February 2008 Archives

I don't know about Sasha and Patti and Barack vs. Hililary (I'm wearing my Obama button as I peck) and reject vs. denounce. Nor do I know whether a response to someone else's entry should be entered as a new submission or a comment. But since we are all laboring under Doug's rule of one filing a week, I'll make this a new entry.

Which is in response to Jeff Weinstein's musings about conflicts of interest. When I was younger, I was a purist. Alfred Frankenstein was the much-respected classical music and art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle; just recently, Alex Ross quoted his wonderful, insightful review of the world premiere of Terry Riley's "In C" in his book. His support fostered the extraordinary Bay Area new music scene in the 50's and 60's. I personally owed Frankenstein an affectionate debt, since when I was 15 he gave me a generous hour of his time talking about a life in music criticism, how difficult it was, how rewarding it was.

Frankenstein wrote program notes for the SF Symphony. He so bought into the orchestra's ethos that he became a fierce defender of the then-music director Enrique Jorda when everyone else was attacking him. It was very hard to separate how such a perceptive critic could defend Jorda without factoring in his relationship with the symphony.

Eventually, Frankenstein was forced out as classical critic, but not becasue the paper considered his note-writing a conflict in itself. George Szell came to town and departed after one rehearsal, pleading illness. Frankenstein, at this point apparently delusional, wrote a page 1 open letter to Szell, urging him to affirm his confidence in Jorda and the orchestra since unfounded rumors were circulating that he was somehow dissatisfied. Szell, thus provoked, wrote back that in decades of guest-conducting he had never encountered a more dire situation in a major orchestra. So Frankenstein had to quit.

In my no doubt compromised maturity, I have lightened up a little. In Britain, where there are very few staff arts critics, writing program notes and even directing concert series and festivals while continuing as a critic is common. (I at least quit the Times forfour years while I founded and ran the Lincoln Center Festival.) The British scene is very clubby, but so was Vienna's in the late 19th century, and both towns produced a lot of good music. Joe Horowitz, another critic/adminsitrator, argues that critics who cut themselves off from the real world of their chosen art form are simply contributing to their own ignorance.

For me, the issue of the appearance of conflict is almost more important than conflict itself. By and large, I will take critics at their word when they say they can retain their objectivity despite professional and social entanglements. But such ties can still look bad from the outside. And in the increasingly fragile world of print journalism, struggling for credibiity and viability, an apparent conflict can be yet another excuse to cut loose yet another critic.

February 28, 2008 2:17 PM | | Comments (0)

UPDATE, 3/21/08: Three weeks later, and now Letterman is in for the count. See Mr. Late Night count Obama "Uhs" here.

I love a good challenge, so in respectful response to Sasha's suggestion that Barack Obama makes better eye candy than ear candy, I replayed some of Tuesday night's debate, listening intently for ers, ums, and other verbal tics. This is important, folks. Which one is the Er Candidate? Herein the, um, (un)scientific results:


The first 60 seconds of the first response

Clinton                                              Obama

 Uh: 10                                                Uh: 7
 Um: 0                                                Um: 1 
 Y'know: 1                                           Y'know: 0

The "I seem to get the first question" lament

Clinton                                              Obama                                    Audience

Uh: 0                                                  Dignified silence                        Boos: 1
Um: 0
Y'know: 1

The Hyperbole Clip

Clinton                                              Obama                       

The Laugh: 2

The Great Reject/Denounce Debate

Clinton                                              Obama

Uh: 7                                                  Uh: 5
Um: 0                                                 Um: 0
Y'know: 2                                            Y'know: 0


During these brief segments, it's important to note that Obama flashed three winning smiles, while Clinton gave us two warm and genuine grins. With the margin for error at plus or minus four uhs, ums, and y'knows, it looks like Obama has an edge over Clinton in the Er Factor. But if we're going to apply our critical skills to the race, I prefer the poetry vs. prose method. After all, you can't separate the dancer from the dance. Y'know?

February 28, 2008 7:54 AM | | Comments (1)

Without getting too heady about it, look at Hillary and Barack's heads and apply a little dance criticism and some Marshall McLuhan and Martha Graham.The latter said, "movement never lies." I take that as gospel. McLuhan talked about how the eye can edit, pick and choose what it wants to see. But the ear must take in the whole sound of the symphony. It cannot be selective about trumpets over oboes, if both are playing at the same time.

Why is Barack making such in-roads with people even when what he is saying may be "empty rhetoric"? It is the tilt of his head, the timing of the tilt, the breakout of a smile, the way his head receives the information and listens. He is mouth and eyes. She is forehead and jaw. He is sensual and spiritual -- and, to apply further Francois Delsarte's ideas about faces and heads -- she is intellectual and physical. He seems more honest, more transparent, less calculated. Her head dodges and, then, goes on the offensive chin first to (re)butt. He only lifts his chin to her when she stretches the truth about him. 

Next debate, turn off the sound and watch their ballet. But then, to honor McLuhan, turn yourself around and just listen. It is he who stalls ever so slightly on "ums" and "ers," while she is more dependably smooth. 

Playing with the difference between eye and ear as if your life depended on it is an arts journalist's gig. Barack's making global inroads because our eyes overrule our ears and that, for the moment, shapes the way many perceive the world. Seeing is believing. It favors a particular point of view...and Barack Obama. Don't you think?

February 27, 2008 10:54 AM | | Comments (2)

Actors can wait tables. Theater critics can bus tables, maybe wash dishes. But what can art critics do?

About a month ago, artsjournal.com blogger Tyler Green posted a three-part interview with one of the Village Voice's freelance art critics, Christian Viveros-Faune (quite a good critic, too), in which Green asked him if he thought his connection to two commercial contemporary-art fairs, as executive director of one and "organizer" of another, was a conflict of interest. The critic's response, intemperate certainly, was basically yes, but because conflict of interest is inevitable, virtually built into the position, it didn't matter.

He was dropped from the Voice freelance stable a few days later -- not the same as being fired, because he was never on staff. (An unusual part of the Voice union contract does give health coverage to freelancers who earn enough money and file enough pieces during a fixed period, or at least it did when I worked there.)

But the important issue here is not one particular critic's decision about how to make a living. Unless cultural critics are full-time employees of the place for which we write, or have a plush and dependably regular freelance gig, we must find other work. I was a weekly restaurant critic for the Voice for more than 15 years, yet I needed to edit (the Voice's art and architecture criticism as it happens, and other stuff as well) and write plenty of pieces in plenty of fields in order to survive. Sure, many of my delicious meals were paid for, but I still had to keep myself in Pepto-Bismol.

I'd be surprised if more than half a dozen art critics in New York, even now the center of the multibillion-dollar art universe, eke a living only through their writing.

So the specter of "inevitable" conflict of interest must arise. Teaching and editing are pretty safe. But what about writing art-show catalogues, performance and CD program notes, or giving gallery talks? You're taking money from the very hand a reader expects you to bite.

Yet it doesn't seem reasonable for a paper or mag to demand from its freelancers a complete divorcement. Some places (like the Voice) have allowed compromise: wait two or three years to review a show in a gallery that's given you work because, if the workplace won't pay you enough to live, it shouldn't count on fealty.

Any thoughts?

I'll ask Peter Schjeldahl over there for my check.

February 27, 2008 10:10 AM | | Comments (0)

Roger Catlin figured his job might be safe after his newspaper was sold by the "faceless" Tribune Co. But no:

New owner or not, it is part of the same sad march to downsizing we've been on for a decade. We've seen it before: with the best people (and those still marketable enough to get jobs elsewhere) taking off, leaving behind a lesser paper, empty desks, and the rest of us slugs to work even more to take up their duties.

I shouldn't take this personally.

Among TV writers with whom I'm associated, after all, this is not an uncommon thing. After decades of service and knowledge more vast than most network executives, they are laid off, outright fired or sent back to the tiny town bureaus where they began their careers - there are, after all, fires and car thefts to cover.

February 26, 2008 2:50 PM | | Comments (0)

David Menconi sends along this item from Gawker:

In the March issue of Maxim, writer David Peisner reviews the new Black Crowes album, "Warpaint." The verdict: Ehhh. Two and a half stars, out of five. The problem: Maxim didn't listen to the album.

The problem is, the band hadn't made review copies available. So how had Peisner done the review? After contacting the magazine, the band says they got the following email back:

'Of course, we always prefer to (sic) hearing music, but sometimes there are big albums that we don't want to ignore that aren't available to hear, which is what happened with the Crowes. It's either an educated guess preview or no coverage at all, so in this case we chose the former.'"

The band, of course wonders about the credibility of this kind of "review"...


UPDATED: Maxim today posted a response to the band:

Maxim editorial director James Kaminsky responded Tuesday with this statement: "It is Maxim's editorial policy to assign star ratings only to those albums that have been heard in their entirety. Unfortunately, that policy was not followed in the March 2008 issue of our magazine and we apologize to our readers."

A spokeswoman for the magazine contacted by The Associated Press declined to say whether the writer would face disciplinary action.

February 26, 2008 9:29 AM | | Comments (5)
We in the media tend to think the world revolves around our every studied sigh.

Not so we're reminded again by Alexander Payne, the talented director of "Citizen Ruth," "Election," "About Schmidt" and "Sideways."

I can't think of many indie filmmakers who have benefited more from favorable press to help launch that next quirky, low-concept vehicle.

And yet, when asked about his take on film critics being downsized out of existence at many dailies, the L.A.-based Payne stifled a yawn and replied, "Sorry, but I have no comment on that; it's never occurred to me. I still read the New York Times and the New Yorker."

Contact Lovell at glovell@aol.com

February 25, 2008 11:51 AM | | Comments (0)
Raymond Chandler.jpgIn honor of the Oscars, the Atlantic Monthly has some fun reprinting a 1948 essay by Raymond Chandler about the Academy Awards voting process. My favorite part is when Chandler points out that many Academy voters don't actually see the nominated films and rely on studio marketing campaigns for Oscar buzz. He wrote:

All this is good democracy of a sort. We elect Congressmen and Presidents in much the same way, so why not actors, cameramen, writers, and all rest of the people who have to do with the making of pictures? If we permit noise, ballyhoo, and theater to influence us in the selection of the people who are to run the country, why should we object to the same methods in the selection of meritorious achievements in the film business? If we can huckster a President into the White House, why cannot we huckster the agonized Miss Joan Crawford or the hard and beautiful Miss Olivia de Havilland into possession of one of those golden statuettes which express the motion picture industry's frantic desire to kiss itself on the back of its neck?

Sixty years later, Chandler is as relevant as ever.

February 24, 2008 3:41 PM | | Comments (0)

As fun and immediate as blogs are for covering awards shows, there's nothing like being at the Oscars -- seated  backstage in VIP steerage, following Hollywood's Night of Nights on closed-circuit monitors, filing duplicates of a story that's old news by 9:30.

I datelined from the Oscars 14 times and it lived up to its reputation as a grubby, humiliating affair. (The way up to the old press room at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was a service elevator -- the perfect metaphor.)

And why shouldn't it be unpleasant? It's the movie world's chance to get even with us groveling pundits of the media, and it doesn't take the opportunity lightly.

Though the boots-on-the-ground reporters -- I'm not counting Richard Roeper -- aren't on TV, there's a strict dress code. Tux for men; formal gowns and appropriate accessories for women. Everyone looks their best as they shove and elbow their way through security ... to the edge of the red carpet ... into their designated cubby in the press room.

At one show Roger Ebert was forced back to the refreshment room because he had dared take a paper plate of finger food to his laptop. "Now, now, Roger -- you know the rules," chastised an Academy flack, savoring the moment.

At another show a harried journalist from Frankfurt arrived straight from LAX only to be shown the door. She was told her formal wear -- a long black evening dress -- "wasn't formal enough." (Love to have heard her explanation to accounting back home.)

"Shit -- this is the worst," shouted a veteran South Florida journalist new to the ritual. "How do you work under these conditions? I'd rather have my eyes gouged out ... Never again."

Not that she would be invited back. It's damn-near impossible to crack the press list. Hollywood saves such exquisite torture for its very favorite people.
February 24, 2008 2:13 PM | | Comments (0)
Neatly handwritten in bold, black marker on a subway poster for the upcoming movie, "Semi-Pro":


Maybe sometimes you can say it in 15 words or less.
February 20, 2008 7:57 PM | | Comments (0)

On Feb. 5 the New York Times ran an article by Gia Kourlas, a freelance dance critic, headlined "Bolshoi Director May Take Job at City Ballet." Alexei Ratmansky, a much-admired ballet choreographer, was giving up his position as artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and was "in negotiations with New York City Ballet to become its resident choreographer," succeeding Christopher Wheeldon.

On Feb. 13 appeared another Times article, this one by Daniel J. Wakin, headlined "Bolshoi's Director Won't Join City Ballet." Ratmansky was still leaving the Bolshoi, but negotiations with City Ballet had collapsed because Ratmansky couldn't commit sufficient time to a residency, given his worldwide choreographic commitments.

So far, so legitimate. For me, however, the juxtaposition of the two articles recalled another Times article, this one by Robin Pogrebin dated April 27, 2006. It was called "Ciry Opera Plans New Hall With Ties to Lincoln Center." The New York City Opera, long dissatisfied with the New York State Theater and frustrated in its effort to join a proposed new cultural center at Ground Zero, had turned to a former Red Cross site near Lincoln Center. The implication was strong that a deal could be cut and the company would move, with added speculation about how the State Theater would fill the months left void when City Opera decamped.

Ten days later the deal fell apart, without explanation. No follow-up investagation of this collapse appeared in theTimes for two months. The paper ran no article on the subject until another Pogrebin piece appeared on July 4, which referred in passing to the reasons for the breakdown in negotiations and then looked forward to City Opera's problematic future.

February 20, 2008 5:38 PM |

Is there anyone not talking about a crisis in the news industry? The New York Times is dumping 100 jobs. The troubled Tribune Company is offloading 400-500 people. And across the country there are reports of slumping advertising and impending layoffs. Now this report in AdAge:

U.S. media employment in December fell to a 15-year low (886,900), slammed by the slumping newspaper industry. But employment in advertising/marketing-services -- agencies and other firms that provide marketing and communications services to marketers -- broke a record in November (769,000). Marketing consulting powered that growth.

So things are pretty bad, and we're working in a dying industry. Nobody's reading newspapers anymore. 

And yet they are. And in record numbers. Look at this report in Editor & Publisher. The online audience is soaring, and here's the growth rate and numbers of unique readers for newspaper websites in January 2008 (with 000's at the end):  

NYTimes.com -- 20,461 -- 45.1%
USATODAY.com -- 12,314 -- 19.4%
washingtonpost.com -- 9,902 -- 14.6%
Wall Street Journal Online -- 6,962 -- 81.4%
LA Times -- 5,715 -- 4.7%

Not only are these huge audiences, but the growth rates continue to be spectacular. By far, more people are reading newspapers than ever before. As just one example, scroll down the list to No. 16, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which has a unique web audience of 2.2 million. The P-I's print circulation, when it was considered healthy in the last century, was somewhere in the low 200,000's.

This is spectacular growth in audience. And yet, as the P-I's print circulation has declined to the mid-100,000s, its newsprint ad revenue has slumped, the paper is losing money, it's not replacing staff, and the owners are riding down its content, managing losses. As the paper's content has degraded, the perception of it in the community is one of declining influence and quality.

The problem, say newspaper industry execs, is that...

February 20, 2008 2:04 PM | | Comments (29)
No Depression is a magazine I expect few people outside the music world have heard of. With its "roots," "Americana" focus (if I'm not mistaken, and I may be, it avoided the "alt-country" tag), it was always a touch corny for my taste. But it was a serious, professinally edited magazine that covered a sector of semi-popular music that gets far less ink in the general music press than its achievement deserves even if you think you hear too much of it on NPR. It lasted 13 years. And now it's shutting down. After the jump, an email from publicist Traci Thomas that includes both her kind words and the magazine's own account of its history and current dilemma. Both are informative and eminently sane. This is a portrait of arts journalism in a field where foundation support and status-conscious individual backers are basically not a factor.
February 19, 2008 9:31 AM | | Comments (2)

The headline in Charles McGrath's piece in Sunday's Times, "Is PBS Still Necessary," has me worried that an insidious email from the '90s might sprout up again, like a monster in a B movie that refuses to die. You remember the one. The most common version began with the screaming exhortation "SAVE SESAME STREET!" and implored recipients to sign a petition protesting cuts to federal funding for PBS. The well-meaning authors of the missive wrote it in 1995, and it's been circulating periodically ever since. Every arts reporter and critic in the land must have received it dozens of times, if not more. With all due respect to Ernie and Bert, I almost always automatically hit delete when I see the "Sesame Street" plea in the subject line of an incoming mail. On particularly cranky days, I refer the sender to Snopes.  

Chain email aggravation aside, I'm not here to debate the merits of PBS per se. There's nothing particularly new about the arguments in the Times' piece, which complains that PBS programming is either precious or moldy (or both). I'm certainly not going to argue with McGrath's observation that that the "credit announcements" on PBS are "commercials in all but name." Even the fundraisers are commercials, especially for the impressionable younger set. That became painfully obvious when my five-year-old twins informed me that if I donated a mere $300 to our local station, we would receive four -- count 'em, four! -- tickets to "Disney On Ice."

But still. There's one minor little point missing in the discussion that almost never comes up when PBS funding is questioned. Yes, you can get similar - and sometimes superior -- programming on cable now, which has a niche for every interest. But, but, but. Public television is free.  Believe it or not, more than 20 million U.S. households still access television through an old-fashioned antenna. These so-called over-the-air households do not subscribe to cable or satellite services, and in those homes, PBS is the best option for educational programming. In fact, until a few weeks ago, I lived in one of those households. For a number of reasons, we didn't care or need to have hundreds of channels streaming into the not-so-big box in our living room. For my family, it's a choice. (One reason we finally succumbed to the call of cable is that we have a five-year-old Red Sox fanatic on the premises, and most of the games aren't available without cable. But I digress.) Undoubtedly, though, it's not a choice for millions of other over-the-air folks who simply can't afford to shell out big bucks to Comcast every month. That's why the original mandate for public television, outlined by the Carnegie Commission Report of 1967, remains pertinent today. PBS may not be what it used to be in this age of instant access, but it is still provides "a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard" -- at a price that most folks can afford. And that's important, especially in households with young children.

 Don't we still need to take those folks into account when we write about public television? I wonder if we, as arts journalists, sometimes forget that there is a sizable group out there that doesn't have access to laptops or cable boxes. I know, that's so mid-20th century, but it wouldn't hurt to keep it in mind, especially if the discussion heats up, and frantic email petitions start flying again.

February 19, 2008 5:16 AM | | Comments (0)

Fact is, one reason I thought to comment--very belatedly now--on the two big rock critics' polls, the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll and its two-year-old rival, now dubbed the Idolator Critics' Poll--was that it would come naturally. And when NARAS deisgnated one of its more outrageously ageist album of the year Grammyss--for Herbie Hancock's Joni Mitchell tribute, River--plus naming the Foo Fighters in the rock album category, I even had the semblance of a news peg. But it didn't come naturally.

    Long story short for outsiders, I ran  Pazz & Jop for 33 years till it maxed out at 795 voters in 2005. When the Voice fired me in 2006, there was a brouhaha over the fate of the poll, which had evolved into a kind of annual rockcrit forum showcasing backtalk edited from voter comments as well as a breeding ground of meaningful trivia for stat geeks. It wasn't even clear the Voice would continue it. Hence the Idolator poll, which was offered to me and then taken over--against my advice, but only because I knew they couldn't pay him enough for the work involved--by my young colleague, record advisor, pal, and fellow NAJP member Michaelangelo Matos, definitely one of the nation's biggest Pazz & Jop fans. Then the Voice decided to continue PJ under former PJ intern Zach Braff Baron and new Voice editor-critic Rob Harvilla. Many loyalists swore they'd never participate, but I like both these guys and figured it was the Voice's franchise anyway. I voted in both polls and consciously avoided publishing any year-end commentary of my own, just to prove I wasn't an addict. But in April, I did deliver a poll postmortem in lecture form--never published, again by design--at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. My general conclusion: good enough Idolator, but PJ still had an edge, because its electorate was more age-balanced, and because Harvilla, while declining to write one of the 4000-word summations I used to add to the mix, had cannily replaced it with 10 mini-essays of remarkably high quality.

   What didn't come naturally this year was reading the pucking things. Having been inside for so long, I took for granted the burst of interest that always followed publication. But I didn't find that I was part of it. I certainly looked at the lists right away, which last year were separated by a month or so and this week only about a week, because Idolator went up later and PJ published earlier. But where last year there was an interesting generational split--TV on the Radio, which won the Idolator poll, lost on points in the closest PJ finish ever--this year the top album was by LCD Soundsystem, a band I like OK but have never quite gotten, followed in PJ by Radiohead-M.I.A.-Winehouse-Arcade Fire and in Idolator by M.I.A.-Radiohead-Arcade Fire-Winehouse. Big deal. There was somewhat more differentiation in singles--Winehouse's "Rehab" won PJ but was only fourth in Idolator, where the winner was Rihanna's "Umbrella" (better record, I say). And generational differentiations surfaced further town in the top 10, where PJ gave it up to old guys Bruce Springsteen and Robert Plant, whose likably overrated albums I preferred to youth faves Panda Bear and Of Montreal, both top 10 in Idolator.

    I could go on about this--for 4000 words, were somebody to pay me an arm and a leg and guarantee me an extra two weeks of life to make up for all that 4 a.m. oil. But that is no longer my place in the firmament. Instead I will simply report that while as always I checked out both charts online going down to 300 looking for records I'd missed--futilely, for the most part--reading the rest of the poll material took me till, well, this morning.

    In place of last year's essays (long by him, short by others), Matos came up with the very online, post-album ploy of asking favored voters--38 I think, it's hard to count things on separate screens and that's close enough for the blogosphere--for annotated playlists. Some of the annotations were moderately snazzy, most first-draft drivel; after a while I was barely skimming them. And the lists, by me, were useless. I tried to find some of Douglas Wolk's more interesting-sounding obscurities--Sylvia Hall's "Don't Touch That Thing" especially--on Rhapsody and failed. I was pleased to infer that Lindsey Thomas was pregnant (if she is/you are, it was only implied, congrats) and constructed a Rhapsody playlist of her list minus a couple, but when I played it I found what I usually find--I liked the things I already knew I liked and didn't get the things I didn't. (What am I supposed to do, keep playing it till some of her faves breaks through, like my computer was a Lindsey Thomas top 40 station? How do file-sharers do it?) Finally, I was pleased to see that Gabriel A. Boylan, not a name I can place, had put together a list of 10 political songs--but less pleased that I already knew seven of them, and that when I tried concluded for about the sixth time that Ted Leo could be Tom Paxton for all he has to say to me. (Jarvis Cocker and Black Lips--will play once more.)

    Pazz & Jop posed a different problem. This year Harvilla assigned not 10 but 12 essays, and the overall quality was lower--Miranda Lambert deserves better, and the dance-music screed by Todd Burns of the late Stylus, as I am not the first to note, was murky and wrong-headed, though valuable in its documentary way for a) telling people with different tastes from his that they should be ashamed of them, which all too many critics feel without being crass enough to say so in so many words (for the record, I highly disapprove of this in both my rap/indie-hating contemporaries and in indie/rap/whatev-propping youngsters) and b) touching on the basic and rarely-explored question of the extent to which certain synthesizer sounds can be perceived as human, a crucial problem in inter-generational aesthetics to which I do not see an easy answer. But when I finally got through them I found a lot of good stuff, including Chris Weingarten on LCD (but not the rest of that jive), Tom Breihan on hip-hop, Harvilla himself on Jay-Z, and two excellent political essays, one by the aforementioned Zach Baron and the other by Julianne Shepherd, who I was dissing here not long ago--both centering on my favorite album of 2007, the year's only masterpiece to my mind and ears, M.I.A.'s Kaya. Kala.

    Then I began the comments and ditched the job for another week. The comments are not what they used to be. Rob Sheffield now sits out, for one thing--he was always good for at least a dozen knee-slappers himself. And in general I noticed Harville and Baron relying on loquacious as opposed to epigrammatic voters I read all too much of over the years. But once the top 10 was taken care of, the comments were better than last year's even so. The short deadline must have hurt--the little matter of ID'ing labels, always a pain in the ass that could never be gotten altogether right, seems to have been abandoned by all concerned. But once again I preferred PJ's age spread--popular music is not the exclusive province of the young. And I noticed one other thing. Last year, both polls pulled in around 500 voters for a total of a little under 800 discrete participants. This year, PJ was up about 50, Idolator down about 50.

    I really don't have a horse in this race. I like Idolator and have no love for the guys who fired me, and of course there would be a certain schadenfreude in seeing PJ fail without me--I resist it, but it's there. But so far Harvilla's doing OK. This time he snuck a shitload of real rock criticism, some of it real political rock criticism, into a paper that used to publish a whole lot more of it than it does now.

    Oh yeah. Hancock finished 80 PJ, 257 Idolator, and is better than I'd imagined before NARAS called my attention to it. Foo Fighters also got some votes and isn't.

February 18, 2008 4:52 PM | | Comments (5)
Whilst preparing my critics' poll post (soon come, I promise), it occurred to me that three of the younger principles--Jess Harvell of Idolator and Rob Harvilla and Tom Breihan of the Voice--are really tall. Harvell I don't recall meeting, but he recently described himself as "freakishly tall and quite beefy in my younger days" (what, he's lost weight since then?). Harvilla calls his column Down in Front because that's what people are always telling him (and also because that's where and what he is--clever fellow, Harvilla), and Breihan, the paper's chief blogger, is probably six-eight. In the old days this never used to happen--not only were rock critics pencil-necked geeks, but they were often little guys, just like lead guitarists. Pushing five-ten, I could look over the top of Dave Marsh and Jann Wenner's pageboys and take the tip from Greil Marcus or R. Meltzer. But now the younger guys can field a respectable basketball team of people who can actually write good rock criticism--no ringers here, plus that Harvell-Harvilla thing might make for good announcer shtick. All in NYC, too, unless Harvell is checking in electronically from his native B'More. Any nominations for guard? We want a keen analyst who can penetrate musicians' defenses.

February 14, 2008 4:58 AM | | Comments (6)
The New York Press has a fascinating look at reporting of the Hollywood writers strike by New York Times' movie editor Michael Cieply.
February 13, 2008 9:51 AM | | Comments (0)
Do the usual rules of journalism apply when celebrities are involved?
February 13, 2008 8:48 AM | | Comments (1)

The Wall Street Journal is considering adding an expanded culture section:

If given the green light, the culture section would be another move toward Murdoch's stated goal of competing with The New York Times. As Journal managing editor Marcus Brauchli told The Times on Monday: "In the news department here, we believe there is no reason that people should have to go to another news source beyond The Journal to find news of consequence to them in any sphere -- politics, economics, even culture and the arts."

February 13, 2008 8:32 AM | | Comments (0)
titlephotooscars.jpgWhen it comes to covering live events, print arts journalists often use blogs to either 1) dump stuff from their notebooks online that wouldn't otherwise get into print; or 2) write in the same style and format as the print edition.

When it comes to covering live award shows such as the Grammys and Oscars, however, the best thing is to think past the old mindset of the next-day wire-story-style wrap up. Use the advantages of the blog to create an immediacy and connection with your audience. We have a tiny staff at The Fresno Bee, but we manage to cover live awards shows that draws in readers in ways that a next-day wire story never could. Our pop music writer, Mike Osegueda, is really good at this with the Grammys. I did it last year with the Oscars as well, and we're already running promo house ads to join "Donald's Oscar Blog Party."

Here are some tips for making awards-show blogs work:
February 11, 2008 11:26 AM | | Comments (3)

For the last week, I've been thinking a lot about the racist panda commercial that Salesgenie.com aired during the Super Bowl.  In the ad, a panda couple who speak with  ridiculous Asian accents save their bamboo business with the help of Salesgenie sales leads.

On Tuesday, Salesgenie executive Vin Gupta apologized for the commercial, telling The New York Times that he "never thought anyone would be offended."  He never thought anyone would be offended?!  Gupta is either horrifyingly disingenuous or horrifyingly ignorant.

So what does this have to do with arts journalism?

Television advertising has long reflected accepted racial portrayals in film and television.  And the Salesgenie commercial is just another reminder that the media hasn't progressed much since Mickey Rooney portrayed Holly Golightly's ridiculous, clownish Japanese landlord in the otherwise fine film Breakfast at Tiffany's.  Can we compare Rooney with an animated panda?  Well, they're both short, round non-Asians donning bad Asian accents.  And they've both helped media executives try to get a laugh by portraying Asians as buck-teethed buffoons who cannot speak English properly.

Asianweek's recent list of the 25 most infamous "yellow face" film performances only proves how shockingly reactionary Hollywood is when it comes to race.  While most of the list's entries come from Hollywood's past, three are from 2007 films.

When noting Christopher Walken's turn as a villainous ping-pong master in Balls of Fury (2007), Asianweek comments, "Would anyone in their right mind cast Walken as, say, an African American character and not expect to get their asses reamed?"

The same thinking applies to the Salesgenie commercial.  Would Gupta even think of casting a family of gorillas speaking ebonics as his laughable protagonists?   Somehow, the Asian-American population is considered easier prey. 

To add insult to injury, The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Gupta "boasted that his commercials were intentionally bad."  As they say, bad publicity is better than no publicity.  And to attract business to his website, Gupta actively sought the title of "worst Super Bowl commercial."  Unfortunately, it seems like the racist plan worked.  The ad has apparently brought in millions of dollars in revenue for Salesgenie. 

Even though Gupta has pulled the ad, he says he will continue to run another animated commercial featuring a salesman with several children who speaks with an Indian accent.  Gupta, who himself is half-Indian, explained to The New York Times that "people have been making fun of my accent for years, and I love it."  According to USA Today, Gupta also claimed that only white people criticized the ads and that his Asian friends had no problem with them.

Well, Mr. Gupta, this Asian-American writer congratulates you on your thick skin... and poor taste.

February 10, 2008 7:50 PM | | Comments (1)
The Guardian, home to some of the smartest and most entertaining arts blogs on the Web, has a thought-provoking piece by Andrew Haydon, who takes the British tabs to task for giggling and snorting like a pack of schoolchildren every time an actor does a nude role onstage. He's right, of course, that their behavior is juvenile; he's also right to censure theater PR people for encouraging and colluding in the idiocy.

Where Haydon goes wrong is in dragging Douglas Carter Beane's play, "The Little Dog Laughed," into the argument. " Already in the US this year," he writes, "column inches have been frittered away noting the trivial matter of a playwright objecting to some nudity that he wrote into a play being ignored by its current director."

 But there's nothing trivial about Beane's objection, and it's a legitimate story. As Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones reported on his blog, Beane took issue with About Face Theatre, a gay and lesbian company in Chicago, for leaving out the nudity that is unambiguously written into his script. (The crucial stage direction: "When they are both naked, Mitchell kneels before Alex, the door opens, Diane walks in.") According to Playbill's Kenneth Jones, Beane had refused a pre-opening request to cut the nudity and threatened to shut ...

February 8, 2008 11:27 PM | | Comments (0)

Hi all. I do understand Doug's astonishment (in the post below) that, during a moment when cyberways are saturated with words and pictures, anyone would need a reading or viewing "bribe" -- in the form of a Euro per book-hour or free-film DVD. But who is the "anyone"? Anyone who teaches knows that access to information is never uniform or consistent. There is no single media "we." And it's not just about income or background. Anyone know an art-history professor who has never read a newspaper art review? I am acquainted with quite a few.

And as for bribes, arts writers "bribe" readers with every colorful, grabbing lede we write. Which is just what we should be doing, no?

February 6, 2008 3:02 PM | | Comments (0)

A Spanish mayor proposes paying kids in his town a Euro for each hour they read. A high school exam board in the UK thinks the reason students don't read is that the books aren't fun. So it proposes letting students pick from the reading list of a popular TV book club. And in Philadelphia, there's a program to give away copies of movies because visual image literacy is low.  

"..by its very nature, film tends to elicit a passive attitude in viewers. 'There's far more distance between a reader and a novel, since it takes longer to read and absorb a written story.' Visual media can affect us in a direct, visceral way, which bypasses the intellect and appeals directly to emotions.

Are these stories linked? I'm not sure, but it does seem astonishing to me that in an age in which there is so much art and access to it has never been easier, it's fascinating we still feel the need to bribe people to try it. My head hurts, there's so much to read, see and hear. If there were 20 of me I still couldn't get to all the things I'd love to do. And we need to pay people to read, tart up our reading lists and give away movies?

And while I'm at it, why does so much "education" in the arts seem so evangelical - like the art we're trying to teach you is better than whatever other thing you'd do on your own? Are these attempts at social engineering culture because we want to broaden culture and creativity, or are we stuck on definitions of culture and literacy that are too narrow? I'm no visual art or movie critic, but it seems to me that our visual literacy is higher now than it has ever been.

February 6, 2008 7:41 AM | | Comments (1)
Gee, I wish I had come up with a title like "Blood Sucking Geeks." Cool or what? That the entry was so feistily, fiercely smart was almost a bonus. Still trying to figure out this blog: does it make more sense to confine one's comments to arts journalism or to practice it here, like Bob did, by writing about something artistic? I can't say I've been knocked over by much I've seen here in Berlin, which doesn't shake my faith that this is a happening a world center for innovative arts: I either hit a lull or guessed wrong. One thing I would wish for German (European, really) stage directors, composers, writers, artists et al. is to throw off the weight of their past, at least a little. Not so much Nazism and such, but the entire load of Western civilization, which too many young artists seem compelled to consider or rebel against or radically re-interpret. Whatever they do, it's always there, sucking blood. Americans may be ignorant of the past, but that ignorance sometimes frees them to do truly original work.
February 5, 2008 4:24 AM | | Comments (2)

James Wood has a new book out this week. It's How Fiction Works and the early reviews have focused more on the critic than the book. But then, it's probably not surprising for the critic that everyone seems to love to hate.

Still, here is a guy of enormous talent and influence who decided pretty empahtically that reviewing books what what he wanted to do with his life. From a profile on him in this weekend's Financial Times:

Wood's chief obstacle lay in persuading the paper that had given him the journalism award to let him write about books. The then editor of The Guardian, Peter Preston, responded that, yes, Wood could live a life of borderline dereliction in Brixton punctuated by the odd, finely spun essay for a literary magazine but that, on the whole, he should consider beginning as an apprentice reporter: book reviewing was not a proper occupation.


February 5, 2008 12:50 AM | | Comments (0)

I was planning to inaugurate this blog with a brief-I-hoped and belated-who-cares post on this years' rock critics' polls, specifically the only two that matter: Pazz & Jop, which I invented and used to run, and Idolator, which began last year in the mistaken belief that with me gone from the Village Voice the franchise was up for grabs. Maybe--probably--later. In the meantime, something more manageable caught my eye.

     It was actually a Village Voice piece that got me started, which happens quite seldom these days: Julianne Shepherd's anti-Ivy League attack on the hot band du jour, Vampire Weekend. The Ivy League thing I'll barely touch on; what interested me was Shepherd's brief characterization of the recent Columbia grads' Afropop influences:

Re their Paul Simon fetish: "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa"--the one that cops Graceland rhythms but refashions a whimsical African pop form into an ode to Massachusetts's answer to the Hamptons--well . . . that's also questionable. But to be fair, jacking King Sunny Ade's steez is not the whole of their repertoire, and I get the feeling it's more about VW's flexing their own formidable technical ability (i.e., Joanna Newsom's liberal borrowing from traditional West African kora music) than the band's conscious desire to Westernize or "whitewash" an indigenous music.

    Now as it happens, I think Shepherd's analysis in this passage isn't so terrible as far as the cultural appropriation question goes (the class and style questions down below, no). What struck me was the mixing up of Afropop styles (or styles-with-ease, which the Urban Dictionary indicates is what a steez is). In part because I have the impression...

February 3, 2008 9:17 PM | | Comments (10) | TrackBacks (1)

Welcome to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program. NAJP is the largest organization of arts journalists in America and we represent some 500 critics and journalists active in many art forms, news organizations and geographical locations.

The founding core of the new NAJP is the 131 alumni of the original organization when it was based at Columbia University, the University of Georgia, University of Southern California, and Northwestern University. We relaunched NAJP as a membership organization last summer and are working on a number of new intiatives and programs.

We hope that one of the strengths of the new NAJP will be the opportunity for arts journalists to network and share information. A first step is this blog, which we will use as a place to share news, observations, and discussion of issues in the field. We also want to draw attention to great examples of arts journalism, and we may practice a little real arts journalism here as well.

We start the blog with 13 journalists - Lily Tung, Laura Sydell, Hollis Walker, Bob Christgau, John Horn, John Rockwell, Glenn Lovell, Patti Hartigan, Jeff Weinstein, Donald Munro, Laura Collins-Hughes, and Danyel Smith and me. ARTicles is meant to be a fluid group, with bloggers coming and going over the months. So if you're a member of NAJP and would like to join the blog in the future, drop me a note. If you're a working arts journalist and would like to become a member of NAJP, please check out how to apply for membership.  

And if you want to send a tip, make a suggestion or contact one of our bloggers directly, send an email to: articles@najp.org .

February 3, 2008 10:36 AM | | Comments (0)


 "Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts," will be published by HarperCollins this week. There are chapters on dance, film, theater, music.

A central theme of Joseph Horowitz's study is that Russians uprooted from St. Petersburg became "Americans"--they adapted. Representatives of Germanic culture, by comparison, preached a German cultural bible--they colonized.

Joe writes:

My various speaking gigs include Barnes and Noble (Lincoln Center) Feb. 25 at 7 pm, and Politices and Prose (DC) March 12, 7 pm.
February 3, 2008 8:10 AM | | Comments (0)

I'm Berlin for three+ weeks, back Feb. 6. Two profoundly unoriginal thoughts:

There are a lot of arts, and arts journalism, in Berlin. Competing newspapers (like London is and New York used to be), and hence competing opinions at the newsstand. Whether German papers cover the little guys (and popular culture) as assiduously as does the NY Times, I don't know, but the London and Paris papers too focus on the big stuff. Had a meeting with Manuel Brug, who is music (and dance) critic of the Berliner Morgenpost AND Die Welt, a national paper. Just laid Barenboim low, an attack that I think appeared in artsjournal or musical america or some such. Bright, conservative, maybe a little bitchy.A distinguished veteran of German and Austrian cultural life had dismissed Brug as "repellent" at lunch just before my appointment with him, tho when I met him, he seemed decent enough. A lot of critics strike artists as repellent; some of them actually are repellent. Which doesn't entirely invalidate the profession. Last night I saw "Die Meistersinger" at the Deutsche Oper; good cast, good old Goetz Friedrich production; evoked the Nazis subtly without beating you over the head with them. Best performance in it was Markus Brueck as Beckmesser. Solid voice, fabulous, Chaplinesque physical comedian. Played him as a critic, not a Jew (character's original name, you'll recall, was Hans Lick). Repellent, maybe, but endearing.

My other thought, surprise surprise, has to do with the Internet. Confronted with the prospect of piling up 25 days worth of New York Timeses on my desk, my wife said: Why not just read it online? I had looked at the NYT online edition before, but never relied on it. Now I see no need to buy the "real" paper ever again, unless to provide our miniature dog a place to pee. As soon as Doug McLennan figures out how to tell the newspaper industry how to make serious money online, and hence to pay its repellent online critics real wages, print is dead. To the extent I feel nostalgic about that (and I don't, now, really), I retired just in time.

February 3, 2008 3:37 AM | | Comments (0)
BeeHive.jpgThe Internet might be the all-powerful Beast in newsrooms these days, but there's still a stigma attached to a story being labeled as "Web-only." It's as if an editor came by and decreed, "OK, this is sort of important, but not important enough both to print in the newspaper AND put on our Web site." I think this is particularly the case for cultural stories, especially reviews and commentary. Stuff gets buried really easily online. On many newspaper Web sites, it's hard enough to find  the top news story from yesterday, much less a theater review of a show that opened two weeks ago.

But at The Fresno Bee, where I am a cultural jack-of-all trades (I cover movies, theater, visual arts, classical music, you name it), I've been experimenting with ways to make our Web-only (and Web-expanded) coverage not only enhance the print product but create an online following of its own.
February 2, 2008 8:14 PM | | Comments (0)

We've been reading a lot lately about the diminishing pool of film critics at such dailies as the San Diego Union-Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Detroit Free Press, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and Tampa Tribune. Most everyone in the entertainment media thinks it's a bad thing.

But what of the studios? Are fewer critical voices a boon or a bother? I'm going to be checking in with various producers I know in the coming weeks to gauge their feelings.

Meanwhile, film critic Jack Mathews, who just announced his retirement at the New York Daily News, weighs in.

"I think the studios must be delighted," he e-mailed. "There's more publicity for their movies now -- puff interviews mostly -- and less credible criticism.

"Consider the increase in the number of movies being opened without critic screenings. Makes perfect sense: they rely on advertising and publicity and get an undisturbed opening.

"I think newspapers should begin running movie reviews as soon as they can -- to be competitive with the Internet outlets -- and force the studios to either drop their embargo demands or stop holding early screenings that Internet critics attend. I've raised this issue with my editors and they won't even allow me to comment critically on movies I've seen until my review is published. It's nuts."

That was my experience as well. My editors usually played nice with studio reps, instead of using their power to push for earlier screenings and hard-to-snag exclusive interviews. It was almost as if the newspapers and the studios were in business together. Maybe this has had something to do with print's lack of competitiveness in the time of the unfettered cyber-critic.

Contact Lovell at glovell@aol.com

February 2, 2008 10:44 AM | | Comments (0)
I am presently on the board of the National Arts Journalism Program and was a NAJP fellow in 2003-2004.

I began my career in 1994 in Shanghai, China as a foreign journalist covering contemporary Chinese culture.  I served as the launching editor of Shanghai Talk, the city's first English-language monthly.  I also covered stories for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, NBC News, Associated Press Television, WGBH Boston, Asiaweek, The South China Morning Post and National Geographic Magazine.

After returning to the US, I worked as a writer and segment producer at KRON 4 Television in San Francisco from 1999 to 2004, covering arts and culture, news and current affairs.

Currently, I am researching a book about Chinese immigration to the United States since 1949.  I am also a freelance writer/producer and a media and communications trainer.  In addition to covering the arts, I work in the arts as an actor and singer. 
February 1, 2008 5:23 PM | | Comments (1)
Another example of why film critics pack less punch these days:

I saw the grim Romanian import "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" on IFC's pay-per-view channel five days before it "opened" in the Bay Area to rave reviews. Admission: less than $7.

Local exhibitors must be quaking in their boots over this home-delivery system. As the middle man rendered redundant, they're dangerously close to being written out of the equation ... like critics commenting on a film that's been available a week before they're allowed to weigh in.  

I can remember George Lucas holding forth 10 years ago on a L.A.-based satellite delivery system that would ensure "quality control." At the time, I thought it sounded so exciting.

Contact Lovell at glovell@aol.com
February 1, 2008 9:23 AM | | Comments (0)



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