together and end on the point, the better the sentence will be. Put clauses before the subject. Let the sentence fall on the idea you want to hit. Make it a straight, powerful drive to the idea.
Try to identify a way of speaking.
It's weird to have regular readers. You become intellectual wallpaper. They get used to your tone and attitude. You have to really be honorable. Write to them. People are waiting for you to explain what they don't get. If you do criticism correctly, you're creating.
Criticism is a life without risk. You must come to the theater with an open and humble heart.
It's not a play without an audience. The echo from the audience is a part of the play.
Try to think against perceived opinions and yield different ideas. So much of the story we're told is never tested. Come at it from a different angle. Change your questions and see what answers you get.
In the future, they'll look at our songs, stories, and styles. Insist on joy. Explore the concept that culture is threatened. Do your job better than you know how to do it.
We love the Grammy Awards in Georgia. So much so that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent its excellent hip-hop reporter, Sonia Murray, to blog in Los Angeles live from the event Sunday. We have good reason to be excited. Many of last night's winners -- Ludacris, Ciara, Third DayÂ and T.I. -- have ties to the Peach State.
But the record industry hasn't realized how archiacÂ it has become in the wake of new technologies.Â However stylish it might be, the award show seems almost quaint compared to its former self 20 years ago.
In 1987, bands like Poison were selling millions of copies of hair-metal hokum (remember "Look What the Cat Dragged In"?). The same record today -- featuring that bedroom anthem for the ages, "Unskinny Bop" -- would be lucky to sell a few hundred thousand. Indeed, the standards of being a hitÂ have changed so much thatÂ selling aÂ million records would be considered aÂ smash.
Pop music critics have been bemoaning the vanilla flavor of theÂ Grammys for years, but now in the wake of internet downloading (legal and otherwise), in which music is measured in megabytes not physical CDs, the critics have quantifiable evidence to support long-held charges of irrelevance. Fewer and fewer people are buying records. Why then isÂ there so much to-do about the Grammys?
Perhaps it's denial. But it could also be the force of nostalgia. David Marchese, from Salon, reports the Grammys -- that bastion of the young and hip --Â were headlined by Earth, Wind and Fire, the Police, Lionel Ritchie and the Eagles. The president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences,Â Neil Portnoy, gushed over his youthful excitement after seeing Elvis perform on TV. He thought, "I want to be a record executive."
Let's see, Elvis has been dead for how long?
The foundation of the record industry was poured during the heyday of Elvis and the Beatles. The industry controlled the artists, the recording technology and the means of distribution. It had a lock on everything and all was good. And when MTV came along, things got even better, as long as the MTV was the gatekeeper in charge of who gets in and for how long.
That's no longer the case and will not be the case again, as Mark Swed notes in Sunday's Los Angeles Times. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. The irony is that newspapers like theÂ Atlanta Journal-Constitution and my own paperÂ are hoping coverage of the Grammys will attract younger readers. But they are not buying records. Baby boomers are, and they are already reading the papers. Georgia newspapersÂ are rightfully cheery about Georgians being in the national spotlight, but that spotlight won't be there for long. It's just a matter of time.
-- John Stoehr
This blog is an attempt to continue the vibrant conversation that I and Joe Nickell, the arts reporter for the Missoulian in Missoula, Mont., experienced during the USC Annenberg's 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater. We felt strongly that something more than a listserve between Fellows from 21 states in the union was necessary to keep the dialogue (and the excellent writing, I might add) going.
Moreover, this blog is an expression of the different perspectives of the art world and practices of art journalism outside the big media centers of New York City and Los Angeles. Case in point is the adaptation we saw of August Strindberg's "Miss Julie," currently playing at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles.
Set in 1964 Greenwood, Miss., Stephen Sachs' stunning interpretation will no doubt resonate differently to a media-savvy New York critic than it will with an African-American audience in the South, where the dynamics of racial power and the paradoxes of Jim Crow are still deeply felt. While the necessity of such an adaptation might not be apparent to a effete Northerner, the need (at least from the perspective of this Yankee living in Dixie) is abundantly clear to an audience of a certain aesthetic sensibility in the South.
Joe and I had the good fortune of hearing a presentation by Doug McLennan, the editor of Artsjournal.com and regular contributor of cultural journalism for papers throughout the country. His presentation painted an astonishing picture of the future of media and the role of cultural journalists in that future.
In the next 20 years, the very notion of mass media will be undermined, perhaps to the point of extinction, by emerging technologies that are creating ever more diverse niches of affinity and inquiry. That is to say, the all-things-to-all-people model of journalism won't make much sense in a information universe organized by smaller and smaller categories and made available on-demand.
Most newspapers aim for the lowest common denominator, hoping that if they hit their readership right down the middle they will gain wider circulation numbers. That means stories are getting shorter, less provocative and less interesting for those with curious minds and a need to understand the world around them. (Those with curious minds, ironically, are probably the very people that newspapers would like to have, since they tend to have more education, more interest in their communities and more money.)
The recent death of Anna-Nicole Smith is instructive. Within hours of her death, the country knew about it. Yet the next day USA Today played the story above the fold as if it were breaking news. Why use that coveted place in the print edition for something most people knew about already? Why not give that to stories developed over time, that are well written and that cannot be found anywhere else?
No doubt the newsroom logic is that the paper's readers want to know about what happened and so they feel they are giving readers what they want. The irony is, however, that they already know by way of blogs, cable news, websites, text messaging and so on. So the question not being asked is, what value does such a story add to what's already known?
I think this kind of thinking has a lot to do with arts journalists. If the newsroom is aiming for the lowest common denominator, then it's pushing out more nuanced, more niche-oriented, more thoughtful stories, like what's happening in local communities, what artists are doing in those communities and how arts organizations play an important role in the lives of real people.
Moreover, the concern in the newsroom is how to get people who don't read to read the paper. Answer? Stories like the death of Anna-Nicole Smith, a story that everyone already knows. The question not being asked is, why are we trying to get people who don't read to read the paper? People who don't read have already gotten the story from someplace else. People who do read are looking for something else in their newspapers, like why geographical context would affect the perspective and ultimate aesthetic of a new adaptation of "Miss Julie."
Joe and I also had the pleasure of seeing a live interview with Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Gioia came on board as attacks on the NEA and its support of "The Piss Christ" and others were peaking. His legacy will be changing the perception of the NEA from a federal agency that supports artists to one that serves Americans by providing them with art and artistic experiences. "It's not about artists; it's about Americans," Gioia said.
Likewise, we arts journalists need to start changing the perception of the arts in our newsrooms. The focus shouldn't just be on quality of the arts, but also on the meaning of the arts to people. With our hyperfocus on assessment (thumbs up, thumbs down), we are playing into the "service journalism" philosophy that is one of the bedrocks on the all-things-to-all-people mentality. Is it worth spending the money on? Such an approach is a commodification of arts journalism. As a result, we are slowly writing ourselves out of a job because commodified journalism can be done so much better outside newspapers.
What newspapershave historically done better than anyone else is tell people what's important, why and how, and they have been a wonderfully eclectic catch all for the interesting things that happen in our communities, full of everything from news to comics to political columns to arts journalism. Art.Rox attempts to address some of the issues facing the arts, artists and arts journalism. Joe and I hope to hear from you and hope to keep the conversation going.
-- John Stoehr
Let's cut to the heart of what inspired this blog in the first place. In his keynote address to the NEA Institute mentioned in the first post, New Yorker senior theater critic John Lahr stated, with what at least appeared to be a straight face, "If it's not in the New Yorker, it doesn't exist in the culture." He went on to explain his belief that the New Yorker serves as the de facto publication of record for theater in America.
While it's true that the New Yorker consistently has some of the finest and most thought-provoking theater criticism in America, this assertion seems the exact kind of New York-centric thinking that is common in the arts world. If you're serious about theater, you go to New York. If you're serious about film, you go to Los Angeles. Yada Yada.
I, for one, would beg to differ, both in spirit and letter. For one thing, the New Yorker isn't exactly the most widely read publication in America; there are plenty of other newspapers and magazines that offer theater criticism (at least in some small doses) that reach larger numbers of people. The Los Angeles Times is but one example.
But beyond that is the implied question of whether art in other places really matters in our historical and cultural trajectory; whether serious and significant art happens in other places.
I live in Missoula, Montana, sharing a river valley with about 60,000 people. It's true that Missoula lacks the diversity of culture in New York. It's also true that the archives of the Missoulian newspaper aren't quite as widely or well preserved as those of the New Yorker (although that's changing as the paper's body of work online grows); so some things that happen in my city do become largely lost to history once they've passed.
Still, many of the artists I know in Missoula live here for reasons that are more about their art than about their exposure to the world: The mountains inspire them, fly fishing soothes them, etcetera. It's a quieter place than New York, and thus a great place for contemplation and focused creativity. There are important things that happen here.
And Missoula is just one place in a big, big country. It's a place that John Lahr himself visits on occasion, to fly fish. Surely he can understand why an artist might choose the big sky of Montana over the bustle of New York.
And in Missoula, I daresay our local culture matters more to us than what's happening on Broadway.