John: So much agreement, and so much for the mean nasty blogosphere. For my part, I’d like to leave off with a rant about audience. I think one of the things that is killing American arts journalism is our (arts journalists) fogginess about who we think our audience is. Why is it considered more important to bring into the metaphorical tent non-readers who have previously expressed little or no interest in culture? Why is it smart to chase after people who show little inclination to want to engage with the arts, and whom, if they do check you out, are unlikely to return. Meanwhile, those who are paying attention find that the more they know, the less writing there is for them in the local paper.
There are arts organizations that behave this way too. They pander after what they think will get the most people to buy tickets. The artistic product? Hmnnn, not so much. So the product is (thought to be) populist. But luring audiences in by trying to convince them it won’t hurt is a low-yield proposition. The audience churn rate is high, and every new production requires enormous work to replenish the theatre to make up for those who aren’t returning. Ultimately, these are the arts organizations that fail to find a core audience and always seem to be struggling to stay alive.
I’m not, by the way, trying to make an argument about quality. It’s more about who you decide should be your audience.
Arts journalists have to make that decision too. When they don’t, readers make it for you. If you’re not interesting, then no one much cares what you have to say. If you overpraise, your opinion is discounted, including, paradoxically, by the people you’re writing about. I’m not saying abandon the audience who knows nothing about the arts but might be interested if you can hook them. But they should be the second, third, or fourth priority, and since they take a lot of work to cultivate, they should be the luxury add-on to our primary audience.
I’m not advocating for technical obscure insider journalism (though it can be really fun to read when it’s done well). This is more a plea for making it interesting and engaging and intelligent; about demanding something of the reader in return. There ought to be some price of admission to this kinds of writing, and it ought to be worth it. I think arts journalists and publications devalue their work when they set the bar for admission too low. TV’s 60 Minutes often tackles obscure topics. But they present them in engaging, intelligent ways, they don’t dumb it down, and they make you care about the dirty meat packing plant or the crooked garage mechanic. End rant.
To a more pleasant topic (and I’ve been meaning to clip this in somewhere this week but haven’t found the opening). Reading a selection of someone’s collected work makes you look at them in a different way. There’s something about seeing essays and reviews strung together that gives you insight to how they approach their work. First, I was curious how you decided which pieces to include. The reasons for some are obvious. Others I’m not so sure of, but you obviously put them in there for a reason.
I began reading you regularly when you were primarily a classical music critic. And though you expanded beyond music after that, it made me read your classical pieces (which don’t, for the most part, start appearing until well into the book) in a different light. Seeing the classical pieces amidst all the other performers somehow gives them a different context.
The other big discovery in reading the book (and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it) is your penchant for last line zingers. In so many reviews you take a open-minded descriptive stance that seems to be a reasonable, fair assessment. “Here’s what it is, and here’s what the artist seems to want to say,” you posit. Then that last line comes along and it freezes the whole thing like a snapshot. One of my favorites is your 1974 review of Cleo Laine. You acknowledge she’s built a following, describe what she did, then this in the final graf of a four-paragraph review:
“But for this listener, admiration stops a good deal short of affection. Miss Laine strikes me as a calculating singer, one whose highly perfected artifice continually blocks communicative feeling. To me she has all the personality of a carp. But then, obviously, I’m just a cold fish”
It’s a brilliant bit that describes your sense of her perfectly. You often close your pieces in this way, as if the whole first section were merely a necessary set up to get to the real frank talk at the end, and I have to confess I hadn’t taken sufficient notice of it before. I’m wondering if you set out to write this as a structure or device, or whether it just evolved naturally. Did you have someone early on – an editor, a friend – who helped you find your voice as a critic? I hear so many journalists today lamenting they never had an editor who took the time to help make them better.