From HowlRound — Commons & Community: Chloe Veltman on Arts Criticism

Jamie Gahlon asked arts journalist Chloe Veltman to answer some questions about criticism. She kindly obliged.

What is the state of arts criticism today, as compared to a decade ago?

There is relatively little genuine arts criticism in America today. But there is a lot of arts commentary.

I was thinking about this recently as I wandered through downtown Austin, TX, as the South by Southwest Festival was entering its final throes.

For the past five days, this city has been a playground for musicians and lovers of music. I don’t know how to begin to quantify the amount of discussion in writing, video and audio that the festival generated. I myself contributed to the overall noise, writing my blog, lies like truth, every day during my stay here (as well as during last week’s SXSW Interactive Festival.)

What I wrote provided hopefully interesting commentary on the music I experienced and other facets of the SXSW scene. But it wasn’t criticism, I realized. And with that realization, I felt bad.

The thing is that criticism, when practiced diligently, is a much higher calling than commentary. Anyone can comment on something.

But to construct an engaging, deeply felt, educational and entertaining response to a work of art is an art form in itself. And unless I spend the necessary time digesting the work, reading around it and thinking about it before putting my thoughts into the public domain, then it’s not criticism. It’s merely commentary.

In order to excel as a critic, I need the resources of time and money to do my best work. Because my blog isn’t paid and something that I write mostly off the cuff before getting down to paid writing gigs for the sheer joy of sharing immediate thoughts about the cultural scene, it is very much a venue for commentary rather than criticism.

I believe that I share this reality with most of the other people who cover the arts today.

With very few adequately remunerated jobs for arts critics left in the U.S. journalism scene as opposed to a decade ago, blogs—those great modern bastions of commentary—are thriving.

Meanwhile, true criticism is dying. (I know, I know, it’s a cliché to say this, but I can’t help myself because it’s true.)

Today, criticism is really the purview of a few people who still have those precious staff critics’ jobs for mainstream media organizations and those for whom money and time are meaningless. I am talking trust fund babies and trophy wives. That’s too bad.

If the thinking is that social networking is replacing professional criticism—and nixed a professional review’s ability to drive sales—then can some middle ground be found between professional criticism and interactive social networking and if so, what would that look like?

This question carries the assumption that the point of criticism is to drive ticket sales.

Box office revenue is one by-product of criticism, but in my view it has always been a minor one.

And I don’t think that the falling off of this aspect of criticism in the wake of the growth of social networking is hugely responsible for the demise of arts criticism in the media. It’s only part of the story.

In any case, if I accept this assumption, I would say that the middle ground, at least in the short term, is the acceptance of the fact that criticism is something that must be created by people who are passionate about art but not dependent on criticism as a way to make a living.

Once this reality has been established and accepted (and perhaps it’s just a short-term reality) then it’s a question of harnessing the web’s filtering power to allow the best of the (mostly amateur) voices to rise to the top.

So the middle ground is likely to be a mixture of the work of the few remaining professional critics, seasoned amateur critics (who may well once have been paid for their work in this field) and members of the public who have no particular arts writing background but have a strong enough editorial voice to be heard above the din.

Describe your arts criticism utopia.
In my arts criticism utopia, I would have the resources to practice criticism rather than commentary. And every day would bring a lively conversation between a wide community of stakeholders, including members of the public, artists and journalists, about art.

The original post on HowlRound can be found here.

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  1. ariel says

    C’omon it is nothing but personal opinion and to elevate it to some “art” form is nonsense . Arts writing background is just manipulating words so they end up sounding that dreadful museum speak . Ever read
    some gallery write ups on the latest show , written up by ladies and gents who majored in “arts” and
    now have profound insights .. art criticism is nothing but a “conditioned ” point of view and in the long
    run means nothing- except as a sales engine for those that win approval of the so called insightful art
    critics who have a public audience . It is all about whose ox is being gored . Blogs have” speak your mind”
    but did you ever notice how many “critical” divergent responses are printed ? Having to protect territory
    is what it is all about .

  2. anciano says

    Ariel, I disagree. Yes, the caricature of critics viewing contemporary art, spouting nonsense to cover the fact that they have no clue what to think, is an old one, and sometimes a justified one. But true criticism is not merely an opinion: it is an informative opinion. Take for example the reviews of pop music that listeners post on Amazon: most are fans of a given artist and will atomatically support his/her work without much explanation as to what the work exactly consists of or why they believe it is good; a few will do the opposite, one gets the impression that they do this automatically as well, without paying much attention to the work at hand, just because they enjoy raining on other people’s parade.
    You are not likely to have a cogent idea of what the reviewed music is like, except that it’s either “grate,” or “bs.”
    Art critics have – or should have – an intimate understanding of the art form they choose to critique, which enables them to provide you with information that, the more you yourself learn about that art form, will become increasingly important to you. To put it simply, if a composer has written that something should be played slowly, the art critic will be able to delve into the fact that the interpreter has chosen to play it rapidly, and the effects this has on the music, what it might convey that is new and different. You may not be aware of these choices.
    Obviously, this is not all that art criticism is, far from it. But i thought that I’d bring up just this one small point, which in itself validates art criticism in my mind: it has never prevented me from making up my own mind, but it has taught me what to look for in the process. And it has certainly helped me make up my mind when six or seven different versions of a recording were available, but my finances could justify only one.

  3. says

    The crisis is not economic, so I reject your assumption that because staff jobs for arts criticism are gone there can be only commentary (opinion) versus real criticism. The real problem is that people no longer know what genuine arts criticism is — models today are hard to find, academia is about analysis rather than judgment, and no one reads criticism from the past. If no one knows what criticism is, then it will disappear.

    You don’t need time and money (though it is nice) — to be a critic. You need to be able to articulate judgments (which in this culture, where everyone wants to be supportive, is a rarity), and have reasons that back up how you came to your verdict. There is a rich background of journalistic criticism of the past — just in America you have Edgar Allan Poe, H.L. Mencken, James Agee, Edmund Wilson, etc. They offer a language and non-academic approach to criticism that can be adapted to online dialogue.

    What’s needed are critics who are familiar with the past, and have the conviction, knowledge, and taste to back up their evaluations with reasons that provoke dialogue. The bottom line is not that the disappearance of professional arts sections means the end of criticism. The challenge is to maintain the best of criticism of the past online. Why? At its best, criticism is an important way to articulate the value of the arts in our lives. The rest is box office and anti-intellectualism. Anyone with a blog can be a critic — don’t blame anyone but yourself. Many of the best critics didn’t have weeks to think or ponder their reviews — they were skilled at reasoning and judging. And they didn’t often make much money doing it.