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May 16, 2006

Extraordinary machines

by About Last Night

Doug has been trying to nudge our discussion toward a consideration of the possibility that the new “preference engines” (to coin a phrase) currently being rolled out all over the Web might be making certain forms of arts journalism obsolete. I agree. To be sure, I have yet to buy a single book, CD, or DVD as a result of the countless automated tips generated by amazon.com, but I use Pandora every day (I’ve blogged about it here). Will such devices ultimately replace critics? No, but I think they’re going to have a significant effect on what critics do, just as the rise of the Web has already caused newspapers around the country to rethink the utility of publishing old-fashioned ink-on-paper features like stock-market tables.

I’ve been reading Phillip Lopate’s new anthology of American film criticism, in whose introduction I ran across this passage:

Manny Farber once told an interviewer that as a critic he found the role of evaluation “practically worthless. The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not; the problems of writing are after that. I don’t think it has any importance; it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.”

I don’t agree—not quite—but I do think Farber was onto something that has turned out to be highly relevant.

To quote Doug:

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?

Now, the “consumer report” function of criticism is not to be despised, especially when you cover a branch of art that is expensive to consume (as I do in my capacity as the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, in whose pages I regularly review Broadway shows with hundred-dollar tops). But I see less and less point in publishing preference-driven “criticism” of such commodity art as Hollywood films and commercial pop music, especially if you’re the editor of a regional newspaper where space and resources are limited. Chris’ posting about the Union-Tribune’s new approaches to covering the arts points to a number of innovative ways in which such papers might make better use of their resident arts writers.

Believe me, I’m not saying that criticism is soooo Nineties, much less soooo over. Good writing justifies its own existence. If you can find people capable of writing stylish, trenchant reviews of blockbuster movies, by all means hire them and let ’em rip—but don’t settle for anything less. If, on the other hand, you have to choose between publishing mediocre criticism and solid, informative feature writing…well, there’s no choice, least of all nowadays.

Posted by tteachout at May 16, 2006 6:20 PM


Isn't is possible to exist in both realms? Look at a site such as Pitchfork: it features some of the smartest, most insightful pop music criticism out there. It also uses a rating system. AND it embeds links where you can buy the music that's being reviewed; it's clearly advertising yet there's no thick black line separating it. Everyone seems to understand what it is yet it doesn't interfere with the credibility of the reviews. Pitchfork seems to be a good example of balancing both ends of the spectrum. I don't think, however, that preference engines will ever choke out real critics. If nothing else, it's because people in this country like to feel as though they are individuals, even if it's an illusion.

Posted by: caryn at May 16, 2006 9:22 PM

Somewhat like Caryn, I think there already is a wide spectrum between--for lack of better words--"commentary" and "evaluation." It's one thing to read a critic that simply uses global adjectives of praise or condemnation: "Wow!" That's simply fodder for ad layouts. But quite another to read a smart consideration of a great performance or composition, which clearly signals that it's something to be seen, but expends most of its effort to explain *why* it's worthwhile. What makes it great? How does a performance serve a play or a piece of music? I always try to think of my reviews as the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one. Pandora and the like can help one find great music (or whatever) but critics and writers should the ones who keep the conversation going.

Posted by: Paul Kosidowski at May 17, 2006 6:47 AM

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