What's going on?
Readers have wanted to know why I haven't said anything about all the critic layoffs these past several weeks.
I was saddened that nobody has spoken up about the nationwide loss of fulltime dance critics. Deborah Jowitt has lost her place at the Village Voice, Lewis Segal was dismissed from the Los Angeles Times, and Laura Bleiberg is leaving the Orange County Register. Newspapers are on the decline.
It seems that there is no money for a full-time critic in any major newspaper except the NY Times. There is an overwhelming number of "media outlets," but each seems more dubious and unverifiable than the last.
Where does this leave the dance community? How will our art change with the loss of the knowledge and provocation of our major critics? How are Youtube, Myspace, and Facebook affecting dance? When everyone has a say, then whom do we trust? And if no one reads the major newspapers, then how can we reach the larger community?
There has been some vast changes over the last 10 years, and yet it seems that we are facing some of the same problems. I'd love to hear your feedback.
Before I chime in, here's my friend Paul Parish, irregular Foot contributor, who seconds your emotion and answers some of your questions. His email arrived about the same time as yours:
Sat last night behind Louis Segal at the final program of San Francisco Ballet's New Works Festival, commiserated with him, and this morning read the following letter in the New Yorker [in response to this great article by regular Nation contributor Eric Alterman]:
Alterman's predicted demise of the newspaper is premature. Newspapers are still making good money while firing staffers or offering them buyouts. An industry that has garnered profit margins of twenty-five to thirty per cent--figures that other businesses could only dream about--flies into a panic when the margin dips to seventeen per cent. Do newspaper executives really believe that they can cure their ills by reducing their news holes and closing bureaus? In my view, as someone who has spent many years as a newspaperman and as a journalism professor at New York University and at California State University, Long Beach, a glaring failure of newspapers is in not making their importance known to the public. While the television, movie, and other industries inundate us with information about their exploits, newspapers are mostly silent about themselves. The newspaper industry and individual newspapers could well benefit today from the assistance of public-relations firms that are able to tell the story of newspapers that they themselves unfortunately don't--that they produce news coverage unlike any other medium. --M. L. Stein, Irvine, Calif.
It totally confirms my sense of why dance critics of the stature of Jowitt, Zimmer, Segal are getting fired. First the publishers are making the position untenable, then they blame the critic and take the position away. Cynically. It's just a business decision. They make more money that way. Stein is naive to think that the papers need better PR. They are flying under the radar--nobody will call them on their duty to inform the public if everyone thinks they're dying. But in fact democracy as we know it, for a 9-figure population, depends on common knowledge and real reporters saying to the best of their knowledge what they know and following up on developments -- not giving their opinions nor the weird and delightful things they'd like to think nor the Scenes We'd Have Liked to See....
Niche-things (blogs and Youtube) are taking up the Mad Magazine function very well, and Stewart and Colbert are great at it, and it has its place as a safety valve, but it is not a substitute for agreement-- and democracy requires us to agree to put up with what most people agree to do, even if it goes against what we think, believe, want. But to do that depends on everybody getting intelligible intelligence. The place of the arts in this is in training the sensibility so we know what bullshit tastes like when we're being fed it.
your friend in California,
I'm with Paul most of the way. A few other thoughts, though. First, the reduction to freelance status of Jowitt and Segal, and the departure of Laura Bleiberg (perhaps she saw the writing on the wall) are terrible developments. Really depressing. I only haven't said so here because at this point the loss felt inevitable.
As Foot contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa pointed out on her own blog more than a month ago, this shoe is not the first but nearly the last to drop, after the dance pages of newspapers and magazines have been halved or eliminated and a precedent set for dance criticism's irrelevance. The less there is of it, the less need there is for it, because criticism gains traction by numbers.
Whether she recognizes it or not, every critic has a particular philosophy of criticism from which she writes; when we read two excellent critics responding to the same work differently, we develop a philosophy of our own, "so we know what bullshit tastes like when we're being fed it," as Paul so vividly puts it. When, on the other hand, there's only one take on a show, then the review can really only function as a report or an opinion. It means less, dance means less, and then--as Paul points out--editors can justifiably decide they don't need any reviews anymore. A terrible chain of events.
Criticism was the secular, humanist answer to Talmudic commentary and Christian sermon: all advance by various species of beautiful argument.
And what will come next? On a good day, I think, Surely something new. On a bad, that argument will go the way of archery.
Which brings me to your question,
There is an overwhelming number of "media outlets," but each seems more dubious and unverifiable than the last. When everyone has a say, then whom do we trust?
Where does this leave the dance community? How will our art change with the loss of the knowledge and provocation of our major critics?
--I wonder how much critics have ever affected the art. That they have affected its audience, I have no doubt.
Well, this has been a cheery post, hasn't it? And I have succumbed to complaining about our circumstances, which I started this blog to counter. But things have changed. A year and a half ago, I thought there was something we writers might do to improve our circumstances. I don't think so anymore.
UPDATE TUESDAY: Eva responds to a timely essay by Minnesota freelance dance critic Camille LeFevre here. (See comments for a taste of Eva's post, and the link to the essay she's responding to.)
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