Get off my lawn!

Michael Kaiser wants those crazy kids to turn their loud rock ‘n roll music down! You with your “chat rooms” and your hippy hippy shake shake and your mobile telephones.

He wrote a blog post on the Huffington Post about how social media and bloggers are ruining arts criticism. Before we go on, kindly take a moment to absorb the irony of  someone writing for the Huffington Post commenting on the demise of traditional media outlets.

I’ve covered these topics before, and I don’t want to be That Blogger who just writes the same post over and over. So, read these if you like:

On critics receiving comp tickets and CDs.

On whether or not artists should change how they perform based on reviews, and the influence of internet buzz.

On commenting on one’s own reviews.

On audience evaluation surveys.

I would like an answer from Michael Kaiser on the “what are critics actually for” question. He seems to be arguing for the answer to be “ticket sales” and “posterity” at the same time.

If criticism is about helping audiences decide what to see, we should acknowledge some people don’t want to get recommendations for their precious discretionary time and money from experts at all.  All forms of criticism and commentary are important, and the idea of expertise is not limited to one. I don’t want the New York Times to go away and I don’t want OperaChic to go away. It’s almost too obvious to type out, but a blogger not being vetted or paid doesn’t mean that they’re not an expert. Likewise, because a newspaper staff writer IS vetted doesn’t mean that they are. Both extremes can be good writing, both extremes can be bad writing, as can everything in between.

If press should exist to serve the marketing needs of performers and presenters, shouldn’t Kaiser be encouraging as much online discussion as possible? This is not a zero-sum game: the existence of writers without established publications and editors does not mean those with cannot exist.

Kaiser speaks of bloggers as “competition” for journalists. Is competition not how we all get better at our jobs? I met with Broadway director Jerry Zaks when I graduated from college, and asked him what I should do working in a marketing department if I actually wanted to be a musical theater director. He said, “Always do good work, and let your work speak for itself.” If a writer is good, he or she will rise to the top despite the outlet. If people are preferring to get their news from bloggers and that is decreasing ad revenue, the newspapers should hire those people. You know, like the New York Times does, all the time. (See Nate Silver and Brian Stelter.)

Sorting out whether or not to give bloggers press seats is not rocket science. Simply ask bloggers for their readership numbers, read samples of their writing, and make an informed decision about whether you’d like to give them comp tickets in exchange for their commentary on what you’re presenting. If the ensuing review is badly written or ill-informed, do not invite them back, or discuss this with them. If they can’t provide numbers or samples, you have your answer.

Kaiser writes that arts coverage “has been deemed an unnecessary expense” by many news media outlets. The arts have also been deemed an unnecessary expense for public school systems in this country. I wish there were artists who would volunteer their time and passion and teach at schools for free without being hired by the school. Wouldn’t that be swell. Oh wait, that’s exactly what happens, and they’re universally praised for it.

Mostly, I just feel bad for the Kennedy Center press folks. Were they even consulted before he posted this? Because the big boss just undercut the future of their department.

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  1. MWnyc says

    I would like an answer from Michael Kaiser on the “what are critics actually for” question. He seems to be arguing for the answer to be “ticket sales” and “posterity” at the same time.

    You know, Amanda, I suspect that there are a lot of arts professionals who think more or less the same thing.

    Most of them probably wouldn’t put it like that (because it doesn’t sound good that way); some of them probably haven’t thought the question through enough to verbalize an answer at all. (Not that they ought to have done so, necessarily; critics and editors are the ones who need to answer the “what critics are actually for” question.)

    But I think that Kaiser’s answer – critics are for both ticket sales and “posterity” – is a widely-held belief. Or perhaps “assumption” is a better word.

  2. says

    Thank you Amanda for an unapologetic post on MMK’s shocking conservative views on the journalistic trade in general and criticism in particular. I read his post a couple of days ago and was so appalled I had to share it with friends in the art world and marvel over how a view could be so out of touch and misguided.

    What the old guards fail to understand is that we are far better informed today through social media outlets, peer reporting, and ‘citizen journalism’ than we have ever been in the history of humanity, no thanks to the newspapers for that. Images taken by amateur photographers and minute-by-minute tweets from inside events prompted revolutions, let alone filled concert halls. I have heard that whiny/ panic tone before from seasoned photojournalists and critics a like.

    Having that said, I echo your views on how problematic it is to dub reporting and critique in the blogging sphere as professional just because it is done by people who are not hired staff. this actually requires redefining ‘professionalism’ outside the capitalist doctrine. Social media is the future of communication and it is the way journalism is evolving into. Even major traditionally ‘print’ media is realizing that, as you pointed out. It is a far more critical space of debate than most of the printed media, let alone better viewed and yes: by a younger audience. The future ticket buyers, if you insist that revenue is the only test.

    What I think is necessary is conscious efforts to consolidate the ethics and standards of classic journalism with the values and technologies of social media. It will only begin when the old guards acknowledge the seriousness and real added value of blogging instead of considering it a threat to their thrown. After all, as you said, nobody ever offered ME a comp ticket to review a show, so no need to panic. We are not in it for the perks :).

  3. says

    It raises so many questions, why we have critics, and, how well are they educated before they put their mind and heart to the pen (er, the fingertips these days). It is always interesting to read the reviews from the past, written in many cases by composers of the day. The “Lexicon of the Modern Invective” proves that new music was not tolerated, and berated, and the same works are lauded as masterpieces decades later. Did those reviews have a seriously negative effect on the composers back then, or did these reviews inhibit performances? There were no recordings to sell, which depended on the reviews–until the advent of the recording industry. Still, today, we rely on recording reviews to entice people to be curious enough to make the purchase–unless they don’t need the review because they love what they’re buying. Of course, the expansion of technology invites almost everybody to get on the writing train and blog and post their own views of recordings and concerts. Are they educated enough to do so? Yes and no, but they bring their thoughts to their readers. There are still extremely well educated and well informed journalists who we rely on to educate our society about the past, the present, and offer thoughts about the future. As a performer, the most significant purpose for having anything written about a performance is 1: to inform an audience of an upcoming performance to bring in ticket sales; 2: to review the first performance in a positive manner to help bring in ticket sales for the 2nd and further performances of the same program; and 3: to provide an overview of the performance to serve as an historical viewpoint for future readers, audiences, performers and composers to see where their review meant what it did for the time it was reviewed. We learn mostly from the past, which aids us to provide for the present with vision for the future. If you read the “Lexicon”, then everything I have just written tosses it all away. During every generation, there are challenges to promote the arts, and in our times, the distractions from expanded technology and ability to get everything on a small gadget at your fingertips makes it more difficult for performing arts presenters to lure the population into their venues. But there is still nothing like the real experience of a live event surrounding you in vision and sound. The ideal purpose for critic-izing anything in our generation should be to announce and educate events prior to their happening to attract audiences to physically attend. After that, critic-izing the event does not help sell tickets if the event is over. It merely gives an opinion, which may or may not be helpful for the organizers of the event or the performers. I will admit, the after-performance re-view can be tremendously helpful for securing grants for future events, or for performers to add to their press packages and web sites to further their careers (I am one of the latter~). For recordings, the goal is to sell them and bring something new and exciting to the listening public. Because recordings are not one-shot deals like performances, they are ongoing and having as many educated and positive reviews to help sell recordings and maintain the economical flow of recorded sales can be extremely helpful in many ways. After all, our legacy as performers for people living 100 years from now, are our recordings. In closing, I say long live critics and critic-isms, because people still rely on following the advice and suggestions of anyone who might be more educated about the subject, or may offer suggestions serving the purpose of attending an event or buying a recording. We all learn from each other.

  4. Paul Johnson says

    Mr. Kaiser says: “…it is difficult to distinguish the professional critic from the amateur as one reads on-line reviews and critiques.”

    Really? It’s difficult?

    Mr. Kaiser needs to read more. The distinction is usually clear as a bell. Take, for example, his poorly considered, uninformed Huffington Post opinion item. Amateur hour.

  5. Leonard Jacobs says

    It astonishes me we’re still having this conversation in 2011. Or, to put this another way, wasn’t this the debate of the moment in 2002, 2004 and 2006? I thought the fact of blogging, of social media, of the Web’s effect on arts criticism is, as Chief Justice John “Corporations Are People” Roberts might phrase it, “settled law,” thus making Kaiser’s lament for the era of typewriters, victrolas and chifferobes ever so much more mind-boggling. No, Virginia, the democratization genie cannot, must not and will not be squeezed back into the bottle.

    What disturbs me most, though, is the idea that this was a man I had long regarded — that presumably many of us long regarded, that surely many of us continue to regard — as the savior of the troubled arts nonprofit.

    Perhaps we have to remember and account for how much raging fear there is among the old guard — and it’s a fear more paralyzing and paranoia-inducing in arts journalism, I think, than anywhere else. I was blogging full-time for three years before I left to join a public funding agency; before that I was an arts journalist for a trade publication and website for seven years; before that I was a freelancer for 10 years. This idea that suddenly, by dint of running a blog, I was no longer an “expert,” this idea that anyone, let alone Michael Kaiser, should assert the power and privilege to render such a judgment, really makes you wonder if these are the thought leaders we who work and cover the arts fundamentally need and deserve.

  6. says

    Wow – I have to agree with you on this one. Usually I’m a fan of Michael Kaiser’s no nonsense-do good work approach. But he seemed woefully out of touch on this one. Chat rooms? There must be room for a multitude of voices, levels of experience, and levels of sophistication. What is going to appeal to the Kennedy Center in terms of criticism might not seem as interesting to a small, experimental theater. If we all have different audiences we probably all have different media needs. That said, I have seen companies begin to snub established print media because they don’t want to open themselves up to real criticism, instead pandering to upstart online press, happy to write fluff pieces because they just want to be liked. Bloggers and newspaper critics both need to be critical and honest. Good writing rises to the top.

  7. Andrew Buelow says

    I personally think Michael Kaiser makes some valid points, and I’m surprised at the level of invective in the responses to this blog. Instead of scorning him as an out-of-touch old fogey, we might try using this as an opportunity for a valid discussion and debate on the pros and cons of the changes in the field of arts criticism.

    What Kaiser may not understand is that the line between professional and amateur critic is VERY blurred, and has been for some time already, once you get away from the largest metropolitan areas of the country. At least that is true in my field, that of classical music — I can’t speak directly to theater, dance and art. Music criticism is different because, in most cases, the critic is writing about a concert after the fact, rather than about a play that just opened. It is totally about reflection on the shared listening experience and, at its best, furthering the musical community’s collective ability to listen with discernment.

    But how much is that actually happening anymore, anywhere? In small- to medium-sized cities, at this point you have about a fifty-fifty chance that the local daily has a staff critic at all. If it does, the chances that that person has any formal training in music criticism is even lower. Much of the time the music critic is what a conductor friend of mine once called a “failed musician,” or a retired music professor, or the like. This may or may not result in criticism that is consistently useful.
    Kaiser writes as if the rise of amateur blogger criticism is the cause of the decline of formal professional music criticism. In reality, that decline started at least 15 years before the blogging phenomenon even existed. The two occurrences are parallel but not causally related.

    As for the rise of amateur blogging, it has its good points and its bad points. Kaiser is right that “all opinions are not equally valid.” However, as has already been observed, just because someone writes in a professional capacity for a “real” daily paper doesn’t make them any better of a critic than someone who writes an unofficial blog. Anyone who has ever worked in a community where a poison pen critic held sway can attest to the damage that kind of unfettered power can do to an arts community. Moreover, even at its best I wonder how much arts criticism really helps the average patron to trust his or her own ability to be a discerning arts consumer. Much of the time, at least in classical music, it seems to have the opposite effect.

    For better or worse, the days of the local arts critic being the chief arbiter of taste are gone for good. We can lament or celebrate that, but it was far from a perfect system. The blogging phenomenon may have made arbitration less “professional,” but if it results in people overall having more confidence in their own ability to discern, it’s a good thing.