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May 14, 2006

Break Rules


In conjunction with a talk I gave last fall on the state of arts journalism in the American daily press (which Doug has posted as a link to the right of this blog), I would like to suggest a different perspective than venue on what makes a critic “influential” or “authoritative.” In fact , I would like to suggest a different template for the critic’s role than what’s normally applied by American newspapers. Like Harold Clurman (whom I quote liberally), I would like to see critics become proactive members of the arts community, not arms-legnth observers. This was once unexceptional. I cite, as influential and authoritiative egs, Clurman and vrious music critics (e.g., Henry Krehbiel and Virgill Thomson, or the earlier composer/critics Berlioz, Schumann, Debussy). I wcould also mention Clement Greenberg in art. In this regard – as I mention in my talk, calling for an Arts & Leisure “op ed” format – I feel we need a common forum (on line, in print, whatever) for arts critics and arts practitioners (classical music – my own field – may be atypically deficient in tis regard). And I think we need to re-examine the notion of critiical “objectivity” and explore the history of its incursion. It’s an option, not a given. (In my talk, I trace its murky and suspect history at the New York Times, where I was a music critic in the late 1970s).

I feel I am very much on the same page as Enrique Fernandez, in his "Break Rules" (also posted to the right of this blog). Newspapers may be failing for a variety of reasons, but that they are boring is unignorably a factor. Arts criticism in the American daily press needs to be edgier, riskier, more stylish. Many (most?) Newspaper critics these days don’t even aspire to a personal style. As I mention in my talk, they gravitate toward a “faux style” – short sentences, short graphs, simple ideas – innocent of any aesthetic dimension. That syle is conditioned by a newspaper etiquette overstressing “objectivity.” So is the recent advent of "arts reporters." I appreciate that newspapers of diminishing circulation fear that ambitious criticism alienates readers. But writing that is boring is even more alienating.

Posted by at May 14, 2006 3:54 PM


I think some of what you say regarding your first point, Joseph, is quite true and attributable to the media's attempt to avoid the appearance of a "conflict of interest," an odd bird indeed. Classical music journalism may be quite affected by this, but most of the critics I know have had musical training, so they can know whereof they speak.

I can only speak with any (and slight) authority on theater criticism and journalism, but it strikes me that some of finest 20th century theater journalism came from those who probably wouldn't be able to pass that litmus test of conflicted interests. We can certainly cite Shaw here. We can even cite Walter Kerr, who though not a playwright himself was married to a quite popular Broadway dramatist and ran in the same circles as those whose shows he regularly reviewed. So I'm not sure that this attempt to separate practitioner from critic has had a particularly positive effect in the quality of the journalism.

That said, American theater criticism has been rife with critic/practitioners: Eric Bentley and Robert Brustein, in particular, who are not only fine critics but also in their enthusiasm had major influence on both American theater journalism and practice in the mid-20th century. Current editorial practices suggest that the next Bentley or Brustein won't come from the print media, which has no space for longer essays on the art, and retains a careful eye on this new kind of newsroom objectivity. The next Bentley or Brustein will likely emerge from the blogosphere.

Posted by: George Hunka at May 14, 2006 7:57 PM

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