Hacks and Flacks: The State of Arts Criticism

Columbia University reported Monday that it is closing its well known National Arts Journalism Program. AJ helmsman Doug McLennan and fellow blogger Jan Herman have been posting insightful commentary about this, and the LA Times has published a long piece about the decline of traditional criticism.

I have a lot more than two cents riding on this debate, but for the moment, let me ante up the following:

The overriding problem is what linguist Deborah Tannen calls "the argument culture": the media’s habit of framing every topic as a highly polarized debate between two extremes, even when this is not appropriate. This has a distorting effect on many issues, including the arts. Just think about the quality of discussion, even among reputable critics, on issues like government funding of the arts; violence in entertainment; censorship and the Internet; and the "canon" in the humanities.

These powerful cross currents can be tricky for critics and other arts journalists to negotiate, especially they are operating in a culture that does not have any coherent, agreed-upon standards by which to make aesthetic judgments. Too often, critics and reviewers muddle along, using several competing standards, each inherited from a different phase in the history of Western art.

What critics have trouble doing is developing their own robust, well grounded taste. "Taste" is an antique concept but an irreplaceable one. Most people, even cultural theorists who would not grant the concept any credence in their academic work, exercise taste all the time in their non-academic life. Just ask them about the last movie they saw, or (even better) the music their kids are listening to.

But because taste is something of a taboo topic in academia, many well credentialed critics do not feel very confident of their own judgment, which makes them vulnerable to being swept up by one or the other side in the so-called culture war. Next thing the hapless critic knows, he or she has become a hack: someone who writes about the arts from an overly ideological perspective.

Hacks exist on both sides of the political fence. But hackdom is always a dead end.

On the left, the hack soon reaches an impasse: while making a principled case for total artistic freedom, he or she must accept ever greater excess from what I call the culture of transgression - art whose sole purpose is to “shock the bourgeois” (assuming this can still be done).

On the right, the hack faces a contradiction: on the one hand, a libertarian shrug that assigns all evaluative functions to the market; and on the other, a righteous crusade that looks askance at any work not didactically committed to religious and moral uplift.

Caught in this cross current, the unwary critic steers by his or her subjective judgment. Readers accept this, because it is typically assumed that aesthetic judgments are wholly subjective. But danger arises when the rudderless subjectivity of the journalist meets the blandishments of PR people in the arts, to say nothing of entertainment. Before you can say "flack,” the critic is repeating the latest press releases and dropping the hottest names.

These pressures can be resisted, but only if the budding critic takes the time to think through the essential questions of aesthetic standards: where they come from, how they have changed, what their truth claims are, and how they operate in a diverse, decentralized, pluralistic culture like ours. I don't know for sure, but I doubt whether the case for arts journalism programs is often made in these terms.

May 25, 2005 1:15 AM |

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