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June 1, 2007

A bad trend that seems to be gathering momentum with the speed of light...

What started out as a sad story from Atlanta, where the Atlanta Journal-Constitution decided to eliminate designated titles for arts critics and to reduce the number of reviews, is now looking more and more like a trend that is gathering momentum with the speed of light...

The Atlanta news was followed immediately by news that the Minneapolis Star Tribune is eliminating the position of full-time classical music critic, and that was followed in turn by New York Magazine's dismissal of their music critic Peter Davis. To say that these developments are alarming is, frankly, to understate the case. A few months ago, I gave a keynote address to the convention of the Eastern division of MENC, the Music Educator's National Conference. In that speech, I made the following observation:

I feel that today there is a serious distortion of values in the world - a set of values that puts the short term ahead of the long term, that puts financial achievement ahead of ethical standards, and a set of values that increasingly diminishes the worth of intellectual achievement and of human expression. In fact, when future generations look back and judge the civilizations and societies of the past, it is first and foremost the cultural and artistic achievements of those societies that are spoken of. To be sure, engineering and scientific achievements are a part of the picture of any society - even a major part. But whether it is Homer, Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Picasso, James Baldwin, Garcia Lorca, or Leonard Bernstein - the artists and the art they created express the deepest and most profound thoughts of the civilizations in which they lived and worked.

These actions from Atlanta, Minneapolis, and New York compellingly demonstrate the decreasing value that those in position to influence public opinion place on the value of the arts to a society. If that does not alarm you, I cannot imagine what will!

What is so frustrating is that I have no idea what those of us who believe in the value of the arts and culture can actually do to stop this train. We must find ways to make our voices an increasingly important part of the public dialogue, and ways to communicate to those in positions of political or corporate power the sheer short-sightedness of the kind of thinking that decisions like this demonstrate. I recognize that this little blog does not have the power and scope of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Minneapolis Star Tribune, or New York Magazine. But it is what I have at my disposal - and perhaps each and every one of us has to start figuring out how to use what we have at our disposal.

See my previous entry to see how you can register your voice in Atlanta. And, here's a link to some terrific coverage of the Minneapolis situation by Minnesota Public Radio.

Posted by hfogel at June 1, 2007 5:26 PM

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Clarification: are these papers eliminating coverage of classical music altogether, or changing the job descriptions and asking the writers to write about other topics as well? Or eliminating only the positions, with classical coverage continuing on a freelance basis?

In all three cases that I referred to, it was made clear that classical music coverage, reviewing, and reporting will be either severely cut back or eliminated. Comments were made in both Atlanta and Minneapolis about more hard-news types of stories about music organizations. Both papers state that they will continue to provide some reviewing on a free-lance basis, but both have indicated that the amount of ink devoted to reviews is going to be diminished fairly severely. And New York Magazine has indicated that classical music coverage "will be combined with other subjects."

Although the future will answer GKB's question more definitively, it is very clear from the comments made either publicly or to the critics involved that classical music reporting and reviewing is going to be reduced significantly in all three publications. Perhaps one reason for focusing on this subject in this blog is to persuade people in those communities to put pressure on those publications, which might in turn have an effect on the degree of classical music reportage the future will bring.

--Henry Fogel

Posted by: GKB at June 1, 2007 9:32 PM

Hello, Henry. Yes, it is happening all over the country. Here in South Florida we have two major dailies: the Miami Herald and the Sun Sentinel. The Herald is holding on for the moment to its music, film, books, visual arts, dance, and theatre critics. It even manages to employ now and then some various "stringers" to help cope with the volume of events during the high season. The Sentinel, however, is a different story.

Tom Jicha, the TV critic at the Sentinel has been let go. Some staffers whose names I can not mention have been given notice of upcoming (to them) "buyouts." Their primary theatre critic - Jack Zink - is now doing double-duty as both theatre and classical music reviewer, never mind that he is hardly qualified to do the music reviewing, based on what he has been cranking out recently.

I find the newspaper arts-coverage and reviewing crisis but part of a larger picture here. This community managed to spend half a billion dollars on a two-and-a-half halls performing arts center which barely a year out of the gate has already managed to accumulate a multi-million dollar deficit (see my posting on this on my blog at www.rafaeldeacha.com) and now threatens to implode thanks to dismal management and an audience that is staying away in droves. Not a year ago we lost our largest regional theatre - the Coconut Grove Playhouse - also due to mismanagement. You know all too well the story and history of the much-missed Florida Philharmonic. And so it goes here in Paradise.

I salute you for your ongoing efforts on behalf of civilization.

Posted by: Rafael de Acha at June 1, 2007 10:08 PM

It's not clear from your post whether it's the case that _New York Magazine_ simply dismissed Davis, or retired the position itself.

Which is it? (Can't find a news story on this.)


Moderator's note: Mr. Davis's position was eliminated and he has been let go from the magazine, who has said that classical music coverage will "be combined with other subjects."

Posted by: A.C. Douglas at June 2, 2007 12:56 AM

Mr. Fogel,

One of the challenges in identifying an epidemic is in realizing that
isolated incidents are, in fact, directly related. Caused by the same
germ, a rare illness suddenly becomes common, igniting the same symptoms
resulting in the same outcome.

With all due respect, I think the "trend" you have identified here
ore) is actually an epidemic. You cite Atlanta, Minneapolis, and New York.
But there are other cases in New York: Jerry Saltz, the Art Critic at the
Village Voice, and other arts writers there are gone. Some have found
other homes; others have not.

Here, far from big cities, we see the same symptoms. Our Raleigh, NC book
review editor was made an "ideas editor," whatever that is:
http://www.newsobserver.com/1051/story/568923.html. The N&O's pages once
were home to a diverse set of award-winning critics like Steven Litt
(art/acrhitecture now at the Cleveland Plain Dealer) and Michael Skube, who
won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1989 (now a professor at Elon
University) . But those were the 1980s. Ancient history now. Later, the
N&O and even the free press here lost interest in classical music reviews,
but John Lambert, a long-time well-respected reviewer here, was clever
enough to find an outlet for this on the web:

The problem is that owning a newspaper was once a position of power and
prestige, but it also carried with it a sense of responsibility to the
community. Our N&O was locally owned by one family for an endless period
of time. Some admired the family. Some hated the family and claimed it
used the newspaper only as a tool to promote their own interests. But one
of the family's interests, necessary perhaps only to maintain their
financial investment in the community, was to develop and build the
community by supporting culture and the arts. The new owners, whoever they
are, are driven by neither self-interest nor a more noble motive. They are
driven by the unrestrainted desire to maximize profits by any means
necessary. This is true not only here in Raleigh, but, as you note,
Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York... everywhere: Epidemic.

I hate to be so cynical, but with some epidemics, there really is no cure.
You can treat some of the symptoms for a while and hope all is not lost
before the disease runs it course. You can hope the virus simply turns on
itself. You can pray. Maybe some very smart, creative person will invent
a vaccine or treatment and we can at least limit the number of new cases,
reduce the deaths. But I can't imagine how a service, arts criticism, that
was never really profittable will suddenly become profittable. And I can't
imagine how businesses run based only on short-term profit will abandon a
business model that has made their owners instantly rich.

If you want to know how many arts critics will be left before the disease
has run its course, just answer this one question: How few arts critics --
the very minimal number of critics -- could you have and still get people
to subscribe and advertisers to advertise? Whatever that number, that is
how many there will be.

Elliot Inman
June 2, 2007

Posted by: Elliott Inman at June 2, 2007 2:32 PM

To me, the daily newspapers have lost all relevance to our culture. There is so much information, criticism and reflection to be found in electronic media such as your blog. Yes, the situation is sad and the role of the professional journalist/critic is diminished, but our cultural expression will continue to move far beyond the limited scope of these business models.

Posted by: Bill James at June 4, 2007 5:34 AM

Does not the intelligentsia of the USA recognize the determined "dumbing down" of our populace? From the Congressional attacks on the NEA, NPR, etc. to the ousting of arts critics in our publications, Corporate America has set upon a path of making our citizenry clones of the Roman Empire's general populace. In lieu of gladiator combats and charioteer races, we are to be sated with NASCAR, Monday Night Football, "Realty" Talent (?) Shows and videos of our "triumphant" armies on worldwide battlefields. The Arts and the Humanities are to be inexorably diminished and relegated to "Museum" status. American multi-national corporations can rely on the creativity and workforces of other nations to still continue operating profitably. Meanwhile, here we shall all continue on a path to serfdom with corporate majority owners as our overlords. They have already established this authority in our political process.

Posted by: Leon VanDyke at June 4, 2007 11:01 AM

As a professional symphony orchestra musician for over 30 years, I felt that the usual criticism of the concerts discouraged potential concert goers from attending.

It is my opinion that a good PREview of the program would be more helpful, educating and encouraging attendance, and allowing the concert goer to be his/her own critic.

Let's have more articles about upcoming arts events.

Posted by: David Kuehn at June 5, 2007 10:17 AM

When it rains, it pours...

New York magazine's longtime classical music critic, Peter G. Davis, will be leaving the publication. Mr. Davis, who had been at New York for 26 years, said yesterday he was asked to sign an "agreement of separation" because the magazine decided it no longer needed a full-time classical music critic. "It's euphemistic for being fired," he said. A spokeswoman for the magazine, Serena Torrey, said she could not comment on the terms of his departure or whether he would be replaced. "We do plan to continue robust classical music coverage and criticism," she said.

Posted by: Larry Fried at June 5, 2007 12:26 PM

Forgive me for cutting and pasting the paragraph about Peter Davis/New York Magazine. I saw it this morning (Tuesday) and completely forgot that Henry had mentioned it previously.

Here in the Seattle area, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (one of our two daily papers) "re-assigned" the classical music critic, R.M. Campbell. Richard was great for not only covering major events but for giving recognition to smaller musical organizations.

Sad to say but I don't know a single person under 30 who reads a daily newspaper.

Posted by: Larry Fried at June 5, 2007 7:21 PM

I guess, with the "downsizing" of the newspaper music critic, it is now up to intelligent listeners in the "blogosphere" to use their critical skills and shoulder the cultural responsibility of keeping people informed about concerts in both major cities and in places far away from major cities.

I have been rather disappointed to find very little critical discussion about concerts in blogs, even in blogs written by people who are fully capable of writing thoughtful reviews.

When the Russian Philharmonic had its American concert tour back in March of this year, I searched on line every day to read reports about the concerts. I had the pleasure of hearing the orchestra play a fantastic concert near the beginning of their tour, and I was curious about the response of audiences in the many American cities where they played later in the tour. The result was a handful of short, and shallow (for the most part) newspaper reviews, and a larger handful of blog posts that mentioned the concerts briefly. I learned relatively little about something I considered to be an extremely important concert tour.

I think it is of vital importance during this media transition period (or whatever you could call it) that people who love music, go to concerts, and keep blogs go out on a limb and put their critical opinions (whether favorable, unfavorable, or lukewarm) into writing.

Musicians need feedback. We need to know that what we do matters. The applause of an audience is one thing, but once it dies down we all need to have some kind of affirmation that what we were trying to do was successful, or what we did not succeed in doing didn't work. We need to know that the audiences we play for (we rarely meet them after the concert is over) are listening critically and listening for the right things.

It is equally important for composers to know if the music they have written is understood or even liked by its audience. It is through reviews that we learn about the way audiences responded to performances of music in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. We can measure history by looking at a long series of first performances and reading audience's reactions to the music. Without proper music journalism first performances are lost to us, and composers who put their heart, soul, and most of their time into writing music fade into nothingness; and with it we no longer have an living and evolving music history that is part of our living and evolving larger culture.

I certainly hope that anyone reading this comment who keeps a blog and goes to concerts will let us all know about concerts s/he has enjoyed. If people who keep blogs don't don't do it, who will?

Posted by: Elaine Fine at June 7, 2007 8:16 PM

In addition to the other arts positions dismantled at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the film critic position has been eliminated.

And the film critic position was recently eliminated at another major daily in Florida, the Tampa Tribune. The critic there had worked for the paper for more than 20 years.

It's ironic that newspapers are fighting irrelevance by eliminating areas of coverage -- arts/entertainment -- that they have traditionally "owned," and that traditionally have accounted for some of the paper's most loyal readers.

It's all a bit self-destructive, no?

Sad to say, but the bean counters are now in charge and it looks like there's no turning back.

Posted by: Philip Booth at June 8, 2007 4:04 PM

This discussion makes me wonder about the overall picture of classical music and the critical writing which has been so much a part of it since well before performances moved into public venues. As Elaine Fine said just above: "I guess, with the "downsizing" of the newspaper music critic, it is now up to intelligent listeners in the "blogosphere" to use their critical skills and shoulder the cultural responsibility of keeping people informed about concerts in both major cities and in places far away from major cities." As a critic for a largely regional online magazine, Berkshire Fine Arts, I have mixed feelings about this, which I just shared with my readers in my season opener.

A certain part of the situation is inevitable, for better or worse. We can look at it as simply change and make the best of it ourselves, as Henry Fogel has done in this lively blog, or Alex Ross, who keeps a blog along with his formal criticism in the New Yorker as well as his forthcoming book, which I think is an exemplary sign of health in the field. In Berkshire Fine Arts we offer traditional criticism along with a pot-pourri of commentary on local and global topics. A publication wouldn't be economically feasible at all in printed media today, and the online format makes it possible both to ramble creatively and to discuss things in more depth. We are online, but not really part of the "blogosphere." One the one hand an enterprise of this sort is a cop-out from traditional journalism, offering a specialized alternative to the local papers, which still do offer classical criticism, but on the other, the arts and classical music especially are central to our region, not least economically, and an arts publication will have a broader appeal than it would in, say, the average American city with a symphony orchestra and an art museum.

A glance over new resources of this sort--and there are lots of others, all with their own quirks and pockets of readers--makes it seem all the more crucial that daily newspapers--and whatever they evolve into--maintain their criticism of the arts. Exhibitions, architecture, classical music are not just for readers of on the record, the rest is noise, or, say, pianist Jeremy Denk's excellent blog, think denk (to jump into another informational and cognitive pocket); they are a vital part of local news and commentary and root performances in specific communities, whether it is New York, or Minneapolis, or Pittsfield, Massachusetts. This is as important to the musical world in general as it is to the communities themselves.

Posted by: Michael Miller at June 13, 2007 1:22 PM

The arts are the canary in the coal mine - a good indicator of the health of a society. And it seems that in our winner-take-all, bottom-line society, there's no room for any activity which doesn't have profit-seeking as its main motivation.

Parents still play classical music for their infants, but it's mostly to develop their brains for the accounting careers they will eventually enter into.

Posted by: Kerry Politzer at June 20, 2007 2:48 PM

Henry Fogel,

The Hartford Courant mangles a quote from this post by you in The Decline of the Critic, December 2, 2007.

From the Hartford Courant article,

"These actions ...compellingly demonstrate the decreasing value that those in position to influence public opinion place of the arts to a society," wrote Henry Fogel in his blog on ArtsJournal.com."

What you actually said, on ArtsJournal.com
was, "These actions ...compellingly demonstrate the decreasing value that those in position to influence public opinion place on the value of the arts to a society."

Posted by: Ydobon at December 4, 2007 1:36 PM