Arts Issues for Journalists: May 2007 Archives
Richard Schickel's recent condemnation of bloggers as critics/reviewers (L.A. Times, May 20) has certainly been raising the hackles of arts writers in the blogosphere. While his views are passionately held, I believe they're also misguided and don't take much note of the changing media landscape. Part of the reason arts criticism is winding up on the Web is decreased space in local papers. Those who have something to say are simply finding another way to do it, and many of them (contrary to Schickel's view) are highly qualified writers.
And frankly, there are several advantages to arts writing on the Web, namely the chance to have more (and better quality) images than you'll find on newsprint, and the increased interactivity allowed by commenting. I'm frequently lamenting how seldomly readers of print publications write a letter to the editor regarding arts coverage. With blogging and other Web coverage, there is more of a chance for that immediate back-of-forth of real conversation.
The best response to Schickel I've seen so far is by Jerome Weeks, who writes the book/daddy blog on ArtsJournal.com. Rather than reiterate many of his excellent points, I'd rather direct readers there (to the entry "Just who is this guy?"). It's worth the read.
Wow, John. That letter is a doozy. Since you responded to something I wrote last week, I thought I'd use your post as a point of departure for mine this week.
Living hundreds of miles away from you, I have no firsthand knowledge of
Decent, thoughtful critics, even when they're negative, do care about the cultural life of the community. No one I know relishes writing a harsh review. And even when you hope your words may spark local discussion, your intentions as a writer can be misconstrued. I know that you, and all of us, want the arts to be a vital part of our communities, something that people show up for and care about as passionately as people care about sports in this country.
I guess the question left for all of us is, how can we write thoughtfully and constructively about our local cultural scenes without making people feel attacked? And is there really anything we can do when people feel attacked even when there is no basis for it? I think most of us consider ourselves a part of our local cultures, not imperious outsiders, but it is clear the arts writer's role is not always welcomed.
Below is a letter I received in February from a theater director in Savannah. I won't name the person because he did not want to have the letter attributed to him. I have argued with myself about posting the letter. I'd like to avoid personal beefs (and this writer, as you can tell, has a whole slab of beef against me and has for some time).
However, I feel there may be something constructive here. We arts journalists in the American Outback have to deal with many things, one of them being a kind of thin-skinnedness. If, in a review, you say the sky is blue, someone might slam you for disliking the color green.
At the same time, we are under increasingly pressure to cover the arts as news. To do that we have to nurture sources. But what happens when one of your sources is one of those thin-skinned people with a personal beef against you and your efforts to carry on a critical conversation in the community? What then?
Here is a shortened version of that letter.
February 23, 2007
I am writing this personal note to you (not intended for publication) as someone who has been an avid reader of the Savannah Morning News since the day I moved to town (over four years ago). And though I enjoy reading about local theatre in town, I must admit that every time I see your name at the start of a theatre piece I cringe. Invariably, you serve up a glorious black eye to local artists and the organizations they are working for.
I must admit, I do not have the slightest idea of your level of expertise. I think every person connected to theatre in Savannah would love to know exactly where you studied theatre, and any another scholarly merits that might give your theatrical "critiques" validity. I imagine that anyone who claims to know that "The Savannah Theatre is the best theater in town." (SMN/2/19/07) must be incredibly intimate with all the local theatres and the work they do.
Other remarks that seem to cast dispersion on local theatres such as "Savannah has other groups of course-community theaters, a children's theatre and a seasonal festival group. None so far, however, has had the staying power of Savannah Theatre, nor have any of them established a cultural climate considered to be the life blood of the city, something as essential as a St. Patrick's Day parade." (SMN/02/19/07) leave me speechless.
Perhaps you would enjoy local theatre more if we bared more body parts and threw beads at you. And as far as staying power is concerned, the Bureau of Leisure Services has kept the City's theatre up and running for at least the last ten years.
I hope I am not leading you to believe that I have anything against the St. Patrick's Day Parade or the Savannah Theatre. Quite the opposite: I love Irish-American traditions and happen to think the performers on Bull Street have talent oozing out of every pore. They are very special performers. Notice, I can compliment them without kicking any one else.
I could go on, John, but I think you get my point. To those of us in the local theatre community (and we have all been greatly distressed by your self-entitled role of connoisseur) we recognize that you either don't get what theatre is truly about, or just plainly don't like it. Whichever the case we challenge you to either buy a ticket and ride the ride or, respectfully, put a sock in it.
I believe in the power of the press and the influence it can have, for boon or bane, to local artists. It would benefit us all if the local press presented us in a more authentic and supportive light while letting the public judge the work for themselves.