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July 22, 2008

Apres le Deluge, What?

Since I read it two weeks ago, I've been trying to think of a respectful way to respond to Martin Bernheimer's cri de coeur in the Financial Times about the extinction of music critics. I admire Martin, and I share his alarm over the disappearance of arts journalism in the traditional media (not "mainstream media or MSM," a term I've always hated, and one which increasingly doesn't describe newspapers' shrinking fortunes). 

He's right about the shortsightedness of news organizations in cutting arts coverage and about the effect its loss will have on them and on the wider culture:

Historically, the best critics have guarded standards, stimulated debate and, in the complex process, reinforced the importance of art in society. They have been tastemakers, taskmasters and possibly ticket-sellers. Some have even written well. Despite automatic controversy, they played a role in aesthetic checks and balances. If their opinions were important, the reasons behind them were more important.
But he puts the blame for this mass extinction in the wrong place, I think. The internet isn't killing arts journalism. In fact, I think the internet offers the best last hope for arts journalism. But first, here's more of a flavor of Martin's argument:

A primary cause of our imminent extinction must be the internet. An impatient generation is succumbing to the free and easy lure of computer enlightenment. Sure, not all those who cover the arts in old-fashioned print are paragons - still, most do have sufficient education and/or experience to justify their views. On the web, anyone can impersonate an expert. Anyone can blog. Credentials don't count. All views are equal. Some sort of criticism may survive the American media revolution, but professional criticism may not.

Essentially, our civilisation is tilting towards anti-authoritarian contests. Audiences, not judges, select winners. Call it the American Idolisation of culture. On TV, contestants get voted off without explanation. Quality is measured by thumbs, up or down. Scholarly analyses have turned into irrelevant extravagances for snobs.

Many US papers have abandoned thoughtful, detailed reviews altogether. Publishers, editors and, presumably, readers want instant evaluations and newsbites, preferably with flashy pictures. It is Zagat-think, simplicity for the simple-minded.

This is a familiar argument: We have standards. We have credentials. We've had a system to vet quality. If you know the system, it's easy to understand the hierarchy of quality and authority. Critics X's opinion in the New York Times or LA Times is worth more than Critic Y's in the Johnny Falls Daily News. A system of official critics and editors and publications lends authority to judgments of quality. So take away that system and what do you have? Chaos, surely. Remember that famous New Yorker cartoon with the picture of the dog in front of a computer: "On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog". Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can get on and express an opinion.

And they do. And how will you know if that opinion is any good or not? And worse - if everyone weighs in and we're so crushed by the volume, how will anyone have the time or interest to read more complicated arguments? If the easy opinion dominates (even if that "opinion" consists of nothing more than texting a vote for Your Next American Idol) will there be anyone left to write those more complicated or informed criticism? Will there be an audience for it? And even if there is, how will readers find the experts?

Martin suggests that this new free-for-all produces a culture of lazy consumers who don't know and/or don't care about quality. The thumbs-up has as much weight as the Financial Times Sunday essay.

This is undoubtedly true for a huge number of people. But perhaps those people weren't paying attention before anyway. And so what if this easy insta-expert business is nothing more than a way to get people paying attention, even at the most basic level? Look at the dance shows on TV right now. Who thought people would watch dance? Yet Dancing with the Stars and So you think you can Dance have been at the top of the ratings. They've occasionally been the most-watched shows on their nights. Maybe it doesn't mean anything, but more people than ever have been at least watching some form of dance in the past year. Anything wrong with that?

Anything that encourages people to respond to art (even it's just voting) is a good thing. Too many people (believe it or not) are afraid to express an opinion about that symphony or ballet they've just heard. We elevated the expert opinion about the arts to such a high level that many "regular" people were afraid to express an opinion because they weren't experts.

But I think the larger answer to Martin's concern is that human nature doesn't change that much. The reason critics have been important is because we have a need to find people who can help guide us to the "good" stuff. That need hasn't gone away; to the contrary, we need that kind of help now more than ever. The volume of art available to us now is greater than ever before. Everywhere a wail of complaints has gone up about being overwhelmed by how much there is.

Two final points: First - I think the ocean of creative work out there forces people to become more sophisticated in order to deal with it, not less. Don't mistake quick judgment for short attention spans. With more things competing for our attention, we can afford to be pickier. And we are. We have also expanded our cultural palates, and our tastes and expertise are more wide-ranging than they used to be. Some culture we like we engage with only casually (again the voting), while other culture we devote more of our attentions.

Second - I think the that what's happening here as far as criticism goes is not the disappearance of good critics, but the realignment of critical authority.In a way, we are coming out of the Model T era of criticism. In most cities in this country, the number of arts critics narrowed to less than a handful over the past decade. Our traditional structure of bestowing critical authority in the press had become threadbare. A lot of what has passed for arts journalism has been on auto-pilot. Want proof? We're not seeing significant protests from the arts community as critics are eliminated at local papers.

So where do you find the new critical authority? One answer is that you-the-reader have to work harder. First, because of the internet, we have more access to critics at traditional publications all over the planet. Living in Seattle, I couldn't read the LA Times regularly before the internet came along. Now I can make a daily habit of stories in the Times, The Guardian, The Age, and dozens of other excellent publications. I have to have criteria in this expanded menu for who I want to pay attention to.

Technorati currently tracks 300,000 arts blogs. Many (most) aren't very interesting. But some are. Many are. Slowly the landscape is realigning and signs of where authority lives are becoming more visible. And I think readers are becoming more and more sophisticated about how to find it. For those who aren't? Well, they probably never were.

July 22, 2008 10:05 AM | | Comments (7)


You equate criticism with opinion. Is that all it is? If so, then surely you are right to say that more is better. Better 300,000 opinions than only five or six.

But what if criticism isn't opinion? I was classical music critic for The Kansas City Star (1987-1990), the Phoenix Gazette (1990-94) and The Arizona Republic (1994-2005, when I was ushered out the door because I refused to write about Janet Jackson's nipple). When I wrote a review, I did not indulge in "opinion." Opinion-as-criticism is just reaction, and reaction is for hacks. Genuine criticism 1) presents context, 2) relates experience and 3) conveys perspective.

For instance, a performance of a Shostakovich symphony might give the political/artistic background of the work, tell the reader how the performance went (this is not opinion, a performance is a concrete thing) and then compare that experience with what the critic knows of the written score (again, not a matter of opinion) and with previous performances of the work and/or the orchestra. Was the conductor, whom you found suited to Richard Strauss' bourgeois comforts two weeks ago, up to the sardonic wit of Shostakovich last night? Again, this is not opinion, any more than it's opinion for a sports writer to say that pitcher X has a great fast ball but his change-up's going to get him in trouble against left-handed hitters. It's a matter of experience, knowledge and observation. Real arts criticism is as fact-based as science writing. I assume that those in charge at the National Arts Journalism Program are aware of this.

Anyone who wants criticism to thrive again must begin by chucking the canard of criticism-equals-opinion out the window. To champion such a babyish simplicity only underscores the anti-intellectual state of current American journalism.

Kenneth: I wasn't trying to say that opinion = criticism. Of course criticism is the distillation of all the factors you name, though I'm not sure I'd go as far as you in saying that "real arts criticism is as fact-based as science writing." Surely this many decades into post-modernism you're not going to argue there's a fixed "objective" truth.

Just to use your example:

"For instance, a performance of a Shostakovich symphony might give the political/artistic background of the work
[which political/artistic background? what's relevant here, especially with a composer whose motivations are in dispute? The background I might find relevant could be quite different from what you find relevant]
, tell the reader how the performance went (this is not opinion, a performance is a concrete thing)
[Again - what's important to me in a performance as a critic might be entirely different than what's important to you. You might have been put off by technical imperfections, while I admired the structural concept. You were thrilled by the tempo choices while I thought the playing was imprecise because it was played too fast.]
and then compare that experience with what the critic knows of the written score (again, not a matter of opinion)
[Comparing a performance to the score is certainly one way to consider an artistic experience, but it can also be a way of limiting what you hear, so I wouldn't concede that this ensures "fact-based" criticism]
and with previous performances of the work and/or the orchestra
[helpful, certainly, but maybe the comparisons also introduce biases into the way one hears something - not that this is wrong, certainly, but not a "matter of opinion"?]
Was the conductor, whom you found suited to Richard Strauss' bourgeois comforts two weeks ago, up to the sardonic wit of Shostakovich last night?
[Good question, certainly, but your question might be entirely different from my questions. I heard the Strauss two weeks ago and thought it was under-powered, so my questions about the Shostakovich come from a different perspective.]
Again, this is not opinion, any more than it's opinion for a sports writer to say that pitcher X has a great fast ball but his change-up's going to get him in trouble against left-handed hitters.
[Of course it's the sportswriter's opinion! He's making an informed observation, but he's choosing the information he thinks is pertinent in order to form an opinion. And he's frequently wrong!]
It's a matter of experience, knowledge and observation
[This I agree with entirely, but I'd also add taste and aesthetic to the list].

My point wasn't that the drive-by opinion should substitute for informed judgment. I actually think that well-considered criticism and insightful arts journalism will do better in the new information economy. Why? Because I think criticism suffers when it's hermetically sealed and unchallenged. The best critics I know are pleased to to start and participate in conversations. Those critics who can articulate interesting positions will thrive and be made better by the conversations they incite.

I agree with much of what's been said by both Kenneth and Douglas. And I'll add this: as both a blogger and the vis. arts critic for Atlanta's alt weekly, I'm excited to see the transition happening. The fear that somehow all standards will evaporate as we move inexorably away from print and toward digital media is both overblown and misplaced. The desire on the part of a small minority (and make no mistake, it has always been a small minority) to produce and consume deep context and perspective will not simply vanish. As it migrates online, expect to see a whole new set of gatekeepers and trusted authorities emerge. We're almost already there.

The mechanisms will function differently (less top-down, more bottom-up), but the result will still be a few voices that lots of people listen to and lots of voices that a few people listen to.

But if you aren't scared enough, consider this: it's a two-way street. I for one relish the process of bringing my blogalicious writing style to the pages of the alt weekly. I routinely tie my main subject to a whole universe of influences, political facts, critical opinions, and kindred spirits in the arts, spending minimal time explaining who everyone is. That's what Google is for.

My value is not in thoroughly describing the work (watch a YouTube video). My value is not in rehashing the gallery's exhibition history or the artist's CV or any other artist's CV (look it up at Artnet). My value is in being able to fish out of the roiling sea of cultural artifacts a set of artworks, technologies, political events, publications, design objects, tenets of philosophy, etc. etc. that might not be obviously connected to the work, but are connected on a deeper level. This is much more fun and much more relevant than the linear, self-enclosed approach of old school arts journalism.

I know nothing about classical music.
But I do know that in many categories which I am knowledgeable in, internet based writing is better than most newspaper writing.
Newspaper writers are, by and large, generalists. Even a visual arts critic is expected to be equally at home reviewing 3rd Century BC trojan gold, impressionist paintings, and Damian Hirst sliced sharks, and is seldom really knowledgeable in any one of those fields.

However, I find that on the internet, I have read and gotten to know people who have spent their entire lives becoming world class experts on very narrow ranges of subject matter- be it the lineage of early 20th century spinning wheels, racist themed consumer products, forgotten early electronic music composers, or Deckel german machine tools.

So in a very real way, the informed opinion on the internet on many (but certainly not all) subjects is waaay better than my friendly all purpose critic at the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

The more esoteric the subject, the more likely you are to find better writing about it on the internet. Robert Christgau may have heard one Arthur Russell album- but online, I can read someone who is familiar with 1500 of his songs, who is involved in selecting which ones are going to be released for the first time, and so on.

I would also add that its pretty easy to realize, especially after spending a bit of time, who, online, is full of it, and who really knows their stuff- so reputation, authority, experience, and gravitas are not, by any means, missing, or hard to find, on the internet.
Sure, if you are reading the comments on Youtube, or some teenagers opinion of the new Batman movie, expect drivel- but a quick search can find you some of the smartest, most knowledgeable guys and gals in the world are posting frequently on all kinds of subjects, including lots of arts related ones.

The restrictions of a daily paper mean short, generalised, watered down criticism in most of the fields I keep up with- and a complete lack of coverage of the vast majority of my admittedly esoteric interests. Online, I can find much deeper, better researched pieces, archived going back sometime, as well as interactive forums of all sorts- I can actually ask the expert about those things not covered in a 500 word review.

I tend to read a lot online, including a lot of criticism. And I have found no problems whatsoever locating intelligent, cogent work on just about any subject you can imagine- with this site, right here, featuring some truly world class stuff.

Douglas -

Thanks for reading my comment. Glad to know you don't endorse "drive-by opinion."

But it seems a lot of folks do. There's the example of an Internet drama critic who refuses to review Pinter and Chekhov because he doesn't like them. Everyone's welcome to their opinion, of course, but even taste has its objective side (just as facts have their subjective side; dialectic is key), and I think that in such an extreme case we can safely say the writer suffers from bad taste -- not just bad taste from our perspective, but something closer to "objective" bad taste.

To argue that some criticism will lead us to greater understanding (as when you talk of "INFORMED opinion") is to argue that some criticism is better than other criticism -- better, not just to us, but "in fact." But how can we do that without admitting that some standard beyond ourselves and our opinions must be applied in order to determine which criticism that is? Unless you say simply that all criticism is equal and no opinion better or worse than any other, you are forced to deal with matters of "fact" and "objectivity." There's no way around it.

And by the way, post-modernism is so yesterday.

- Ken

Ken: Sorry - I don't want to get tiresomely po-mo on you here, but it's not that I don't endorse drive-by opinion, but that I don't find it very interesting so I tend not to read it. I've written this before, but I think that publications that open up their comments to anyone who wants to say whatever they want, is a mistake. There ought to be a price of admission. And that price is having something interesting to say. That's why the comments on blogs on ArtsJournal.com, where I work, are moderated.

Valuable readers tend to hang out where there are valuable things being said, and I see no problem with curating comments just as I carefully curate the rest of the content.

This also applies to blogs and other publications. I know if I go to some sites I'm going to get lots of hair-pulling rhetoric, unsubstantiated rumors, and mob rule. So mostly I don't go. Sometimes I do, but I know ahead of time what I'm going to get. Seems to me there's still a place for that.

Taste does have its objective side as long as you're careful about defining the context. Even "bad taste" can have an interesting aesthetic. I just don't think there's a one-size-fits-all standard. Your example of the critic who doesn't like Pinter or Chekhov, for example. I don't think that holding such an opinion disqualifies that person at all. It might mean that he/she is looking for something very different in theatre and might be very sophisticated in his/her appreciation/criticism of it. And it seems to me that's okay as long as he/she then doesn't turn around and pretend to be an expert on Pinter/Chekhov.

I think about my own tastes. There are composers I simply don't feel much affinity for. I can appreciate Schumann, for example, but not be much interested in hearing him because the music doesn't speak to the things that resonate with me. On the other hand, give me anything Scriabin or Prokofiev and I can go on forever about why they're so interesting.

There are accomplished critics whom I absolutely trust when they're writing about singers but am not much interested in reading when they're considering a piano performance. Etc Etc.

I do think there is a standard beyond ourselves. But I think rather than an absolute standard it's one that rests on the strength of ones ideas and the ability of those ideas to stand up to challenges. Perhaps too often in the past, critics were more comfortable defending their ideas by way of their position at a publication rather than by the value of the ideas they expressed. But for the best critics, defending ideas is nothing new. I think the best critics have always had to live this way.

Scroll by opinion here....

C. S. Lewis said that a critic should recuse from reviewing any work unless he would like it if it were well done.

PS. I got here by accidentally entering 'apres le deluge' in a search box, after admiring the phrase in another forum.

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