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May 15, 2006

Discrimination Theatre

by Douglas McLennan

I’m interested (though hardly surprised) that much of this discussion has been a blogger-versus-print debate. But if we leave it at that level, I think we’re missing the point.

There’s nothing magical about blogs. There’s not really anything radically new about blogging. A blog is a cheap, easy publishing platform that opens up the ability to publish to almost anyone. But there are as many kinds of blogs out there as there are bloggers. Technorati reports that 17,000 new blogs are created every day.

Blogs are unreliable? Well, libraries are unreliable too if you don’t know how to use them. God knows the traditional press is unreliable if you’re not discriminating. If you’re indiscriminate about watching TV your brain can turn to mush. But TV can also be a window on the world. It’s all about choices and your sophistication in making them. So debating blogs versus traditional print is not very useful.

Ironically – I think – this issue of making discriminating choices about blogs relates directly to the traditional role of the critic. Critics make choices, weeding out the quality from the mass and providing context. So it’s an odd thing for a critic to be making an undifferentiated argument about the value (or lack of value) of blogs. Blogs are a technology platform, not a state of being.

I think there has been confusion for some time about the role of a critic. Is it primarily to pass judgment up or down, be a Consumer Report? Or is it to deal in context and ideas, using culture as raw material? The trend at many newspapers seems to be the former. But technology is becoming more efficient in that role – the wisdom of the many (whether it’s aggregated critical opinion at RottenTomatoes.com or the reader value ranking systems of sites like Digg or NewsVine) seems to interest people more than the up-or-down judgments of most individual critics. And why not?

Aren’t critics supposed to help us discover culture we might like? Well, again technology is getting more efficient at that too – Pandora uses the Music Genome Project to feed you streams of music you probably will like. Register your preferences at any number of websites and you’ll be fed a diet of whatever you say you’re looking for. It’s amazingly sophisticated. Want to stumble over something new? There’s Pitchfork and Podbop and… Looking for recommendations on the local scene? Flavorpill is happy to oblige, and there are any number of tell-a-friend sites that are pretty reliable.

The point is, many of the functions that have traditionally been the domain of the critic are now being done in other, more efficient ways. Whether or not you-the-consumer still want to have a relationship with an actual critic person depends more and more on the specific person. With the rising glut of culture that now engulfs us, there is more need than ever for critics/curators to help us wade through it all. But what is the essential thing that an arts journalist needs to bring to the table? How does an arts journalist accumulate the critical capital to make an impact?

Posted by mclennan at May 15, 2006 11:24 PM


With Google digitizing the entire print world and no doubt other entities soon springing forth to digitize everything that can be digitied (for example - every photograph ever taken), does the role of critic as an identifier of important/significant culture have any relevance today? After all, if we get to the point that we can capture, save, access and consume all culture whenever and wherever we want, why do we need someone to tell us which cultural products matter anymore? It is a bit like the US government capturing all information that it possibly can on everyone, warehousing the information and then accessing the information should the need arise. When culture no longer has a shelf-life, why do we need a critic to decide what is "good", "bad", "mediocre" or worth consuming?

And in terms of critics, why would I put more faith in a name brand critic than in a blogger? Critics gain credibility over time - be it a critic publishing in the NYT or a blogger making insightful comments. Certainly that stamp of approval the NYT gives a writer will draw attention to that writer but with blogs being so easy to access, finding and then returning to a worhwhile blog over time levels the playing field between the traditionally established and newly established. It is really a matter of credibiltiy which, again, becomes established over time.

Posted by: Dallas at May 16, 2006 5:23 AM

How does an arts journalist accumulate the critical capital to make an impact?

You can tell nigh instantly whether a writer knows what he's talking about. You can tell over the course of a few installments whether his critical angle interests you. Good critics apply good writing chops to the experience of looking at art, and they have experiences looking at art worth writing about. A sustained ability to produce the resultant content accumulate critical capital for the writer.

Maybe the more pressing question is how the arts journalist can disperse his critical capital, because that's what we've been witnessing in the traditional outlets and why the blogs have made so many gains against them in terms of producing viable content.

Posted by: Franklin Einspruch at May 16, 2006 5:33 AM

The recommendation engine/advocate function only goes so far, though.

I see--and use--critics as reporters of an individual encounter with art. They can provide context and interpret and judge, but they also serve as a proxy for me, the reader.

Or at least, I imagine and expect to find myself in the critic's position, face to face with art, in attendance at a performance, or reading the same text.

This kind of reporting is by definition subjective, and I can find and judge and come to trust (or dismiss) a critic's ability wherever I find her.

Posted by: greg.org at May 16, 2006 6:59 AM

Regarding unreliability, when I used to work in the comic book biz, I'd be repeatedly incensed at the inaccuracies in the traditional press when they focused their attention on comics. I imagined what they were getting wrong in all the areas that I didn't know as much as about or have an insider perspective - you can see this is you watch a Congressional hearing on C-SPAN and then peruse the coverage in the next day's paper. This situation is more likely to occur in an area like comics where the reporter just dips in and out and less likely to happen where the reporter is able to establish a beat and gain long-term experience with the topic and the players. This is where the current trend with newspapers dropping or downsizing their arts sections becomes worrisome because without long-term attention from a dedicated staffer, the chances of inaccuracies rises.

Posted by: Todd W. at May 16, 2006 7:39 AM

Nothing magical about blogs, he says. Nothing magical about blogs?

Well, maybe not in a literal sense, but even with regards to your chosen topic of critical content, there is something wondrous happening in the blogosphere that was never possible before in history.

Cheap, easy publication has been around for a long time, sure, but 'publication' always meant physical product, that by the very nature of it being cheap and easy to produce meant that its distribution would be severely limited.

By creating a virtual product that essentially lacks a production cost, the door is open to both unlimited content and unlimited viewership. In the critical world, that has created a sea change where guys like Steve Smith & Alex Ross, who are circumscribed by the limits of what their day jobs will let them publish, can fully engage on any subject they choose.

As opposed to getting 300 words and competing for attention, they are free to discuss at whatever length they choose the subjects of their choice on their blogs. That's pretty radical, and pretty unique to the blogosphere.

Posted by: jodru at May 16, 2006 8:33 AM

There is nothing magical about blogs. The hype around them is maddening. Electronic discussions have been happening long before blogs showed up. Check Usenet's rec.music.classical hierarchy and Dave Lampson's Moderated Classical Music Mailing List for just a few examples.

There are plenty of places where current bloggers and/or working critics can and could engage an audience. Why don't they? Could the lack of control have something to do with it? Self-promotion, apparently the prime motivation for blogging, is seldom tolerated at these neighborhoods unless and until the writer has proven himself through sustained and valuable contribution. There's also a lot of junk. Nothing new there, either.

Blogs _are_ only a technology as Doug McLennan states. The most recent in a long and evolving line. Yes, it's easier for anyone to blog. The barrier has been lowered for the good and the bad. What's usually left out of the mix is the dreadful state of blog commenting software. It is difficult to quote, reply, and engage as in other electronic discussion forums. It is almost as if the people that wrote the packages intended to channel it towards brief "Way to go!" messages by the blogger's friends.

Messaging, email, fingerplans, listservs, Usenet News, webgroups, cheap webhosting, and now blogs. Every one of them was supposed to revolutionize the world like nothing before. Every one of them did have an impact. Every one of them eventually lived down the hype and settled into equilibrium. It's been going on since the early 1970s and probably before then.

Ravi Narasimhan
Redondo Beach, CA

Posted by: Ravi Narasimhan at May 16, 2006 10:29 AM

I've been participating in various internet technologies - listservs etc - for more than 10 years, mainly in the field of contemporary poetry, which went wholesale to the internet because it is utterly marginalised in mainstream publications. And yes, they have made a very big difference which I think has yet to be fully assessed.

But I do think blogs are doing something different. They are much more user-friendly to an outsider reader: all the other technologies require some kind of "insider" status (you need to join the usenet group or listserv, for example). Like those other technologies, blogs create communities around and between them: but they also create readerships, which the other technologies can only do in limited ways. I'm fascinated to watch their evolution. Blogs are unruly, disorderly and unpredictable, sure, and there's no arguing that there's a ton of crap out there. But simply to observe that fact is, I think, to miss what else is going on.

Posted by: Alison Croggon at May 16, 2006 6:42 PM

Alison wrote:
"But I do think blogs are doing something different. They are much more user-friendly to an outsider reader: all the other technologies require some kind of "insider" status (you need to join the usenet group or listserv, for example). Like those other technologies, blogs create communities around and between them: but they also create readerships, which the other technologies can only do in limited ways...."

I respectfully disagree. Usenet and listservs mostly require a user to know that they are there - true for blogs as well. Google's archiving of the Usenet has made it easy to search and to contribute. There are also the traditional paths to connectivity through news providers. I don't think it is any more difficult to contribute to these existing forums than it is to comment to this site. My experience has been that blogs are not immune from in-group/out-group problems. It's an online community like any other. The blog owner is in charge. By contrast, the moderation policies of Usenet and listservs have evolved differently.

I visit several Usenet sites and belong to a few listservs just because of the readership issue you mentioned. There are people contributing who write well and in whose opinions I love to read.
I primarily visit blogs for links to full articles. I've yet to find one that appeals to me solely on its own merits. (My arts interests, for what they're worth, are in classical music and theatre).

Blogs are unruly, disorderly and unpredictable, sure, and there's no arguing that there's a ton of crap out there. But simply to observe that fact is, I think, to miss what else is going on.

My point was more than the signal-to-noise ratio in blogs. It was about the claims being made, at least in my reading of them, that blogs were something fundamentally new and different. I think that the blog providers have done a very good job of providing clean, attractive interfaces - many or most of which happen to be free. This is a huge departure from previous free services such as Geocities which also provided venues for unfettered expression. The advent of RSS and its tight integration with just about every piece of blog software is the real story. People can now have an aggregator working quietly in the background serving up items of interest. But RSS is a protocol and not restricted to blogs alone.

I think (hope?) the future of journalism, arts or otherwise, will still depend on the quality of the thinking and of the exposition. The method of delivery will change as blogs become routine and the next great gizmo shows up. It is like the old economy versus the new economy: The outfits that stuck to sound principles survived.

As an aside, I would personally like to see more art critics whose knowledge of the world transcends their specialty, transcends art, and brings in science, engineering, and technology in substantial and appropriate ways. That's been tough to find no matter the medium.

Ravi Narasimhan

Posted by: Ravi Narasimhan at May 16, 2006 8:50 PM

As a matter of fact, the function of criticism is not to help us discover which cultural products we might like, as Mr. McLennan claims. Its function is to help us discover and understand cultural products worthy of our experience, works of art we might not otherwise have had any interest in. Criticism is an exploration, not a trip to the supermarket.

Posted by: Kenneth LaFave at May 18, 2006 12:19 AM

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