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One Reason Critics Matter

When people worry about the impact of the recession on the performing arts, they worry about money: waning ticket sales, waning foundation support, waning gifts, waning fees. They should also worry about newspapers – about the draconian impact on arts journalism as papers cut back or go under.
The arts cannot flourish in a media vacuum. I know there are new media. But cultural conversation on the web is diffuse. Whatever purposes it may best serve, serving performing arts institutions – one function, however incidental, of mainstream print reviews and commentary – is not among them.
These thoughts are triggered by Bill Keller’s review of Alan Brinkley’s new biography of Henry Luce in today’s New York Times Book Review. Keller is the executive editor of the Times. He writes: “It would be a mistake to sentimentalize the previous century’s version of journalistic authority. But it is probably affair to say that the cacophony of today’s media – in which rumor and invective often outpace truth-testing, in which shouting heads drown out sober reflection, in which it is possible for people to feel fully informed without ever encountering an opinion that contradicts their prejudices – plays some role in the polarizing of our politics, the dysfunction of our political system and the increased cynicism of the American electorate.”
How I wish that this plausible judgment were commonly applied to the splintering of arts discourse. Five years ago, when I was invited to reflect on the state of arts journalism for Syracuse University’s Goldring Program in Arts Journalism, I began by citing Harold Clurman’s The Fervent Years. This classic 1941 history of the Group Theatre is many things – one of which is a case study on the life and death of a cutting-edge arts institution, offered as a lesson in futility. The failure of the Group Theatre, Clurman writes, was partly a failure of the press: New York’s drama critics, he says, were not notably invested in standards they were prepared to articulate and defend. OK, probably not – but that they at least enjoyed a central pulpit, and the capacity to make a difference, looks pretty good today.
The same was true, of course, of Henry Luce’s Time and Life – and of Look Magazine and countless other publications and TV shows I knew growing up. The performing arts coverage left a lot to be desired. And yet it mattered. Important players were right at hand: Ingmar Bergman, Pablo Casals, Tennessee Williams, Igor Stravinsky, Rodgers and Hammerstein actually registered as icons. Dwight MacDonald’s classic putdown of “midcult” was unarguably just. As with the Ed Sullivan Show, or the Bell Telephone Hour, classical music as surveyed by a Luce or William Paley or David Sarnoff was all too Eurocentric and venerable, insufficiently tuned to America and to the contemporary moment. But the makings of significant public conversation were in place.
Does anyone care about the fate of arts journalism today? Few accounts of the demise of the daily paper seem to take notice of it. Foundations ignore it. The main exception of which I am aware is the National Endowment for the Arts, which under Dana Gioia undertook annual institutes for critics in music, theater, and dance. I am fortunate of have been the artistic director of the NEA Music Critics Institute since its inception in 2004. In seven years we have witnessed the disappearance of the fulltime music critic as a likely newspaper staff-member. The bloggers who have taken their place as institute participants are in many instances brighter and fresher than their precursors – but the platforms they occupy are smaller, less stable, less prominent. For the moment, I hold out more hope for the local radio station that takes responsibility for showcasing and buttressing the cultural life of a community. For a performing arts organization, the eager attention of a WFMT/Chicago (of which, alas, there is only one) can make a life-or-death difference.
Clurman wrote: “The Group could not sustain itself as such because it was isolated. The Group Theatre was a failure because, as no individual can exist alone, no group can exist alone. For a group to live a healthy life and mature to a full consummation of its potentiality, it must be sustained by other groups – not only of moneyed men or civic support, but by equally conscious groups in the press, in the audience, and generally in large and comparatively stable segments of society. When their this fails to happen, . . . it will wither just as an organ that is not nourished by the blood’s circulation through the body.”
Theodore Thomas, the Gilded Age father of American symphonic culture, preached: “A symphony orchestra shows the culture of the community.” In cities big and small, it did. Today, our children avidly specialize in vicarious forms of electronic interpersonal diversion. Our laptops and televisions ensnare us in a surrogate world that shuns all but facile passions. We are greatly challenged to identify, nurture, and sustain anything like a community of culture infused with arts and learning.


  1. Gary Panetta says:

    I agree that the critics/bloggers who have replaced traditional newspaper critics occupy a narrower, less stable platform than that of their predecessors.
    Nevertheless, informed discussion, critique and debate are taking place on sites like which, as you already know, covers classical music in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a former Bay Area resident, I can tell you this site far surpasses coverage by the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s well-edited and not half-baked, unlike a lot of things on the Internet.
    Perhaps sites like this one could in addition develop a presence on a local radio station or other more general media outlets — provided, of course, any media outlets with a general audience are left in the future.

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